For the women who need us most

For the women who need us most

I’m Werking On My…

I’m Werking On My…

Primary school teachers: the female army teaching our little ones
By Eva Millett

Tears, tantrums and toilet training have always been a thing for primary school teachers, but with endless reports of colossal teacher shortages what is it really like for those on the frontline of the classroom?

A typical day at work for Claire Roebuck looks very different to that of a mainstream school. Her children all have a diagnosis of the autistic spectrum disorder, most are non-verbal, incontinent and have quite extreme behavioural needs.

Working as a Teaching Assistant in a Special Needs Primary School is a job many would agree requires incredible patience, resilience and special passion for caring. “It’s not easy to go home every day covered in bruises, scratches, bite marks and having your hair ripped out”, says Claire as she reflects on her challenging job.

Despite these demands, both physical but also deeply emotional, Claire, aged 22, exhibits an unconditional love for her children as she enters her third year teaching. “It’s hard, sometimes you think I don’t come to work to be hurt, but then you kind of have a word with yourself and think, it’s not personal. It’s because the child’s not regulated and you crack on with it because we love the kids regardless”.

The recently covered teacher strike action has stirred conversations nationwide regarding the working conditions for teachers that go beyond pay. Helen Glover is a Headteacher at a Primary School in Derby. She said “I think the rhetoric being delivered by the media couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s not a single teacher I know who went on strike because of their pay”.

Bitter protesters of the long, luxurious school holidays indulged by teachers, may perceive the ‘invisible workload’ to include some light marking and lesson planning of an evening, cosied up on the sofa with a cup of tea. However, the reality proves hellish to even begin to imagine. Lengthy documents of rigorous safeguarding, assessment and accountability tracking, appraisal forms and people progress management, is resulting in education being somewhat lost, in a never-ending flurry of quota-filling and scrupulous procedures.

These additional responsibilities weighing heavily on the shoulders of teachers is what seemingly is driving them out of the job, causing 35% of teachers to say they’re likely to quit within the next two years.

Bethan Martyn, a Nursery Teacher at a Primary school in Nottinghamshire aspired to be a teacher from childhood. With two aunties who taught, she grew up inspired by the sector. However, having studied a degree in Primary Education, she remains the last out of her uni group of friends still teaching – illustrating the shocking rates at which those newly qualified are ditching the whiteboards and textbooks for something a little less taxing.

Her best friend handed her notice in at her Primary School just before Christmas. “She was one of only three teachers in the entire school. She didn’t have a TA. I think there were two TA’s across the whole school, and she didn’t even get one. The class size wasn’t necessarily big, but it was split across three year groups, so she was having to do an incredible amount of work. Having to go over three year groups, which was two curriculums. Like that it’s just not sustainable”.

It appears that amongst a post-grad group of those qualified, a generation of teacher-deserters is emerging, causing questions surrounding the real working conditions for teachers and worrying gaps in the UK’s education system.

“I was fortunate that I’ve always wanted to teach, and I’ve had those exposures to the realities of the job. I was well prepared for what to expect, but I’m not sure some of my friends were. I think I was maybe more passionate from a younger age, some of my friends having chosen it later in life seemed unsettled”.

Bethan Martyn, Primary School Teacher in Nottingham.
Bethan Martyn, Primary School Teacher in Nottingham.

A recent survey from the Department for Education found that 40,000 teachers, equating to 90% of the workforce left state schools before retirement in 2021-22. The statistic feeds into public perception that the education sector is suffering a cosmic shortage of staff, further contributing to the poor working conditions reported by teachers. However Amelia Conway, Primary School teacher in Perth said, “you often hear about the cries for teachers, but actually getting a permanent full-time job is not as straightforward as sometimes you’re led to believe”.

Amelia, suggested that although the education sector is represented as in dire need of staff, is an intense, extensive application process actually putting prospective teachers off?

With a History degree from Edinburgh University, Amelia during her training was in the unfortunate group of G-z’ers experiencing some of her life’s most important moments, during the world’s worst – the covid pandemic.

