Why we need to change the way we talk about teachers

Monday, May 1st, 2017

“Have you ever thought about becoming a teacher?”

In Year 12, my principal spent time talking to all 165 students in my grade in groups at a time. The focus of our conversation? What we wanted to do after we finished school. I was one of those students who knew what I didn’t want to do. Not law, not medicine, not commerce. I loved learning, but my two favourite subjects – maths and modern history – came from seemingly disparate worlds, with no obvious links in my mind to a future career.

Thinking back now, the suggestion that Mrs Robert-Smith posed to me during our conversation strikes me as eminently sensible. Why wouldn’t someone who loves learning enter a profession where they can share that passion with others? My 18 year-old response though was very different. It reflected the perceptions that many people hold about the prestige and worthiness of becoming a teacher. While I deeply respected my teachers and admired their intellect, I immediately laughed off the idea of doing the same work. Teaching was not for me.

To educate is to prepare for the future

It’s easy to take teachers for granted. We’ve all had teachers, many of us have had some sort of experience of teaching or tutoring or lecturing and, given how many teachers there are, it’s hard not to know one or two in the profession. Yet the mere number of people in this line of work doesn’t mean that teaching is unimportant. Quite the opposite. This is the profession that is charged with preparing young people to capably deal with complex moral issues that our world currently cannot solve. Think climate change, food scarcity, automation of the workforce and data security.

There is nothing more noble than being a teacher.

Through their work, teachers make an investment in students’ futures. And far from being a straightforward task of pouring information into expectant young minds – teaching is about skilfully crafting the right conditions from which students can most effectively learn. From the words of Plato, it is the “art of orientation”.

A teacher’s reality

Ok, a quick quiz for you:

Q1. Why do teachers typically join the profession?

a.  They love working with young people.
b.  They are passionate about the subject area they teach.
c.  They want to make a difference for young people’s lives.
d.  Other teachers have inspired them to join the profession.
e.  Did someone say 11 weeks’ holiday per year and a hell of a lot of money?

Q2. Which of these are responsibilities that first year teachers can have?

a.  Meeting with parents about a student that turns up late to class, is interruptive and refuses to do any work whatsoever.
b.  Creating curriculum documentation, lesson plans and assessment tasks for a new course being offered at the school.
c.  Submitting a mandatory report to the Department of Human Services regarding concerns that a student is being abused and neglected.
d.  Organising an overseas trip for students, who have never left the country before.
e.  A half load of teaching in order to receive specialty on-the-job training and regular ongoing mentoring.

Q3. Which of these is part of the work that a teacher might do?

a.  Calling 150 parents in the lead up to a Parent Information Evening.
b.  Organising somewhere for a Year 7 student to live.
c.  Sharpening 400 pencils in the lead up to NAPLAN testing.
d.  Waking up a diabetic student at 1.30am on school camp to test his blood sugar levels.
e.  Being at school between the hours of 9.00am and 3.00pm and having 11 blissful weeks of uninterrupted, undisturbed holidays per year.

Q4. What can lead to burnout and a teacher’s decision to leave the profession?

a.  Excessive work hours for a prolonged period.
b.  Emotional exhaustion.
c.  Depersonalisation (i.e. an increased disconnect between a teacher and care for their students).
d.  Reduction in feelings of self-efficacy and personal accomplishment.
e.  A balanced work-load that includes close support from colleagues and friends.

If you chose (e) for any of the questions, sorry to say that was incorrect. The reality is that the work of a teacher is tough – and much of this goes unnoticed. Too often all of that extra stuff that teachers do – really, the backbone of their impact –  is completely forgotten and neglected in conversations about what matters. But by diminishing the way we talk about teachers’ work to statistics and curriculum dot points, we are letting them down.

Be a teacher advocate

I need to confess, my purpose in this article is not to win you over to having a revelation to quit your job and become a teacher (there are other people who are much better at that). However, if there’s one thing you can leave from this, it’s the idea that each of the ridiculously important teachers in our community, can and should be given more recognition and acclaim. Their impact carries through to the social interactions people have, the way we react in situations of tension and reflect on mistakes, our openness to new ideas and our curiosity about the world. Teachers have an effect on students in a myriad of ways.

Even if you don’t have children or none of your close friends or families are teachers, there is something you can do. Teachers matter to all of us. They’re behind our future colleagues, politicians, plumbers, parents, scientists and innovators.

So the challenge I pose to you is, instead of dismissing teachers or the work that they do, what is one thing you can do to talk teachers up and show them we care?

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