June.13.2016

It is not easy being a teacher: my story

By Naomi Barnes

I did not become a teacher the day I walked out of university. I was trained as a teacher but it took many years for me to feel like a teacher. I’m still not sure I’m there yet.

Often transition takes years. There is a lot written about how to act in the first year of a new education environment. There is a lot written about what we should know and what we should do. There are myriad competing ideas about what a good induction or orientation looks like.

What drops through the gaps is often the very challenging identity work that happens as you move from being a university student to becoming a teacher.

How do we shift into our new identities in our new environments? It takes a long time to feel like a teacher even though we might call ourselves teachers.

Negotiating the first year of teaching

A lot of the first year of teaching is learning what not to say and how not to act. Negotiating new personalities and politics within a school community can be difficult.

Soon you begin to tell yourself that permanent work comes with a certain type of behaviour or performance, and you begin to pick and choose what you talk about with colleagues and what you keep silent about.

You may hide that you don’t really know how to do something. You might be less than honest about how your Year 9 class is to teach. You might talk about the student centred activities you have facilitated and play down the amount of direct instruction you use. You might be buying things for your classes because it is easier than ordering them through the school budget.

You tell your official mentor that things are going well, but cry into your pillow at night.

We need to talk about the difficulties we continually encounter as teachers

Teaching has a massive attrition rate. The availability of secondary teaching staff is reaching a critical point. It is not that we don’t have enough teachers in Australia. We have plenty. But they are no longer in teaching. Being a teacher is not easy and it is not smooth sailing. It takes years of personal and professional struggle to decide on it as a vocation. We need to talk about it; break some silences.

I am not saying that early career teachers should break their silence. I am saying experienced teachers should. When dynamic and respected teachers say that they had a terrible second prac, it demonstrates something that cannot be taught in a pedagogy or curriculum class. It fills in some gaps.

Breaking the silence demonstrates that we learn by jumping hurdles; not by pretending they don’t exist. In fact, the more hurdles we jump the better we get at it. We need a conversation that balances how difficult teaching is as a profession and why people stay in it. Honest conversations about why we come to this profession and what decisions we make that keep us there.

For those reasons I have decided to share my story.

My story

I was brought up in a conservative family and alternative school where girls rarely became something other than teachers, nurses or stay at home mothers. I realise now that this mentality was archaic for the early 1990s. I think my mother did as well, because I was half-heartedly encouraged to look at engineering, but always told it was good for a girl to have a trade. Something she can fall back on for when she had her babies.

Teaching was a trade to my family. Teaching was considered to provide flexibility of hours that ensured I could still be the primary care giver and have a career.

I resisted teaching and instead worked towards international studies because it was a good profession that incorporated my love of the social sciences, especially history. My guidance counsellor told me that no one from my school ever got their first preference. I thought I was being clever and put History teaching first, international studies second.

I got my first preference. My first preference was in Brisbane and I had a reason to escape the small town.

So I trained as a secondary teacher.

Why I stayed in teaching

I’m not sure I ever really committed to teaching because I felt uncomfortable with the teaching bit all the way through my degree and for the first five years on the job (I loved the History and Social Science bit). But I was brought up to honour my commitments. It was embedded. “You always finish what you start, Naomi.” I can still hear my father’s Protestant Work Ethic in my ear. I also couldn’t think of anything else I could do that would allow me to be paid for working with History.

One day I remember having a Year 10 class brutally destroy my love for History. I walked away from work that day at a crossroad. I stick out the profession or find a new one. If I was to stay I needed another reason to be there.

The situation in the classroom was pretty bleak but as the weeks went on, evidence came to light that the key perpetrators of my disillusionment were in a pretty bad place. In fact, one of the most difficult students was being online bullied by the other culprits. It was pretty sophisticated bullying as well. Both the police and Microsoft got involved.

Suddenly, I realised that teaching could not be about the subject I was teaching but it had to be about the students. I gave myself an ultimatum. I needed to be there for the students or leave.

I stayed for eight more years.

I am at another crossroad for teaching

Now I am on maternity leave. I will be on leave until 2018 when I will again have to make a decision. I have to weigh up teaching but this time against new variables.

Will I go back to the classroom or will I pursue education research? Who knows, but I’m sure I’ll work it out. I just don’t want to be silent on it.

What’s your story?

 

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Naomi Barnes is a postdoctoral fellow at the Griffith Institute of Educational Research. Her key areas of research are transitions and social media in educational research.

