'Until I went into teaching, I had never seen people cry at work. It was terrible'

Zoe Speakman came to teaching later than many.

After a successful career in the voluntary sector, she was in her 30s when she decided to return to the classroom. Enrolling on a PGCE course, Zoe, from Sheffield, went into the profession with her eyes open. She knew the hours would be long, the work demanding and the pupil's behaviour testing, but she was sure the rewards would be worth it. By the end of her first year as a newly qualified teacher her confidence was shot and dragging herself into school each day required an Herculean effort.

"I was under no illusion about teaching," says Zoe. "I know some people go into the profession because they can't think of anything else to do, but it really wasn't like that with me. Teaching was something I thought long and hard about.

"My first placement began in the September, but all through that summer I was receiving emails asking why I wasn't coming into school. There was an expectation that you would come in to help prepare for the new term. Unfortunately, I had a mortgage to pay and I'd taken a job over the summer to tide me over until I was in a position to get a permanent teaching post.

"I'd go in any day off I had and see all the staff bleaching their classrooms and doing a million other jobs. I did what I could, but it never seemed to be enough and from that point on I felt like my card had been marked."

Zoe hoped that once the term got under way and she had a chance to put what she had learnt in the lecture halls into practice, life would be a little easier. It wasn't to be.

Drowning under paperwork and struggling to meet the demands of her superiors, her dream job turned into a nightmare where any request for help seemed like an admission of failure and where the staff room felt more like a bear pit.

"Four days into the job, my confidence had been completely eroded," says Zoe, who now works in the student union at Sheffield University. "Every lesson plan I came up with was criticised and every idea I had was dismissed out of hand. When you are constantly told that you are doing everything wrong, you very quickly feel completely worthless. It just all seemed so unfair.

"As part of my PGCE training I had learned how I should behave towards students. We were told to be supportive and encouraging, but this seemed totally at odds with how I was being treated myself.

"I was determined to prove them all wrong. I put everything I could into the job, but in the end I had nothing left to give. I turned from someone who was so enthusiastic about teaching to someone who dreaded going into school.

"Until I went into teaching, I'd never seen people cry at work, but the atmosphere was terrible and I know it wasn't just me who felt constantly on edge."

With Zoe worried that she would fail her placement and as a result the entire course, the stress of the job began to effect her relationship with family and friends. Initially she tried to pretend all was fine, but it soon became evident that it wasn't and she wasn't the only one feeling the pressure.

"Most teachers have been mistreated at some point and there's a definite sense that it's just part of the job, something you just have to put up with," she says. "Bullying is allowed to go on, because people find it difficult to speak up.

"They don't want to be seen as troublemakers and they are worried about earning a reputation of being difficult. I've spoken to a lot of ex-teachers who had a similar experience and the sad thing is many of them believe that they deserved to be treated badly because they just weren't good enough."

While much has been done in recent years to stamp out school bullies, many teaching unions and support groups are becoming increasingly concerned that in some schools it's the teaching staff themselves who are being backed into a corner.

A UK-wide investigation into bullying among teachers and lecturers was launched by the Teacher Support Network after the group noticed a 400 per cent increase in the number of calls and emails they had received in the last 12 months relating to bullying and harassment.

More than 2,000 teachers have now been interviewed about their experiences at the chalk face and TSN claims seven out of 10 admitted they had considered quitting the profession, many of them citing the unreasonable behaviour of colleagues as the main reason for their disillusionment.

The research appears to be backed up by a similar report by the teaching union NASUWT, which found more than four out of 10 teachers claim to be the victim of frequent bullying, with incidents ranging from being ostracised by colleagues to being turned down for promotion.

"We know from the teachers who contact us that sadly bullying is still a critical issue for staff," says Julian Stanley, chief executive of TSN. "It's tragic that so many teachers still suffer from bullying and some even choose to leave the profession as a result. It's not only a terrible experience for them, it's also a terrible loss for the education sector.

"With so much changing in the education sector there is a danger that management teams and colleagues can put each other under pressure without even realising. We are not saying this is an epidemic. Most teachers have successful and rewarding relationships with their colleagues, but it is often forgotten that teachers can be victims of bullies too. What we need to ensure is that the appropriate policies and procedures are put in place so that anyone who feels victimised has somewhere to turn and schools have a proper system to investigate and deal with reports of bullying among their staff members."

One of the teachers who took part in the TSN survey, but who didn't want to be identified, admitted she had been off with stress-related sickness twice in the last year.

"I started teaching 11 years ago and have always got on well with my colleagues," she said. "However, the problem began three years ago when I moved to a new school as head of department. Almost immediately, the senior management team seemed determined to make my life a misery and actively undermined me in front of pupils. It's victimisation, but I don't feel there's anything I can do to defend myself. I love teaching, but it has destroyed my faith in the system. I have never seen bullying as bad as I have in education."

Add to the problems of bullying, the difficulty of keeping order in a classroom and rising work loads and it is little surprise that thousands of teaching days are lost each year to stress. With supply teachers costing schools more than 150 a day, it also means the annual bill for cover runs into millions.

"The statistics for sickness absence in teaching are higher than in any other career," says Stanley. "There is certainly an issue about changing the culture in schools so that people can share their difficulties and we can actually support them."

After what she describes as a year from hell, Zoe decided not to pursue her teaching career and has spent much of the last 12 months picking up the pieces of her disastrous foray into the classroom. It hasn't been easy, but recently she has channelled her experiences into a book, which she hopes will raise awareness of the difficulties faced by some newly qualified teachers.

Not Quite There tracks the first year of one teacher's career, documenting the frustrations and the disappointments.

"People generally go into teaching because they have a lot to offer, but that first year can be make or break," says Zoe. "All teachers aim to be great and most go into it because they are passionate about the education.

"Leaving teaching was an incredibly difficult decision, but if you ask have I got any regrets, the answer is, 'Absolutely not'."