An interview with a teacher: Eleanor

The work is never ending and it’s always on your mind.  I never, ever expected it. About two years ago I really thought I couldn’t do it anymore. There is just too much to think about and it’s not even the amount of stuff to do, it’s the amount of space in my brain to store all the different things.

A recent survey conducted by the National Education Union found that 40% of teachers said they will not be working in education in 5 years time. The main issues: huge workloads, work-life balance and excessive accountability.

For the next article in our job series, we are chatting to Eleanor, who works as a Year 2 teacher at an infant school. Six years ago, Eleanor got back from a year’s travelling around New Zealand and made the decision to go back to university to train as a teacher. She has now been a qualified teacher for four years.

We are chatting to her today about her experience of being a teacher; what she loves about it, the challenges, her work-life balance, her top tips and why she thinks more and more teachers are leaving the profession.

Q. What made you want to go into teaching?

I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do something creative and as I really like children I thought about a career working with them, even though I’d never worked with them before. I worked as a teaching assistant in a school near me for 9 months, which I really enjoyed, so decided to take the plunge and go back to university. I had to be sure I wanted to do it as it was a huge investment. Not only was it an extra £9000 on top of the fees I’d paid from my first degree, but I also wasn’t going to be earning that year.

Q. What is the best thing about teaching?

It’s so different from day to day! Before teaching, I didn’t really know what I was good at, but I feel that teaching has given me loads of confidence. I don’t know if that’s just because I boss around 30 six-year-olds every day! Overall though, I think the best thing is seeing progress in the children’s learning. You see them change so much throughout the year and by the end they are really confident and able to do so much more. You look back at what they could do at the beginning of the year and think ‘oh my gosh!’. It’s actually unbelievable. They do shock you sometimes with what they are able to achieve.

Q. What are the hardest things about being a teacher?

The sheer amount of constant work. I never, ever expected it and I reckon every single teacher would say the same. It’s never ending and it’s always on your mind. Plus, the better you get at teaching, the more responsibilities you are given. I’m in my fourth year now and I’m the longest standing teacher in Year Two. So now, as well as just being a normal teacher, I have lots of other responsibilities. I’m also a student teacher mentor, so I’m training a student teacher and I’m observing them every week. I’m a NQT mentor, so I have to observe them too. I then also lead assessment in year 2, am the Art and DT coordinator and this year they have asked me to be a moderator too. It’s definitely a compliment being given all this extra responsibility and I am glad that I have all these things, but it can sometimes be too much, and they do know that. About two years ago I almost had a breakdown and I really thought I couldn’t do it anymore. There is just too much to think about and it’s not even the amount of stuff to do, it’s the amount of space in my brain to store all the different things. So my head teacher said I needed to change my to-do list because it was one long list. So now I have 10 categories, that split up all my different responsibilities. The category that’s for personal… That’s empty! There’s nothing in there! I don’t have time to think about that! But everything else is constantly full of jobs. My student teacher, who is with me, said that my to-do list scares her.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt as a teacher?

One would be how to prioritize actions and time management, but also how to remain calm and to remember kindness, even when that’s the last thing you are thinking about. You can have difficult kids who throw chairs or climb out windows and even shout ‘you’re the worst teacher in the world’. So you need to remember to stay calm and keep that teacher face, even when you are screaming on the inside! And also when they are calling out to you for the millionth time and tapping you to get your attention and you are having to put on your calm and happy face.

Q. What are the most important qualities for a teacher to have?

Being patient and kind are very important. I remember watching the TV show ‘The Secret Life of Four Year Olds’ one year into teaching and the people on the show talked about how, to adults, it may seem what a child is upset about, is really minor, but you have to remember that in that moment it is their whole world. A lot of people might just think ‘oh it’s alright, they’ll just get over it’, but as teachers we need to remember how important those things are to children.

Q. What is your work life balance like?

It has been a lot better this year, but I do think it takes a few years in teaching to realise that you can’t have everything perfect and you can’t constantly be working and burning out. When I first started, I would be working until 11pm every night and I would only stop to eat, which wasn’t sustainable. I remember I was also spending quite a bit of money, as I wanted the classroom to be perfect and I wanted to buy resources for any lesson. This year though I’ve realised that if it doesn’t get done there will be another time I do it. I still have to work at weekends, sometimes it’s marking and other times it’s writing reports. My first year of teaching was a nightmare. When you first start you do just think ‘how is this manageable?’. As well as getting to grips with everything that is new, it doesn’t come naturally to you, like lesson planning. When I first started, I would agonise over lesson planning to try and make it perfect and everything takes so much longer when you first start. But you do settle into it.

