A teacher’s aide
October 18, 2016 10:48 am
Advice for the partners and families of incoming Associates, by Emilia Sala, partner of a Teach For Australia Alumnus.
I have a secret. Normally I wouldn’t feel so self conscious about it, but given present company I feel this is important: I. am. not. a. teacher.
While there are a few of us out there who don’t come with MTeach degrees (present company excluded) I have found working in education reform that we are a rare breed. Why is this important? I promise that will become apparent.
Full disclosure: my partner and I have worked for Teach For Australia, in different capacities, but nonetheless, there is a lens that this comes to you through. That lens is a fervent belief in education as a key to unlock doors, clear pathways and change futures.
I am a huge advocate for teachers. In fact, I for a number of years, I spent my days travelling the country and tracking down excellent humans who would make wonderful teachers and convincing them to apply to the Teach For Australia (TFA) program. In addition to that, I am the daughter of and sister to proud teachers. But most importantly I am the partner of a teacher.
All confessions aside, I want to have a very frank conversation with you from the position of a “non-teacher”. Before you turn away, this is not an advice column, although I do provide advice, and this is certainly not a: this is how to do it best and achieve complete happiness column.
This is one person’s point of view about how to best support your partner, who is a teacher, as taken from the sidelines – and should be read as such.
My partner Liam had the great fortune of becoming a teacher through Teach For Australia’s Leadership Development Program. And that is where our story will begin…
Emilia’s partner Liam
Teach For Australia is a highly selective program, rigorous in both its recruitment and training, and unashamedly challenging. When Liam finally took the leap to do what he had been circling around the edges of for so long, we were thrilled.
The support and genuine excitement that came his way when he was successfully selected for the TFA program was nothing short of wonderful. Why can’t all decisions in life be met with such joy? I thought at the time. It wasn’t long, however, until the naysayers found our joy and crushed it.
Some considered Liam’s choice to become a teacher, to follow his dream and live out his greatest passion, as a dangerously career limiting move: he had achieved a perfect score in Year 12 and won a Premier’s Award for History. He is also one of those rare people who possesses effortless intelligence, charisma and warmth.
Why, then, did he deliberately want to work in such a low paying job? Surely, people asked, not in the public school system? Why waste your talent? Why cut yourself off at the knees before you’ve had a decent career? Is it the holidays?
I could go on.
His resolve and strength to outwardly push past this was incredible. Inwardly it developed into self-doubt. And so we begun the journey of becoming a teacher.
1. Teachers spend all day on their feet.
We waited with bags packed and baited breath to find out where Liam’s placement was going to be. TFA was oscillating between placing him in the Wimmera or the Peninsula, working on finding the best fit. In the end, Koo Wee Rup would be his placement and this would be our first hurdle.
As it would be difficult for me to find work in this part of our great state, I opted to stay in Melbourne. Meanwhile Liam would live in Cranbourne to see if it was viable to move there permanently.
This first year was incredibly tough.
Not being close meant that providing the moral support needed (especially in the first six months) proved difficult. In addition to that, I was working unsustainable hours in an equally unforgiving job. I still look back and feel ashamed at the lackluster support I gave during this critical time.
Along with this, I truly struggled to appreciate the complexity of his work – his desperate desire to see results in his students, while also having the added pressure of university study. Working with children, I discovered quickly, is infinitely more difficult than managing adults, especially when many of those young people are affected by trauma and come from backgrounds of cyclical disadvantage.
If not for the brilliant teacher community at Liam’s school, who in that time rose above and beyond to support him where we (as his family) didn’t or couldn’t, perhaps his experience would have been very different. To them I am forever thankful, and am infinitely impressed that Liam took the time to befriend and learn from all his colleagues.
2. Teachers have to write lesson plans for every lesson. No, they can’t just put a movie on.
In addition to these challenges, our time at home was very different. Firstly it was quickly becoming a novelty, even when we were in the same house. Time together was limited to meals (mostly dinner, even on the weekends), this was in order to make way for the completion of university assessments, marking student work and finalising lesson plans.
I certainly found a renewed appreciation for my own independence and autonomy in that time. It was, however, trying to focus on my role as the sideline supporter that from time to time became difficult as resentment would, only ever occasionally, slip through.
And here it comes, my first piece of advice: do not resort to guilt.
Between travelling to and from school and the endless hours spent toiling away studying, the lack of physical and mental presence is obvious, in fact more to them (the teacher) than you realise. Given the additional challenge of the environment they work in, their empathy cup is not just full, but overflowing. Guilt at this time, can definitely be the straw to break the camel’s back. And in the end guilt-trips don’t give either of you what you really need: more time together.
On the upside the speed to which I watched Liam develop and grow, particularly in the first six months was incredible. At times it was hard to decipher; was he delivering lessons or learning them? It is clear from the outset that responsibility is immediately thrust upon them, and their students are wholly dependant on them doing their job.
At the end of the day, between responsibility and vulnerability, there is no middle ground: you have to show up. Every. Single. Day.
3. Teachers will always bring the concerns and worries of their students home with them.
Perhaps the biggest revelation that comes to our teacher partners is that the problems they see, hear and feel during the day cannot be left at the classroom door. Determining where it starts and ends will be a journey they will take the entire two years.
I was once told the feeling of helplessness that sometimes hits you is best described as such:
You walk into the school imagining yourself as the handle on the disadvantage tap. You’re just going to turn the tap and problem solved. What you quickly discover is you’re more like an umbrella under the tap.
The water is still coming down, but you’re stopping parts of it, sort of, and you’re doing your best, and every now and again you can plug the hole with the umbrella but it’s never quite the perfect fit. Along with the guilt you feel not being more available to the people in your life, all of this can be a little crippling.
At the end of the day your job is to remind them of the impact they are making by just being there everyday, being a constant in their students lives, someone that has expectations and trust – no matter how many times their students may make the wrong choices or act out.
Second piece of advice: allowing them to vent is great, but food and exercise (even when forced) is better. “The Loop” is a dangerous place. This is where you find your teacher partner constantly tossing over the thoughts of the day in their mind, obsessing over grades, marking, test results, desperately wanting to see achievement in their students. Do not let this be an all-consuming thing!
My favourite story is of a current Associate who is living in the Goulburn Valley while her husband remains in Melbourne. During one of his visits to her, he arrived to a very ragged wife, exhausted and worn out. He promptly drove to the supermarket and returned with 3 weeks of groceries. The weekend was spent cooking together and freezing meals, a ritual they continue once every few weeks. As they say, ‘it’s the simple things in life,’ whatever you do don’t underestimate their power.
4. Teachers spend all day teaching.
Finally, what I truly believe is the hardest part of being a non-teacher is demanding non-teacher talk and time. Being a teacher can be infectious: it can take over everything you do and see, until you are no longer who you were, but you are all day, every day a teacher.
While I truly stand in the camp that believes teaching is a vocation, I’m also a firm believer in non-teaching time. You are a person. You have a real life. You, non-teacher partner, you are the constant reminder that life is not just textbooks and whiteboards. That having things outside of the classroom can only serve to support all the things in the classroom.
I am not talking necessarily about balance, as frankly balance can be difficult in any line of work, but doing things to call your own that are non-school/teacher/student-related will be the thing that supports your teacher partner to have the career they truly want and a life with you that is filled with a little something non pedagogical.