A recent survey of school staff shone a light on the many challenges facing the Welsh education workforce. In a fascinating blog post, Nerys Defis explains the everyday reality for teachers in Wales and opens up on why she swapped the classroom for university…

 

For almost 20 years I spent my professional life as a teacher. It was a profession I fell into almost accidentally and one which I also fell out of almost accidentally, after a secondment resulted in a job offer.

However, it was a profession that had grown into a passion, and I thrived on the challenges of helping my pupils gain skills and knowledge, finding resources (and spending a small fortune on them!) and trying to think of innovative ways to plan and deliver the curriculum.

One year later it is almost with guilt that I admit I have moved on from being a classroom teacher. Why guilt?

Partly because I have left a profession I loved, even though it was a profession that in the past few years had become almost impossible to balance with my personal life.

Partly because I feel I have given in to those pressures and am no longer the agent of change I liked to think I was at the ‘coal face’.

And lastly, I feel guilt as I see so many teachers struggling on with their lives, whilst I am still involved in primary education and yet able to combine that passion and knowledge about the field with a new lease of life.

As the saying goes “change is as good as a rest” and any change in job will surely give the individual a new lease of life.

There is nothing worse than being stuck in a rut, but as an experienced teacher and middle leader, with no aspirations to climb further up the professional ladder towards headship, I was increasingly feeling the walls of a rut building up around me.

In previous years there had been ample opportunities to develop professionally, unfortunately budget constraints meant that this was a thing of the past.

My involvement with innovative projects led by King’s College London and action research led by University of Wales Trinity Saint David, had shown me the positive results and importance of keeping abreast of current developments in classroom practice.

It was both disheartening and frustrating to feel that professional development such as this was at an end.

Interestingly, following the publication of Estyn’s 2015-2016 Annual Report, Meilyr Rowlands the Chief Inspector states that: “Leaders in education need to have a strong focus on providing suitable opportunities for the professional development of staff at all levels in order to nurture confident and creative teaching and learning.”

In reality, however, many teachers find themselves with a lack of professional development opportunities – 42% of teachers in Wales according to NASUWT’s 2016 Big Question Survey.

Another key message from Estyn’s 2015-2016 report is the need to improve teaching and learning. Professional development plays an important part in this.

This emphasis is reflected within Estyn’s new Common Inspection Framework that comes into force in September 2017. The 29 points within Estyn’s current framework will become 15 points within the revised framework, with a clearer focus on teaching, learning and professional learning – changes that will surely be welcomed by teachers all across Wales.

Another trend that troubled me as a class teacher was the increasing importance of data and testing. Teachers know better than anyone of the need to raise standards, but I was beginning to wonder if accountability was making our education system completely forget the pupil as an individual, rather than a number.

Academic standards are measured by tests – this is only one aspect of education. There are so many other important skills and talents that we need to remember to develop, including creativity, health, fitness and citizenship.

Is the aim to reach the first quartile or the green band within the National School Categorisation System blinding our educational leaders?

After all, research evidence from experts such as Professor Jo Boaler clearly show that grouping and setting pupils according to ability does not raise standards, and the countries who set and test their pupils the least are the best performers within international tests such as PISA.

My decision to leave the teaching profession is far from unique and the Welsh Government’s own figures suggest that it is a growing problem.

It would be interesting for the government to undertake an education workforce study that includes soon to be, and newly departed, teachers.

Asking the opinions of these key members within the education workforce could give interesting policy ideas and valuable thoughts on how to raise standards.

Without doubt, teachers will play a key role over the next few years as the changes driven by Professor Donaldson’s Successful Futures Report are implemented, so why not ask their opinions?

Now that I’ve exchanged the school classroom for the university classroom, the rut I found myself in has disappeared. Previously I felt confined within the classroom’s four walls but now my horizons are wonderfully broadened. In addition, the role has given me new opportunities to develop professionally.

As I train the students for their careers as the teachers of the future there is an opportunity to link theory and practice and find out how academic research, such as Jo Boaler’s, can benefit our children in Wales.

There is also a chance to read about education in its broadest sense, which has given me a much clearer understanding of the reasoning behind some governmental policies and understand why some teaching strategies are favoured over others.

It is also inspiring to see the value given to practical experiences within the university, with students given opportunities to use and evaluate a range of resources and strategies, taking part in action research projects and collaborating on planning and delivering lessons.

It is an exciting time to be a part of the Welsh education system. Without doubt, the present system is not completely effective and from my experience Wales’ schools are ready for change and are willing to devote themselves to raise standards and give our children a better future.

There is real potential in Wales to change things for the better.

For the time being, I will watch these developments almost from the sidelines, but who knows, perhaps my next “a change is as good as a rest” career move will find me back in the classroom once more…

  • Nerys Defis is an ITE lecturer at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

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