Chalkface is a new play about teachers, currently being staged by the Sydney Theatre Company and playing at the Sydney Opera House.
Written by Angela Betzien, Chalkface is advertised as a black comedy in which an ‘old school’ teacher clashes with a bright-eyed newbie. As a researcher of teachers’ work and a head teacher Science, we hoped the play would be a fresh take on the profession we live every day; that it would make us laugh, and maybe even have something insightful to say.
We went to see Chalkface last Saturday evening and overall, we think that the play gets a lot right.
From the peeling paint, to the old mis-matched chairs, out-of-service hot water tap and enormous tin of Nescafe Blend 43, the set is without question the quintessential public school staffroom in Australia. There is even a resident rat* eating through the precious limited stock of coloured paper in the supply cupboard. Meanwhile, one teacher tells the newbie teacher to note the school’s general scent, which he describes as “old fart”.
Between us, we’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of schools. While some are newer or better-resourced than others, we can tell you that this is generally a pretty accurate representation of public education in NSW. (The “old fart” smell in particular seems, curiously, universal.)
What the accuracy of the play’s set, and jokes about lack of resources reflect, however, are a systemic underfunding and lack of maintenance of government educational facilities which will not be news to any local audience. It is well known Australia has a problem with educational equity, and the play takes frequent jabs at wealthy private sector schools. While the teachers in the play guzzle Blend 43 and rotate cleaning shifts, for example, the private school up the road has apparently just hired a full-time barista for its staff. The contrast here is stark, and while not all private schools are hugely wealthy, some of them certainly are and despite years of debate about developing a ‘needs-based’ funding system, we aren’t there yet.
Chalkface doesn’t end its commentary on education policy with resourcing, however. The school principal wants teachers to focus on NAPLAN preparation at the expense of richer learning activities, as he angsts about the possibility of losing students to other schools. This experience has a sound basis in research; the marketisation of education through the ongoing encouragement of parental ‘choice’ and the displaying of NAPLAN results on the My School website has had well-documented flow-on effects of ‘teaching to the test’.
Nicknamed ‘Thatcher’, the principal is renowned within the school for his austerity, even stealing kids’ lunchboxes from the lost and found. His anxiety about the school’s budget reflects not only an overall lack of funding, but also the current positioning of principals as school ‘business managers’, having a larger share of financial responsibility for the running of the school. Our bright-eyed newbie teacher, for instance, is on a temporary contract, which she is told is because she is cheaper; the rise in fixed-term contract work in teaching is also a current issue for the profession.
The relationship between ‘Thatcher’ and the rest of the teachers in the school is, indeed, fractious. The principal establishes a ‘suggestions’ box which is derided, by everyone other than him, as a “black hole”. Again we see resonance with current themes in policy and research: under autonomous schooling conditions, principals in NSW have been described as chronically over-worked, their attention diverted from engaging with staff perspectives and working conditions.
As for the teachers themselves, the divide between the ‘old’/experienced, and young/‘new’ teacher may seem stereotypical, yet also raises important questions around teacher burnout. One of the discomforts we felt while watching Chalkface was the way in which the teachers, especially those more experienced, talked about their students. Usually these were jokes but they were always disparaging, and not always funny. ‘Deficit’ talk – where students and/or their families are described as lacking, either in intelligence or desirable social norms – is indeed rife in teaching and probably does rear its ugly head most frequently in school staffrooms. It can serve to support cycles of poor academic outcomes for populations of students experiencing forms of educational disadvantage. It can also be linked to burnout, as indeed the younger teacher in the play identifies: one of the three dimensions of burnout is ‘depersonalisation’, and we see much of this in the staffroom talk of Chalkface.
Also of concern is the raft of rather alarming health conditions the teachers experience, caused by their jobs. One has a damaged coccyx from having a student pull a chair out from underneath him; another has spent the summer holidays in a psychiatric ward after being locked in a cupboard overnight by a student. These are extreme examples. They are funny, but they are also not funny, reflecting genuine, current concern with teacher wellbeing.
There are some positive outcomes in Chalkface. The two women teachers who are the main characters learn and grow from each other, and it’s genuinely enjoyable to see them do so. But that is about it. Ultimately, nothing is done about the inequity the school faces and the difficulty of these teachers’ jobs. In fact, most of the teacher characters leave this under-resourced school by the end of the play.
Chalkface lands on a description of pedagogy as the “art and science of hope”. Generally, the play feels authentic. It made us laugh, and sometimes grimace in frustrated recognition. But ultimately, its ending portrays a bleak situation for public school education. We hope this part isn’t accurate, although we worry that it is.
*Spoiler alert: it turns out, it’s not a rat.
Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy. Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it.
Nigel Kuan is Head Teacher Science at Inner Sydney High School. He holds a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Physics Education and a Masters of Teaching. Nigel has presented at Teach Meets and other practitioner forums, and takes a particular interest in student engagement and scientific literacy.
Header images from the Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Prudence Upton From left to right: Susan Prior, Stephanie Somerville, Catherine McClements and Nathan O’Keefe in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chalkface, 2022.