It has been just over one year since I left the teaching profession to explore new opportunities and adventures in the outdoors.
Prior to leaving, I taught Photography, Graphic Communication, Art and the Welsh Baccalaureate for A-Level students for four years at an FE college. We often hear dismal statistics surrounding teachers leaving the profession, the most commonly cited is that 1/3 of teachers leave the profession within 5 years of their teacher training. In 2014 half said they were considering leaving - is it any wonder when Gove was Education secretary? - and 10,000 left between 2010 and 2015. We all have our own reasons for leaving and so I would like share my story behind the statistics.
Why did I leave?
I loved working with students and some of my key aims as a teacher were to inspire young people to think creatively, explore their surroundings, develop their confidence, communication skills, independence and critical thinking. My Photography class tripled in size during my time teaching, as did my Graphics class and the students were consistently achieving strong outcomes. However, I could not get it out of my head that all of the skills and qualities I was aiming to develop might be better achieved outside the system.
We only offered A-Level photography (there was no BTEC alternative), and of course we had entry requirements to ensure the students we accepted would be able to rise to the rigorous standards and workload required when studying A-Levels. However, that meant that every year I had to turn down enthusiastic young people with potential because they did not have 6 GCSES A*-C. To thrive in photography you do not need to be good at exam techniques, recalling facts or solving mathematical equations and so the selection did not always match up with the course.
At the beginning of the year, I often showed my students inspiring videos to encourage them to grasp every opportunity that they might be faced with and to not shy away from change, challenge and adventure. One video stands out to me, about the work of Krystle J Wright. Every time I show this video, I find myself welling up. Maybe it is because I am inspired by the work of an adventurous woman, making tracks in a path still dominated by men. Maybe it is because I felt like my life had become too predictable. Or, maybe it was because I was encouraging my students to seek out their passions and joys with the knowledge that many of mine had been left unexplored.
After a lot of thought and agonising days, weeks and months spent wondering about what I should do, I handed in my notice. I felt at once liberated and devastated. I had so many potential adventures ahead of me but I was sad to be leaving my students and I felt like I had failed. I had become one of the 10,000, a statistic.
I did not give myself long before I set off on my first adventure. One of my life goals has been to walk for longer than a month, to know what it feels like to carry everything I needed to survive on my back, to travel using only my own power and to cross an entire mountain range. And so with Zlatko (my partner) and Bella (our Welsh Collie) in tow, we set off to walk the GR11.
This trail covers 818km, with 46,000M of ascent, across the entire length of the Pyrenees. We walked for 41 days, wild camped for 27 nights and went for days without seeing another person. We talked about everything from politics, to art, but mostly about food. I laughed, cried, wanted to quit, got lost, injured myself, but kept walking. In the quiet moments I would be overcome with an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I was able to be in these amazing places, with the space to pursue my own adventures.
Since then I have walked the Skye Trail (another life goal), cycled the NC500, been on a Winter Mountaineering Course and a Conville Trust Alpinism Course. I have cycled from Derby to Poland with my Dad (and Mum in the van) and I am working towards my Single Pitch Award.
An educator or/and a teacher.
It took me a while to get out of my habits formed from being in formal education. I went straight from school to college, college to my BA, my BA to my MA, MA to PGCE and my PGCE immediately into a full-time job as a teacher. I still process time in academic years and even after a year out I still often have a morning break at 11.15. It was right for me to leave!
However, I still consider myself to be an educator and so in essence, a teacher. All of my key aims still apply but I have found other ways of facilitating them. Since leaving teaching I have led expeditions to Java, India and Nicaragua with young people from all around the UK. I have also started working as a freelance DofE trainer. In all of my work outdoors I see more development in my key aims than I had ever seen in the classroom. Young People develop their problem solving, communication, team work, financial skills, planning, reviewing, creativity, social skills and environmental and global awareness. They push themselves physically and psychologically, reflect on big issues and embrace challenge; learning that education does not just happen in a classroom. I feel like I truly fit in in the outdoor world and everywhere I go I meet individuals with shared values and a passion for inspiring people of all ages to spend more time outside. My feelings of failure have transformed into renewed confidence.
My photography has also improved and dramatically changed. Prior to leaving teaching my photographic practice was relatively abstract and examined our relationships with landscape, space and place in depth. I had become bogged down with theory and had moved away from the things that inspired me to take up photography in the first place. I had theorised my way out of pursuing my passion for outdoor photography. Although, perhaps, on reflection it is more cyclical than linear and I have just inevitably returned (with more knowledge) to the kind of photography I enjoy the most.
The photographs I have taken this year have reignited my love of documentary photography. To create a series of images that communicate the adventure, excitement, quiet and beauty that can be found in a life spent outdoors. I aim to inspire others to seek out adventure, no matter how big or small and to communicate the enormous wellbeing that comes from spending time in nature. I believe we have a better chance of tackling the big issues like climate change if people spend more time engaging with our natural spaces and I hope I can inspire people to do so.
I have doubts about whether my work achieves these goals, or whether it simply tells stories about my journeys and I worry about the problems with Social Media setting unrealistic expectations of people's lives. I am writing this in my PJ's at home in my study. I spent most of today drinking tea and procrastinating, venturing out only to hang the washing on the line and to walk the dog. But I have been sharing photographs of the incredible mountains in the Pyrenees and of the fun we had climbing on my recent Deep Water Soloing trip to Mallorca. Every life is full of contrasts.
Will I ever return to teaching?
I am often asked if I will ever go back to teaching. It is an impossible question to answer. At the moment, with the arts being undermined by Government Policy and with students being put under more and more pressure to achieve high grades, I don't think so. Mental illness has reached shocking levels in our schools, with more and more young people and teachers suffering from anxiety, stress and depression. I took time off with stress-related illness in my second year of teaching and I know of many others who have left the profession; with stress and anxiety topping the reasons why.
There is a whole wealth of research that demonstrates the benefits of outdoor learning. Time spent learning outside has been shown to improve mental health, fight depression, build confidence and aid social interaction. And yet three quarters of the UK's children spend less time outside than prison inmates.
Our education system needs re-aligning with the needs of our young people instead of business. Additionally, Climate Change is one of the biggest threats facing humanity and yet three quarters of our young people spend more time on screens than they do outside. How can we expect people to care about the environment, when they do not spend any time in it?
So, at present I feel like the best place for me is in the outdoors, where I hope to encourage, inspire and coax people out into our amazing natural spaces, to learn, explore, develop and challenge in the best classroom available!