Intermittent lockdowns meant awkward zoom calls, tense phone calls with home-schooling parents and infection masks on little faces in the classroom – shaping Amelia’s placement experience to be somewhat extraordinary.

Despite having trained during a period of literal crisis, Amelia’s commitment to her children shone – as she remains in the job and loves it today. “I’d say to people before starting just to really consider the workload, and to think about how are you going to manage that work life balance, because it’s one of those jobs where there’s always something you can go away and work on.

“It’s a big commitment. But I’d also say that it’s really rewarding. And if you enjoy working with children and young people, if you’re passionate about education and learning new things yourself, then I think it’s a great job to get into, I really do”.

Amelia Conway, Primary School Teacher in Perth, Scotland.
Amelia Conway, Primary School Teacher in Perth, Scotland.

Claire is deeply passionate about teaching those with learning difficulties. Young, radiant and full of energy, she appears almost like a guardian angel for those she describes as “the most vulnerable people in society”.

with the job can sometimes push our teachers to breaking point. But for these four, in the SEN sector, mainstream schooling and Head-teaching, the rewarding nature and Reflecting on the need for Special Educational Needs (SEN),  provision in mainstream schools, she described it as the “driving factor” behind her career. While carrying out work experience at her Mum’s school, Claire met a child who later transferred to her own special school due to her extreme learning difficulties. “I met that child and it was the first time I’d met a child with those needs. And the profile of her then is the profile of my class now. I guess it kind of stuck with me the way she was, she didn’t fit into an ordinary mainstream classroom. And I actually felt sorry for her because I could tell she was expected to do work that wasn’t realistic for her, she needed sensory time and she needed one-to-one care. She definitely opened my eyes”.

Claire Roebuck, Teaching Assistant in a Special Needs Primary School in Derby.
Claire Roebuck, Teaching Assistant in a Special Needs Primary School in Derby.

Bethan jokes about the comical turn of phrase featuring in the crowd-pleasing film Nativity “those who can’t act, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach primary”. She ironically poked fun at her successful career in a field that evidently has the perception of being a ‘safety net career’ for folks from all walks of life. Reflecting on her own school’s nativity she said, “my class stood up there, they all sang, they all knew the words, they did the actions and were so proud of themselves when everyone applauded them. I could’ve cried. It was so beautiful”.

While the nativity is a notoriously stressful time for teachers – (who’d have thought it from training an entire school’s worth of 3-11-year-olds to stand still for 2-and-a-half hours hey?) The final shows are an undeniably proud moment for teachers.

Where the current landscape of teaching can feel just a little too bleak, the job’s rewarding nature during moments like the nativity is frequently credited – being the reason why while so many teachers leave, so many also stay.

In order to remind herself of how rewarding the job really is, Helen likes to visit the children in the nursery. She described small moments as the most gratifying, for example with a young boy recently.

“He’d built this castle which he called ‘the King’s castle’, and not only had he built the king’s castle, but he’d found red, white and blue lace and stuck it to the turret. And it was just like, how much has that child noticed about the world around him and everything to bring that into his play?”.

Helen joked and said her mentor during placement had told her “more red wine dear”, in response to her question about how to manage the stresses of the job. Although emphasising the importance of a “life outside of teaching”, Helen is undoubtedly attached to her job she’s loved for many years.

“Everyday you see the difference in children. Everyday you see that they’re learning and evolving. That’s why I train to teach three-seven, because they’re the lightbulb years where you can really see the difference being made to them”. Attested by Claire, Bethan, Amelia and Helen, the trials and tribulations of the classroom aren’t cut out for the weak. The stress, anxiety and mammoth workload associated diversity of the job outweighs contested issues. Adopting the apt tone of Headteacher Helen, to both future and current teachers I’ll say “none of my real issues are ever caused by anyone under five foot”.

Helen Glover, Headteacher of a Primary School in Derby.
Helen Glover, Headteacher of a Primary School in Derby.

Women in the education sector across the country are doing inspiring work. If you’re interested in reading more –