Q. What do you do to relax and wind-down?

Sometimes I’ll come home and I will just need to not talk to anyone. When I was an NQT I still lived with my parents and I would come home and they would ask me about my day, but it used to drive me nuts because it was the last thing I wanted to talk about. Also, as a teacher, you are constantly talking, always busy and are being pulled everywhere. So I just need to come home and not talk to anybody or just talk about something that isn’t to do with work, so that I can switch off. But to be honest, most evenings after work I’m so exhausted and zoned out.

Q. What qualities have you taken from a mentor that you now use?

When I watched my mentor, as a student, her positivity was inspiring. She was so positive and rarely used a shouting voice, but the children didn’t misbehave. She was firm when she needed to be, but the children really respected her. I now see myself doing that too. If you shout at six-year-olds over and over again they are going to get used to it and it’s not going to have any impact. I hate my moaning voice though!

Q. Why do you think people leave teaching?

I think poor leadership is a massive factor. The headteacher at my school is great – she makes us feel valued, she listens to us and she is really supportive and incredible. When you don’t have that support and you don’t have people who will listen to you then it becomes really hard, especially with the amount of pressure on teachers already. Also the workload is probably a key reason too.

Q. What is your advice for a new teacher?

The biggest thing is just to remember how you felt as a child and what you wanted to learn and how. It’s really important you respect the children and realise the importance of what they are saying. Also remember why you are doing it. It’s so easy to get bogged down by your to-do list; a lot of things on my list are admin and to do with my wider responsibilities. The most important part of what you have to do is the part where you are teaching. That’s the bit you are going to enjoy the most and the bit that’s most important.

Q. What are your top tips for handling the pressure of teaching?

Prioritise! Think about what needs to get done by tomorrow and what is the most important thing to do at the moment. Also, try and take as little home as possible because by taking things home you are just going to burn out. You can prepare as much as is possible for a lesson, but then something will change on the day. You do have to be so flexible in teaching. Plus I can’t stress the to-do list enough!!

Q. What is your hope for the kids that you are teaching?

At the school I work in, teaching kindness is really important. We have recently done a workshop with the children about it, where we had the kids write letters, cards and draw pictures to a girl who was really sick, for a charity. I hope that in my teaching, kindness also comes across, as it’s such an important trait and I hope they take that forward.

Q. What is your favourite subject to teach?

Maths! I didn’t think it would be though. I am quite creative, so I do also really like teaching writing, but actually it can be quite hard to teach. I’ve always enjoyed maths though and I think it is because you can use so many different resources and it lends itself to all the different ways of learning, whether it’s kinesthetic, visual or auditory. It’s so much more creative than I used to think it was! It’s also really satisfying to teach: seeing how excited the children get when something clicks for the first time and then helping them understand it in greater depth.

Q. What’s the nicest message you’ve received from a child?

You get loads! Interestingly though, whilst the children’s ones do mean a lot, the ones that are most special are the ones from the parents at the end of year. I had one mum recently, whose little girl was just a delight, write me a card about how much of an impact I had made on her daughter. So, although children’s cards are all lovely ‘we love you’ and ‘you’re the best teacher’, having one from the parents that say the same thing really does make you realise that you have made an impact.

Q. What’s the funniest thing a child has done?

It’s so hard to pick just one! Everyday there are hundreds of hilarious moments when you’re with children. A child in my class once brought in 2 coat hangers, for show and tell, and used them to put on a dramatic performance for 5 minutes. He was deadly serious and I was trying desperately not to burst out laughing!

Q. What’s the most dramatic or silliest thing you’ve done to engage children?

There have been a few! A couple of weeks ago I spent the day dressed in a full saree at the beginning of a new topic. But that’s not by any means the craziest. We do a lot of dress-up days. I’ve been dressed as an explorer, a giraffe, Mowgli from The Jungle Book, the mirror from Snow White. I made the mistake of painting my cheeks with real paint with that costume and I got home, took off the face paint and it came up in a huge red rash! The funniest one was probably Mowgli though because I had this big black wig on and no one knew who I was. I also recently found myself singing ‘Shake it off’ by Taylor Swift over and over again to try and make a child smile and coax them back into class!

Q. What is the most important thing a parent can do to support their child’s learning?

Reading all different kinds of stories to them and getting them inspired by the stories, as well as hearing them read. People might think it’s all about hearing the children read, because we do place importance on that and do assess their reading; however, it’s also really important to read stories to them that they can’t read themselves. I’ve currently got a girl in my class who is having Harry Potter read to her and she loves it and is growing up loving reading. By reading to children, we are opening them up to hear all this new language, which they wouldn’t be able to read themselves. It also helps them become better writers and develop a wider vocabulary.

Being an everyday woman means knowing yourself, knowing what you want, understanding that and feeling confident in yourself.

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