Torturous Teaching

Rock or vulture?

Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and gave it to man. His sentence for this bit of larceny? To be tied to the side of a mountain and have his liver ripped out by a vulture. Every day. This seems a little steep (although if I catch the person who purloined by coffee mug they may find themselves on the pointy end of a beak), but perhaps the Ancient Greeks just had a harsher justice system than us.

Let us compare the fate of Prometheus with that of the tyrant king of Corinth, Sisyphus. Sisyphus, among his many crimes towards his fellow man, also held Death captive so that he could defy the gods and natural law and return to earth. His punishment for this? To push a rock up a mountain. As he pushed it up, it would keep slipping back down again. Annoying I grant you, but his liver remains intact.

On the face of it, it would seem that Sisyphus got off more lightly than poor vulture-pecked Prometheus; but 15 years at the chalk face has left me understanding a bit more about the mind-set of ancient Greek writers. They knew a thing or two about torture.

What made Sisyphus’ torture especially cruel was that feeling of futility, of getting nowhere. He knew he could never get the rock to the top of the mountain but had to continue to shove it or be crushed. He had no other interest in getting the rock to the top. This wasn’t a task he felt was important or useful and he had no control over it.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

This is where I think we can draw parallels with teaching and see why so many teachers flee the classroom. Pointless workload, a sense of futility and the constant threat of being crushed. Teaching has become a Sisyphean task.

You will rarely meet a teacher who will complain about their workload when it relates to work they find meaningful. They will however complain when they feel the work they are being asked to do supports the agenda of another and has nothing to do with the education of the pupils in their class. Tasks like filling in spreadsheets of information to help a member of the senior leadership team with an area they are interested in, filling in tracker sheets with data that the teacher knows is junk, attending meetings where person after person stands up to justify their job to the assembled crowds, marking policies that are more about demonstrating something to an observer than giving feedback to pupils.

Survey results from TeacherTapp often help to reveal just how much time teachers are having to spend on tasks that add no value to the education of their pupils but add to the teacher’s workload. The situation gets worse when you remove teacher agency from the process and leave them feeling that change is out of their control. A TeacherTapp poll this week shows that teachers believe that working in MATs gives them less professional autonomy than working outside them – and MATs are growing all the time. This weekend it was announced that a MAT was producing a curriculum that could be sold to other schools – potentially reducing the agency of teachers further in deciding what should be taught and how. We already see MATs imposing a centrally created curriculum on their schools and heads of department being told that their role is simply to see it is taught. Where is the professionalism in this? How is anyone going to let the love of their subject drive them on up the mountain when yoked to such a weight?

Dropping the weight

Is it any wonder that teachers flee the profession in droves? As the tale of Sisyphus shows us, high workload, combined with a sense of futility, a fear of being crushed and a lack of autonomy is torture. Unlike Sisyphus teachers are free to step off the mountain, and sadly many are doing just that.

Our only hope is that enough schools realise the danger of making teaching a Sisyphean task and do things differently instead. These schools will be able to attract excellent teachers and soon other schools will have to follow suit. Those schools are out there. I am lucky enough to work in one myself. Here teachers are given professional trust. Departments decide on feedback policies that work for them, they are encouraged to collaborate and share innovations in their own teaching by exploring the “why” behind what works, not dictating the what. We are trusted to create and curate our curriculum and engage with our subject communities to ensure we are teaching the very best of what has been thought and said and preparing pupils to enter a world where they can learn more.

Some of us have been lucky enough to free ourselves from the boulder, not by fleeing the mountain but by finding schools that help us shoulder its weight.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, a guide to cutting through the nonsense and reclaiming teaching, is available for pre-order from Amazon now. 

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4 thoughts on “Torturous Teaching

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