I am a teacher.
That makes me many things (often, it makes me that person who is never invited to parties because I tend to draw people into one sided discussions about how much education has to offer and how successive governments have not invested enough in education and, therefore, the future, squandering our nation’s potential).
Despite how vocal I am about education and my disillusionment with how it is being utilised, I realised that I could do more to advance the cause of teachers, even by small degrees, and this was one avenue.
What inspired me to begin writing about my frustrations was not the umpteenth lecture I have given to someone who casually remarked about teacher holidays, but rather an innocuous event on my Facebook page.
I shared an ABC article about why teachers leave the profession. A former teaching colleague of mine commented “maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place”.
That struck me a little bit because I am a new teacher (as of writing this, it is my sixth year) and I could relate to a lot that was written and the reasons given in the article. Being, as I said, the sort of person who will give a one-sided lecture, I responded thusly:
“Maybe, but I can say that, from my own experience, I love teaching, but an inability to gain permanency, continually moving from school to school, and contract to contract, and my own disillusionment with the Department of Education, and a lot of the policy and procedures, isn’t helping me.
I haven’t taught the same subject in the same year level twice, yet. I started teaching yr 8 and 9 Humanities and English at my first school and contract. Then taught 8, 9, 10 Spanish, 11 and 12 English, and yr 9 Middle Years at my second school and contract. Then taught yr 9, 10 and 11 English Literacy, and yr 10 History, and last year I taught yr 9 Special Ed in my third school, and third and fourth contracts.
Each year is like my first year in regards to planning and preparation. That’s not including the disillusionment with DECD after last year struggling to obtain the funding for my special needs students, for which they were unequivocally entitled to, but still had to battle to get. That’s not including their policies and procedures. I had a student last year who was a refugee who had never had any formal education, suffered from cerebral palsy, had other intellectual disabilities, and only got 18 months of Intensive English. He didn’t speak English, he couldn’t convey his thoughts, and I still couldn’t obtain for him any extra Intensive English lessons because apparently 18 months is sufficient, disregarding the fact that he still could not speak English partly due to his intellectual disability.
So, yeah, maybe some aren’t cut out for it, and maybe others get burnt out because of all the bullshit.”
Now, I felt happy about the answer that I gave but then spent the rest of the day thinking about it and reflecting on it. A teacher I respected had said that “maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place”. That might be true for a portion of them, but with the number of people not entering the profession after completing the degree or leaving within the first five years, it cannot be true for all of them, or even most of them.
It is also because I am one of those early career teachers who is thinking of leaving the profession that I know it is not just because those teachers “shouldn’t have been there in the first place” or weren’t cut out for the job and all it entails.
I love teaching, I love being a teacher in the classroom, I love the challenges, and I often get students who want me as their teacher because they enjoy my teaching and classroom presence. The amount of times I have gone back to a school that I did not get a contract back at and have students tell me they are dismayed that I am not their teacher is enough for me to realise that.
I should be in a classroom.
So, I disagree with my former colleague that they should not have been there in the first place because I know from experience that both good and bad early career teachers are leaving the teaching profession.
I went back and I re-read the article, and from my own experiences as an early career teacher, I can agree with a number of the points that it listed for young teachers leaving the profession:
Feeling unsupported? Check that box.
- In my first year contract, I never felt I had any support from my senior peers or line manager. No one observed my lessons, no one gave me feedback, no one had time for me. In that school, I was teaching with several people I went to University with and who I counted as close friends. None of them had time for me. I had a minor break down for which I contemplated suicide before seeking professional help. I didn’t tell any of my line managers or supervisors that because I didn’t feel that they would give me any significant amount of support. I didn’t trust them enough, those people who I should have been able to trust to support me in the infancy of my teaching career.
Feeling burnt out? Check that box.
