Emma Harper was a secondary maths teacher until last year. Now she is a full time tutor. In 2020 she had a breakdown brought on by the loss of her mother. She was pregnant at the time, and the shock of that sudden loss caused her to be signed off from work with PTSD by her therapist. That time at home rolled straight into her maternity leave, and so it was that having dreamed of being a teacher since the age of three, when it came time to return to work, a year later, the mere thought of stepping on to the school grounds terrified her. She went to a very dark place in her mind and she knew she needed to find a way out. Emma’s feelings are not unique. With pupil absence rates having risen 134% since COVID and 10% of teachers leaving the classroom, there are more children and adults in our schools who are not coping than ever before.
Emma is a canary. Like the little birds that coal miners carried underground to detect toxic gases, these are the members of our school population who are most sensitive to toxic culture. Their school experience is not one of learning and development. They feel anxious every day, worried about judgement, failure and rejection. They live in fight, flight or freeze mode, a stress-induced physiological state that shuts down all but the basic functions of mind and body. This response, equally triggered by abstract threat as physical danger, can be observed throughout our education sector today.
Schools should be dynamic and exciting places. They should provide opportunities to progress. They should help their people fly. Unfortunately, this is not what we see on staff today. Christopher Banham, a father of two and former school leader, now turned tutor, suffered extreme burnout which left him struggling to leave the house or to speak for six months. Christopher identifies the root of this burnout as a years-long battle against an educational system ill-designed to serve his very deprived school. He and his colleagues were compelled to spend so much of their time and efforts on work which was of limited benefit to their students, which prevented them from effectively fulfilling their true vocation of helping these young people flourish using all of their considerable skill, experience and passion. This moral injury, the requirement to follow orders that do not align with our personal values, is I believe, the root cause of our collective PTSD in education today.
Unfortunately, I am not overstating the issue. With child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) referral rates at a record high, there is a mental health emergency in our young population. More children than ever are accessing education other than at school. The statistics show the same for our teachers. 78% of teaching staff are stressed, with 33% experiencing burnout. The canaries are dying for change.
But there is hope. Emma and Christopher belong to a growing population of teachers who have segued into full time tutoring. The Qualified Tutor professional development community is full of more than three thousand tutors with similar stories. These are people who, burned out by the school system, have decided to do things differently. By repurposing their skills as tutors, working with students in a one-to-one or small group basis online or in person, they are finding new ways to enable learning. A deeply relational discipline, tutoring allows students and tutors to align and move forward together.
Having found this gentler, more holistic approach to teaching and learning, Emma and Christopher and so many more of us have decided to become professional tutors. This new way of teaching requires skills we never had to learn in the classroom such as social media marketing, business operations and financial management. It’s not easy, but we love to learn, and we help each other along.
These are our phoenixes. Rising from the ashes of their darkest time and becoming more adaptable, more empathetic and more resilient for it. Both Emma and Christopher share their lived experience with others, in the hope that it will help. They remain authentic in service of the canaries they left behind. Willing them to find fresh air too.
The students and families that tutors like Emma and Christopher support appreciate their wisdom. Knowing that they struggled in school too created a shared understanding and mutual respect.
However, as we know the majority of teaching and learning still happens in schools that have not changed since the British Empire and the first Industrial Revolution. Since we are now considered to be in the fifth Industrial Revolution, one defined by customisation, it is madness that we persist with our one-size-fits-none approach to education.
Happily, the revolution is already underway. There are changes happening at a grassroots level that will soon redefine mainstream education. We are improving our understanding of mental health and neurodiversity so that we can create more inclusive spaces. We are developing online curriculum resources that target content specifically to a student’s level, reducing the risk of any child being ‘left behind’. We are developing virtual reality classrooms that enable students to gather from wherever they are.
These are the doves in the education sector today. They are the signals of hope that we may soon find a way of being that is better-aligned with our values and the needs of our students. The doves, the people who are exploring the frontiers of what teaching and learning needs to look like for future generations, know that what we’re looking for is not one solution but many. The future will be an ecosystem of learning experiences, online and in person, in large groups and small, outdoors and in, that, like Emma and Christopher, we build around each unique learner.
This is a time in the evolution of our education sector when canaries become phoenixes and phoenixes become doves. Because it’s time we all learned to fly.