 

 

9 thoughts on “It is not easy being a teacher: my story

  1. Peter o'brien says:

    Thank you for your article. it must resonate with MOST teachers. The one paragraph that caught my eye and summed up the situation was
    “Suddenly, I realised that teaching could not be about the subject I was teaching but it had to be about the students. I gave myself an ultimatum. I needed to be there for the students or leave”
    i’ve been a teacher for many years both in the private and public sector. I have come to realise more so than ever that working WITH students rather than CONTROLLING and MANIPULATING them produces amazing outcomes. Taking a genuine care and interest in them opens up doors.
    I applaud your honesty and soul searching and HOPE you stay in the profession. We need more people like you!!!!

  2. Naomi says:

    That’s very kind of you to say. I agree. The students should always be our focus and sometimes it takes a long time to realise that. We’ll get there as a profession if people are encouraged to be honest. Thank you for your thoughts

  3. Carlaleeb says:

    Unfortunately we live in a time of Codes of Conduct and Bureacratic RaRa . I’m not sure that many teachers feel that they can tell their story without fear – perceived or real -of repercussion . That said , I surround myself with a strong professional and personal learning network – based on truth , transarency , a reflective and a passionate practice. This is what sustains me and keeps my Edupassion alive through the tremendous highs and deep lows that come from working with not only the diverse and wonderful human beings we are so privileged to have in our lives , but also the most scrutinized profession in the world . I dislike the lack of teacher voice in political edreform but oh how I sincerley love my job .

  4. Naomi says:

    What you say is unfortunate and what many people feel about teacher voice in education. It took me a lot of soul searching to write this piece because of the confessional nature of some of the content. I think support, as you say is the key. Thank you for your thoughts

  5. Max says:

    “The availability of secondary teaching staff is reaching a critical point. It is not that we don’t have enough teachers in Australia. We have plenty. But they are no longer in teaching. ”
    So true.
    I graduated as a mature student, teaching Science and IT in 2010.
    I cannot get a teaching job.
    Why? Because I can’t afford to take a contract and not be paid for Xmas etc. I can’t afford to move my family to a remote area in order to gain ‘points’ to be able to move back to ‘civilization’.
    So here I sit, not working in Education, because of the ridiculous way the education system works in Australia.
    Until we financially compensate teachers for working in unpopular locations; until we allow school principals to actually determine which teachers to hire or fire; until we realise that teachers are employees of a business whose customers are the pupils – experienced, qualified teachers like myself will remain in industry, and existing teachers will continue to leave.
    And what remains, frankly, will be not the best of the bunch!

  6. Naomi says:

    I understand your frustration! I worked as a contract teacher for much of my career. I took a few remote posting just to get permanency that ended up being worse for my family than the contracts. With respect, I don’t believe in seeing education as a business but do agree with your sentiments. The funding/hiring/firing model needs to change and the research is showing that enthusiastic teachers are the ones leaving. Years of casual and short fixed term work is exhausting both financially and mentally. It doesn’t mean that bad ones are left it more points to burn out. There is a lot to be said for the wisdom of experienced teachers and the need to help those established in the profession support new comers. In my opinion, that starts with honesty, like that you’ve shown, but also from experienced teachers. Thank you for your thoughts and adding some complexity to the story.

  7. Julie Rae Smith says:

    I am going to share your story with my pre service teachers this afternoon. They are about to finish their second year prac and have been in a classroom for all of this term. I am their ‘teaching skills specialist’ and your story has resonated with me in how I can prepare them for the continual transformations they will need to make as a primary school teacher. I am going to encourage them to use your writing as a spring board to critically reflect on their time in the classroom, what they found enjoyable, what they found challenging and most importantly what they have learnt about themselves. Thank you for sharing your journey so far.

  8. Naomi says:

    Wonderful! I’d love to hear how they get on.

  9. Psychology says:

    Naomi, reading your story, I was moved to share my experience as a teacher, rather I would say a Psychology teacher. I teach psychology major- undergraduates, masters and research scholars as well. Initial six months of teaching had no practical applications of my knowledge of psychology in teaching and i must admit that it was the toughest teaching experience for me. I started viewing myself a teacher who is performing the role of a leader and whose job is to direct, structure and channelize the course work to its fruition. With continuing years, the pedagogy has changed. I have now started believing in contingent approach to teaching contextually dependent on the stakeholders of my class room. With every student, there is a different kind of teacher emerging inside me. I agree that it is a tough profession and not truly acknowledged by society and family. But, at the same time, it is a role of shaping future generation and I love my this contribution to the society.

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