- In my second year of teaching, I was given 6 classes to teach (Years 8, 9 and 10 Spanish, Year 11 English, Year 12 English Comms, and Year 9 Middle Schools), in a school that predominantly dealt with disengaged students who were dealing with mental health issues (anxiety and depression were common diagnoses for most of the students). I cannot fault my peers at this school for the support that I was given. I made many good teaching friends who helped me immensely but, even still, I would get to work at 7.30am most mornings and not leave until 10pm most nights. Teaching senior years is not easy and requires an immense amount of work and preparation, which meant I was working most weekends too. I barely stayed on top of it all (it was worth it, in the end, because all my year 12s passed) but the sacrifices I had to make to do that were huge. I didn’t exercise, I ate poorly, I slept poorly and I didn’t have a healthy amount of social contact outside of my professional colleagues. I gained more weight than I am willing to admit and spent most of that year struggling with sickness of some form or another. So, by the end of that year, I was a wreck, I was tired, and I was beginning to contemplate going back to uni.
Feeling frustrated? Check that box.
- There’s not being supported in the classroom, and there’s not being supported during behaviour management. In my first contract, I was at a decent school which had some behaviour management issues. The biggest issue, however, was that senior management rarely supported staff in following up on behaviour issues, so most staff didn’t even bother. You would give a student a yard duty, and there was rarely any punishment if they didn’t bother to do it. Give them an afterschool detention, most students wouldn’t bother to rock up, and no one was really checking to see if they did. It wasn’t just the students either, my last lessons of the day were right where afterschool detentions were held and, more often than not, no teacher would appear, so I ended up taking it as I took my duty of care seriously, as well as holding a belief that students should complete homework when overdue (afterschool detentions were for missed deadlines only, not a punitive measure for bad behaviour). I went out of my way to do as much as I could, but I didn’t feel like I was being met halfway.
Struggling to secure permanent, full time employment? Check that box.
- Not including short contracts, I have taught at 3 schools in my five years of teaching. I was replaced by a graduate teacher at the first school I got a contract at, though, to be fair, I am happy that I didn’t go back to that school. At my second school, where I was teaching Spanish, Senior English and Middle Years (English and Humanities), I lost my Spanish teaching role to a Permanent against Temporary placement (where a teacher who is permanent but has no position gets priority placement, even in what would normally be a contract role). I lost the Senior English teaching role because it was advertised as part of a permanent position, for which I was screwed simply because of my lack of experience compared to the other teachers, plus not having teaching experience in the other part of the contract (Research Project). The Middle Years role was then foisted onto someone else who retained their contract for the new year. At my third school, I only managed a short contract for the first few months before slipping back into relief work. So, when they offered me a job teaching special ed the next year, I took it out of necessity. I didn’t get my job back there because of a lack of funding, so back into the relief teaching stream again. I can’t maintain a year by year contract at a single school, let alone one where I am teaching roughly the same subject and year levels and building up my teaching repertoire in those areas. Each year, I go into the holidays with people hoping that I get my job back because they want me back, and not getting it.
Feeling disillusioned? Check that box.
- You might think I will complain here about being disillusioned by the students coming through but, whilst I have met a few bad students, the next generation has a lot to offer. No, instead I am disillusioned by the Department of Education. In my fourth year of teaching, I was teaching in a school based Special Education Unit. I am not trained to teach special education (but, after a year of teaching it, I am now qualified to teach it, even if I don’t necessarily feel that way). You may have read the story above about the intellectually disabled refugee student who didn’t speak English. He was in my class and I had fight to get him access to as much support as I could. I couldn’t get him any more Intensive English lessons, even though you would think that as an intellectually disabled student, he should. Apparently, 18 months is sufficient, regardless of whether or not they are capable of speaking English to a necessary degree. Due to his inability to express himself, he was a frequent target of bullying by other students (and would often refuse to come to school as a result), he was a behaviour management issue because he would quickly lose interest in a lesson he didn’t understand, and as a teacher I realised that his options would be limited after he left school, and the options for intellectually disabled persons isn’t great to begin with. Yet, each time I wanted to help this student, I was hampered by departmental policies that effectively made it so that he got only the least amount of support.
If you want to be a teacher, those are some of the things that you get to look forward to. The experiences will be different but the outcome, apparently, will be about the same for most early career teachers.
However, there is probably one other reason that early career teachers are leaving in droves that the article did not mention. When I was at University studying to be a teacher, most of my classmates saw teaching as a vocation rather than a job or profession. We were bright eyed, starry idealists who were told that we would step into a classroom and make the world a better place. The problem, however, is that what we were taught and what we were told do not match up to the reality of the situation.
The reality of the situation could be much better.