I worked as a teacher for more than forty years. I loved my work. I had a good career with hard won opportunity. Our family was financially secure thanks to my salary and each of our children received opportunities to grow academically, emotionally and spiritually. Each of them is an adult making positive contributions to their communities.
It wasn’t all beer and skittles however!
” Those who can do. Those who can’t teach” was and sometimes still is an oft expressed opinion by shock jocks, politicians, and other social commentators. The myth of “back to basics, “It was good enough for me so it’s good enough for them ” was and sometimes still is, a much flaunted criticism when unions might have suggested that conditions needed improvement or rates of pay needed revamping. And then there was the myth of ” all those holidays”!
I retired 2016. My daughter is teacher. It irks me every year to watch her and listen to the amount of extra work, demanded extra commitment, unfair and ignorant criticism and judgement that she as a teacher, endures. She works in Catholic Education, as I did but I know too, that societal expectations in relation to the vocation of teaching being the great panacea for every social challenge in the western world, applies across the general teaching of children spectrum!
In addition to her classroom management she is part of the school’s creative team. This, in is fledgling state when she began at her school, was a school based only CAPA night. It has now grown into a local town annual juggernaut, involving all schools in her area. There is a team of teachers at the school and her roles include costume making, choreography and one of the choirs. This thrills me no end because I was a music teacher and she resisted singing or belonging to a choir all her life. Now I get to watch her conduct!
Initially as part of the CAPA team her particular focus, which is also the area of her strength as a teacher, were the “challenging boys” group. Kids who we now recognise as being the spectrum. Kids who cannot deal with changes in routine, changes in teaching styles. We all know at least one of them! Beautiful kids. Kids whose parents love them and are looking for support. Parents whose lives are filled with anxiety about what’s ahead. Yes, like every other parent worth his or her salt, but with so much more to contend with because we live in a world of judgement and societal expectation that interprets all challenging behaviour as bad behaviour from bad kid because of bad parents. When her group of boys won their dance section in the local Eisteddfod, heads were turned!
Three days before her scheduled return to work after the Christmas holidays, this year, I had three missed calls from her. We played tag and missed each other all day. Two days later I connected with her. She had been in hospital on our tag playing day, She had fallen on rocks in the river at the front of her home and had smashed her knee. Relieved that a scan and x-ray had shown no breakages she was in great pain from severe bruising. Leg wrapped and on crutches, she sounded tired and miserable. I live about 3 hours away from her.
What she dropped into the conversation next made my blood boil. It took me back to hours, days, weeks of time I spent in addition to face to face teaching for 40 years- from my very first year of teaching as a 22 year old in 1973. She had spent 5 hours on Saturday in her classroom, with her co-worker, a teacher, mother, wife too, setting up the classroom for the new year.
Every time I have been into her classroom, an open learning space for about 60 kids under the care of a teaching team of three and support staff, it is like being smacked over the head with colour, creativity, happiness, organisation and wonder. Desks are work stations. There’s a reading corner. Among memories, etched into my agony file for the rest of my life , as a member of the executive team of the school I worked in, is the violent objection from staff when the suggestion was made that the introduction of Dadirri Time be introduced into the daily program . Ten minutes, every day, when all activity stopped and the opportunity was provided for stillness and awareness. I could write book about that! Its called Mindfulness now!
There’s a creative space. When I was teaching in my early years and indeed until much later, if the desks were in a straight row, the teacher’s desk was tidy, the class roll was readily available for checking and chalk dust was all over the ledge during the day (proof of teaching “industry”) and the ledge was spotless at the start of the morning (proof of due diligence!) I got a tick for classroom organisation! I remember the reaction bordering on riotous, when a suggestion was made that we investigate “ new desks” to set up learning hubs when technology had arrived at kids with their own laptops in class.
Kids had books, for which they were individually responsible. Now a days, they have portfolios! Kids had their own lunch or a lunch order neither of which had anything to do with me! Now their lunchboxes are checked. They have fruit breaks. They have water bottles. All great initiatives in the name of self sufficiency and good health but extra on top of extra work, organisation, responsibility for the teachers who get belted around the head (metaphorically) for not sticking to the three Rs!
I have moved into the billabong of retirement. That silted up at both ends of life, literally and metaphorically, where one’s experience, gifts, talents, opinion can be comfortably dismissed, without objection from the keepers of power with one word. “Boomer”. I don’t miss the classroom. But I do miss the interaction with young people. I did not ever cope well with being challenged in the classroom until my own children became old enough and I guess felt safe enough to challenge me. Now I stand back in awe as I watch three of them as parents. My teacher daughter is the mother of three. My son is the father on one. My younger daughter is the mother of two. When I hear them tell me of the challenges they meet as their own children go through school I sometimes feel great angst!
Not every teacher is like my daughter and her friend. At the age of forty eight, she is convinced she has missed her chance for promotion. It is my firm belief, based only on observations and without any empirical evidence, that teaching is no longer seen as a profession, a calling, a vocation. It is rather, a guarantee of great holidays, working 9 to 3, five days a week, getting reasonable pay and something that after a few years gives you the chance to teach overseas, or grab a promotion that gets you out of the classroom.
When young people with stars in their eyes find it’s not quite like that, they walk away.
Of course, there are many magnificent, gifted, talented teachers who, in these days celebrity notoriety are out there and everyone knows them! Thats great! . But be assured for every one of them there are many. many more just like them. My daughter is one of them.
I firmly believe that the greatest calling in life is the call to be a Parent. Equally firmly I believe that after that calling, the next greatest calling is the call to teach.