Recent teacher trainee Matt Bell shares his story, describing how the sheer burden of lesson planning led him to give up on a job he enjoyed

After years of working from home as a freelance journalist and PR consultant, I wanted a new challenge, and liked the idea of using my neglected degree. In February 2020, I applied for a place on a local teacher-training course, designed to make me a secondary-school teacher in one academic year.

I thought I knew how hard it was going to be. I had close friends and family who’d gone into teaching and had heard all their horror stories; I never thought it was all about long holidays and finishing at 3.30pm. But the experience completely floored me.

A man leaving a classroom for the countryside

Source: © Qvasimodo/Getty Images

Teaching is hard work and recent trainee Matt considers it the hardest work he’s ever done, but the most incredible buzz

A planning takeover

Planning, planning, planning

The problems began immediately. My first hour-long lesson took me over eight hours to plan. Everyone said this was normal – and I did get faster. But I didn’t get faster quickly enough. By spring 2021, planning was still taking me four to five hours per lesson, and when the number of lessons I had to deliver per week increased, my life became planning and school, and nothing else. At one point, I was going to bed at 7.30pm, getting up at 11.30pm and working through the night. It took every ounce of mental effort I could summon, and every waking moment I had, to create barely coherent work for my students. And that was before I even took the lessons into the classroom, managed discipline, accounted for special needs and safeguarding … everything a modern teacher has to consider. It was, honestly, the hardest work I have ever done in my life.

When things went well, I felt a buzz like no other

I began to fantasise about escape. In difficult classes, I would have a persistent split-second vision of myself on a lovely walk in Cumbria with my wife and young son, with the sun on my face. I could almost smell the heather as I stood writing on the board, summoning the strength to turn around and face the students again.

For the love of it

By June 2021, my son was complaining that he never saw me any more, my wife (who has a challenging career herself) was shouldering all domestic responsibilities, and I was completely exhausted. One morning I was overtaken by uncontrollable shaking; I couldn’t walk, talk or write properly, and was signed off work for two weeks. My trainers told me I wouldn’t be ready to qualify at the end of the year, but that I could have a six-month extension. I should have stopped then – but I thought that with the extra six months, I could get through.

Teaching is the most incredible career

Why didn’t I just give up? Because … I loved it, of course. When things went well, I felt a buzz like no other. And I wasn’t a complete washout in the classroom. I hoped that I had enough of the makings of a good teacher to make it worthwhile continuing. But I was wrong.

Incredible career

I could take refuge in excuses: it was the first full year of Covid-19, and many of my fellow trainees had truly terrible experiences with unsupportive mentors or colleagues. But Covid was more disruptive to experienced teachers than complete beginners. And I worked with amazing teachers at two different schools, who were nothing short of an inspiration to their students and to me. The failings were mine and mine alone.

I withdrew from teacher training at the end of October last year. I had come to realise I was destined for a life of misery and mental ill-health if I tried to make it my career.

I thought long about what to do next. Teaching is a job that never ends when you went home. And the long hours planning into the night had left me desperate for a job that would take me outdoors, away from a desk or screen. I’m now a postman. I walk about eight miles a day, and when my postal cart is empty, my work is done. Teaching is the most incredible career. But it is not for everyone.

Matt Bell