What should a teacher who feels like they are failing do?
Where should that teacher go if they feel unsure about whether they should stay in the job?
How can a teacher, young or old, start to overcome a multitude of worries they have about their job, their students, or themselves?
Some have supportive school leaders. They can talk to their Principal about their worries – their deepest and most fundamental concern: that they aren’t good enough.
For most teachers, though, this is not an option. In an environment that looks at ability, skill and communication as platforms for advancement, openly admitting that you feel like you’re failing is hard. It’s also difficult in an environment that relies on discussion to make choices every day. How easy would it be for a workmate to dismiss your point of view if they know you feel like you’re failing?
When a teacher, who is supposed to be a bastion of calm – an emotionally stable adult with a variety of responsibilities – feels trapped, unhappy and insecure, what are they supposed to do about that?
From July to August I was working in Guyana, a small country in South America that’s mainly rainforest. The work that I was doing was to provide free Professional Development for any teacher in Guyana, which meant that I worked in two very different locations helping two groups of very different teachers learn how to teach more effectively. For anyone reading who is not a teacher, Professional Development is when teachers learn how to teach once they’ve finished University. Sometimes this is very formal (certificates for completion, etc), and sometimes it is informal (meetings after school led by a peer).
In Guyana many teachers do not attend University before becoming teachers, especially in schools and districts where there are few teachers. In some cases, the teachers I was working with were 19 years old, and had just graduated High School themselves. These teachers had never had the opportunity to learn how to be an effective teacher.
I could write a lot about Guyana and who I met and what we did there, but what I want to focus on is the idea that Professional Development is one of the few places where teachers leave feeling better about their work. This wasn’t something I had realised before working in Guyana, but it’s been true of every single Professional Development I’ve been to.
In Guyana teachers are paid badly. They are viewed as people who have incredibly easy jobs and are routinely expected to work 2-3 jobs in order to afford a basic standard of living. The society there has a relatively dim view of teachers.
The work is also substantially harder due to a lack of resources and support. In Australia if I am working with a disabled student I will have a Teaching Assistant. If you have a student who is blind, or has Down Syndrome in Guyana well, buddy, it’s up to you. You won’t even get extra chalk, extra paper (if there is any) or any advice.
Compounding this is a sheer lack of vital resources. Forget each student having a laptop or iPad, in Guyana there aren’t even ceiling fans, white boards, post it notes, extra pens or up-to-date textbooks. Even more fundamentally, there aren’t enough schools – the most basic resource in education. Some regions have 2-3 High Schools serving areas that are hundreds of kilometres long, separated by jungle, rivers, ravines or damaged roads. What ends up happening is a Primary School teacher often having 14 – 17 year old students just staying in school re-learning material meant for students 9 – 10-years old – simply because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
It’s fair, I think, for a Guyanese teacher to despair once in a while, or to feel overwhelmed and upset. It’s fair, I think, for a Guyanese teacher to wonder if they should keep doing their job. It’s understandable, to me, that many Guyanese teachers struggle to do the work they want to, and become frustrated at their work.
For that matter, I think it’s fair for Australian teachers to feel the same.
Because what is at the heart of these feelings is not necessarily the difference in infrastructure or money, but a feeling that all teachers feel, at times. That they are not in a position where success is possible. This is a feeling that remains independent of resources, pay or student demographic. That feeling is something that I think every teacher has experienced. Fortunately, many of us are in positions where we can breathe in, and make changes to improve. Unfortunately, many more of us aren’t.
…and this is where Professional Development comes in.
Professional Development is one of the only places where a group of teachers will get together on the basis that they are all able to improve. There’s something really fundamental about PD: we are all here to get better and learn, which means it’s acceptable, if not expected, that we acknowledge our struggles and our failures.
I don’t think that there’s anything particularly revolutionary about suggesting that teachers need to talk, or vent, to unload. Presumably, like all jobs, unloading to a friend about a day, week, month, or year can clear the mind and make going back to work with more energy possible. But, perhaps, unlike a lot of other professions, teachers are censored. I’ve been at parties where an accountant has said they hate a client. I wonder if it would have been as funny if I said I hated a child?
Which takes us back to Professional Development. In some ways I can’t think of anywhere else that a group of teachers can actually be as frank or open as in a Professional Development session. We feel solidarity, we feel calmed, we feel soothed and communal, we feel empowered and joyful. And it’s not because PD is magically helpful and solves our problems – though that happens sometimes – it’s that PD confirms that struggles are normal and that there are ways forward.
It accepts pangs of insecurity and anxiety, and lends a helping hand to put teachers in a better place.