By Steen Videbaek
Monday 7 October 2019
Several years ago, I left my comfortable government desk job as an economist in New Zealand to retrain as a primary school teacher. It was a difficult decision. On one hand, was the search for more meaningful work. On the other, large costs, including lost income, having to start my career again, as well as the thought of going back to university, with its lectures, assignments and exams.
Not long into my teaching qualification, I encountered the first major hurdle, the first teaching practice (practicum). Fortunately, I found myself in familiar territory. I was matched with the primary school that I attended as a child. Coincidentally, and to my delight, I found myself in a classroom with my first teacher. Impressive as almost 30 years had passed - perhaps I should have asked her about teacher retention! At any rate, a supportive school, with a hint of nostalgia, meant that my first real experience of teaching was very positive.
Upon returning to university, I noticed that some of my classmates hadn’t made it back. The general consensus was that a lack of practical classroom behaviour management training was the main cause. We eagerly awaited the training but it never came. Viewed as a positive, maybe those who left just found out relatively early that teaching wasn’t for them. Future practicums would bring new challenges, like countless hours preparing differentiated lesson plans from scratch. While autonomy was great, I often wondered what happened to the scaffolding for trainee teachers.
At the end of the year, with my head ringing with the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, and a lukewarm confidence that my courses had equipped me with the practical skills I needed to succeed as a teacher, I started applying for jobs. While private and local schools were tempting, I decided to go where the need was the greatest. Somewhere I thought I could have the largest impact. My destination was a small rural school, located on an idyllic peninsula. Native Kiwi birds even roamed the school grounds at night. The peninsula’s inhabitants were a diverse socioeconomic mix, from families living in poverty to millionaires (and even a Swiss billionaire!). The school itself had witnessed a phoenix-like revival under an inspirational new headmaster. From teetering on the brink with just six students, it had rapidly grown to 80 students when I joined. Because of the growth, my first classroom was temporarily housed in one of the oldest schoolhouses in New Zealand. The native wood floors and vaulted ceilings were beautiful but made for terrible acoustics. Every chair scrape and whisper was magnified. Multiplied by twenty students who didn’t whisper, it was deafening, even disorientating. My class, like the peninsula’s population, came from the widest possible mix of socioeconomic background imaginable. It was also a mixed age class, with seven to 13-year-olds, and the academic achievement level ranged from kindergarten to university level. They were amazing children with massive untapped potential, but some also had external challenges that I couldn’t begin to understand. Behavioural issues, SEND, and mental health all added to the inherent complexity of classroom life. It soon became clear that my initial teacher training hadn’t given me the practical evidence-based tools that I needed to succeed.
Unfortunately, the end result of long hours, perfectionism and a nagging frustration that I should have been making more progress with my students, ultimately meant that I became a teacher retention statistic. It was tough to leave my class as I hated the idea of being yet another unstable element in their lives. But in my mind, the personal cost didn’t justify the small gains I was making. One student commented that I was bombproof, I felt anything but. ‘Practice Shock’ is a very apt term.
My experience as an NQT closely matches the results of a 2019 British Journal of Educational Studies article.  They surveyed UCL London graduates to see why they trained and what factors led them to leave (or thinking about leaving). Wanting to ‘make a difference’; wanting to work with young people; love of the subject (in my case mathematics); and being inspired by their own teachers came out top. The top reasons for leaving included wanting to improve work-life balance and workload. NFER’s own research provides insights into teacher workload. It found that on average teachers work intensively over fewer weeks of the year and this leads to a poorer work-life balance and higher stress levels.
I would ultimately return to teaching in a setting that was very different from my first. A private school in Denmark, with amazing teacher to student ratios and even more generous preparation-time. Of course, the challenges of being a teacher never go away. While I have now left teaching again to work at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), I hope to return to the classroom one day.
NFER has a range of research on teacher workforce, including recruitment and retention. If you are interested in learning about these topics click here.
 Perryman, J; Calvert, G; (2019) What motivates people to teach, and why do they leave? Accountability, performativity and teacher retention. British Journal of Educational Studies.