Teacher uses false name to tell us what it's really like inside his school

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Almost half of new teachers walk out of the profession within five years, according to a report by Everymind^. This teacher explains what it’s like to juggle the long hours, heavy workloads and school parents.

The video above is an excerpt from 'A Teacher Changed My Life'.
Watch the full story on SBS On Demand.

It’s the first week back, so I’m inundated with new enrollments that need to be put into classes. I spend the hour before school starts processing these and emailing teachers letting them know they have new students in their classes. Quite a few students have left our school, but haven’t signed out, so they still appear on the class rolls. It’s frustrating that it’s so hard to keep track of who is supposed to be in the class.

Roughly a third of the students in my junior classes have personalised learning plans and/or medical needs. So rather than developing a single lesson or unit of work, I must come up with different activities and resources for a wide range of student’s needs. Clearly this is in the interest of the student, but I don’t get any extra time to prepare these.

Over the last 10 years it seems that the number of students with some diagnosis is steadily increasing. Maybe that’s due to better healthcare and early intervention, but many teachers suspect it has more to do with funding. A student who struggles at school may not get a lot of personalised support, but one with a formal diagnosis often has funding attached for a support teacher, laptop, or other academic assistance. 

The naïve expectation of graduate teachers that they’ll be shaping young people’s lives is already starting to be replaced with a cold exterior.

One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed in my time as a teacher is the demand that teachers act as professionals, whilst simultaneously being treated less professionally by the Department, school leaders, and parents. A prime example is colour printing and colour paper. I’m literally trusted with the lives of young people every day, but if I want to print a document in colour I need to get one of the office admin staff to do it and justify why. Colour paper is locked away in a cupboard and must be requested. Clearly teachers can’t be trusted with unrestricted access to colour paper!

During second period on my first day back, one of the boys refuses to follow even the simplest of instructions; and when asked to move desks, he tips the desk over and yells “this is fucked”, then storms out of the room. Usually, I would contact the parents to discuss this behaviour and its consequences, but his single-dad is renowned throughout the school for refusing to criticise his son, always blaming the school and teachers for his behaviour. Since he didn’t swear at me, he won’t be suspended. More likely he'll receive a day of in-school isolation and a letter sent home. I don’t deserve to be treated like this, and the rest of the class shouldn’t have their education disrupted, but there’s not a great deal I, or the school, can do.

Throughout the day I rush from class to class. Our school doesn’t have a homeroom for each teacher, so my five classes today are in three different rooms. I don’t get to set up the furniture in a way that suits me, or display student work on the walls, two of the things you get taught at university that help to increase student engagement and learning. And with no air-conditioning in the classrooms (or staff room) during summer with 30° and 95 per cent humidity, it’s a tough environment to work in. 

At lunch I check in with the new casual teacher who is looking a little frazzled. I remind them that if they can keep the kids in the room, and some of them do some of the work, then it counts as a win. The naïve expectation of graduate teachers that they’ll be shaping young people’s lives is already starting to be replaced with a cold exterior. The first two years of teaching is just about survival, especially as a day-to-day casual.

...this sense of worth tends to come from my students and colleagues, rarely from my Principal, the Department, or society as a whole.

After the final bell goes we have a faculty meeting. We analyse our last year’s HSC results to determine where I went wrong, and what I can do to make my students achieve higher marks next year. With the individual differences of students and the challenges they face, combined with the fact that I could be teaching different topics, or a whole different subject or syllabus, this is pointless. It’s akin to having the Sydney Swans study last year’s QLD State of Origin to decide what sort of training the Australian Cricket team should do next year! The same occurs with NAPLAN data, with the abhorrent MySchools website publishing comparisons between schools, supposedly to help parents choose where to send their kids.

Sadly, this kind of reporting tells nothing of the happiness of students, or the music, art or sport programs the school runs, or other factors that influence how “good” a school (or teacher) is. I believe this is one of the steps towards the inevitable introduction of performance-based pay for teachers. While this seems fair, and in theory I support the concept, assessing and comparing teachers’ performance is impossible. How do you compare a teacher in a small, central-school in regional NSW who has to teach subjects outside their training, with a teacher in a selective high school in an affluent, metropolitan area -- and then make a judgement as to which teacher should get paid more? Teaching is stressful enough as it is, pitting us against each other will most definitely not result in better teachers or student outcomes.

I love being a teacher. And most of the time I feel rewarded and valued in my job. But this sense of worth tends to come from my students and colleagues, rarely from my principal, the Department, or society as a whole. It’s no surprise that graduate teachers are leaving the profession in droves. If I was starting out as a new teacher now, having to master my subject knowledge, develop effective classroom management techniques, and negotiate the ever-increasing administrative demands of the job, I doubt that I’d still be in a classroom in five years’ time. As it is, I often trawl the employment websites, considering if I should return to my pre-teaching career in IT. To be honest, it’s the holidays that keep me teaching.

*Jeoff Wilson, not his real name, is a teacher in NSW.
^You can read a summary of Everymind's report here.