The Surprising Lessons I Learnt From Teaching

Throughout my traversing of social media, there is one internet meme that I have always particularly enjoyed. The meme is entitled “What people think I do/What I really do” and variations of the meme follow the same formula: a picture is split up into six boxes with each section entitled “What my parents think I do”, “What my friends think I do”, “What society thinks I do”, “What my colleagues think I do”, “What I think I do” and “What I actually do”.

The purpose of the meme is to provide a humorous take on the many preconceptions that people have of each other’s professions, with the parents’ and friends’ perspectives often displaying an aggrandised or absurd version of what the person actually does on a day to day basis.

On a deeper level, these memes enforce the idea that people’s perspectives on any type of profession are inherently grounded in one’s experience of that profession in their own lives.

At just over the halfway point of my experience in the Teach For Australia program, one thing that has become clear to me is that nobody’s experience of teaching is the same. The teaching profession is as complex and dynamic as the students that we teach every day.

However, some of the greatest joys and sources of inspiration that I have experienced throughout this program have been listening to the stories of my fellow Teach For Australia Associates as they traverse this unique, irrepressible and ultimately remarkable journey we are on together. Drawing upon these conversations and my own personal experiences over the last year and a bit, here are the most surprising new perspectives I have gained about the teaching profession.

Teaching is not easy

One of the misconceptions that I had been exposed to before I started teaching was this idea that teaching was easy and that people chose to enter the profession specifically because they could keep it at arm’s length. Think about the short working days! Three months of holidays! Just chuck on a video if you can’t be bothered!

If I have learnt one thing from the last year it is this: teaching is hard. It takes all your intellectual, social and emotional nuance and determination. Every day you step into the classroom you are sharing your life with your students, just as they are sharing their lives with you.

Think about it – outside of their parents or guardians, as a teacher you are one of the most significant adults in these students’ lives. The way you speak to them, the way you model behaviour in the classroom, the way you get invested in their progress, the way you learn about their lives and feel connected to their moods and feelings – teachers educate students about so much more than academic content, they educate them about the world.

I can’t even fathom the depths of the social complexity that goes into being a teacher. You can’t hide behind a computer if you’re having a bad day or a send a bunch of emails if you’re too exhausted to have an on the phone or face to face discussion. Every day you are required to be physically present as source of guidance, comfort and learning for your students.

You are constantly building relationships. You are constantly changing your classroom activities and environment in order to create a positive culture for learning and for living. You are constantly designing new ways to teach content that both extends and supports your students’ developmental needs.

Teachers live in a world where the personal and professional are deeply intertwined. To be professional successful requires you to be incredibly vulnerable and personal. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues who do not just navigate this challenge with grace and vigour but rise to it and embrace it every single day. Teaching is not easy. But it is worth it.

Teachers are like CEOs

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day about what she thought was the most beautiful thing about teaching. Her answer was this: teaching is so beautiful because there is no single correct way to do it.

I thought about this for a moment. She has a point. With many other professions, there is a technically correct way to go about things, a single set of skills you need to master to be perfect. Teaching is, in many ways, the opposite. Your success is based fundamentally on the relationships you build and the culture that you cultivate. No school or class is the same as any other just as no student is the same as any other. What this fundamentally means then is for teachers, your success in your job is completely based how you interact with other people. You are in complete control.

I had never conceptualised the idea of teachers being akin to CEOs until recently. But now I see the point. When you walk into the classroom, what happens for the next 45 or 60 minutes is up to you.

You attempt to create a positive, hard-working culture in your classroom where your students see the broader purpose of what they are learning about and why they are learning about it. You want your students to be kind to each other and support each other. You track progress and provide rewards when individual students or the whole class achieves success. You are dynamic, responding to unexpected situations as they arise – a fight in the classroom, a fire drill, a power outage, a computer failure. (On a side note, why is it that you can never have any problems with technology for your entire life and then you become a teacher and suddenly you’re surrounded by some sort of technologically destroying force field?)

And although this concept can be terrifying at times, it is also incredibly thrilling and empowering. To be in a profession where you have the autonomy to both create incredible experiences and imbue knowledge into others is a rare and beautiful thing. I had never thought to have this much autonomy this early in my career and for that I am very grateful.

This job teaches you about life

I genuinely believe the greatest privilege I have in being a teacher is being continually humbled by how much I have learnt. At the start of this blog post I talked about how everyone has preconceptions that they bring into their understanding of a profession. From the conversations I have had with other teachers at my school, my fellow Teach For Australia Associates, my mentors and friends however, it is clear that teaching has challenged our preconceived understandings of nearly everything – the concept of education, the extent of education disadvantage in Australia, our understanding of young people, professional workplace relationships, the limitations of policies and institutions to solve our problems and, at the core of us, our understanding of human beings.

Everyone said that Teach For Australia would be hard and that it would be a monumental learning experience. But I don’t think anyone realised just how much. For myself and many of my fellow Associates, in our first months or even weeks of teaching we experienced massive paradigm shifts about values and ideas that we held to be constant.

We were challenged in ways that we never dreamed possible, we were required to look real fear in the face and step up to it. We questioned what we valued in ourselves and others, we questioned our understanding of disadvantage in Australian and we questioned the ability of our existing educational and political structures to do anything about it. Our personal and professional relationships were put to the test, our vulnerabilities exposed and our weaknesses made apparent to us in breathtakingly confronting ways.

Yet in spite of this, we find joy. We build and nurture, like little seedlings, fledgling relationships with our kids. We teach ourselves to forgive both our students and ourselves and realise how liberating forgiveness can be. We train our brains to be optimistic and to find hope and comfort in the small wins. On any given day we can delight in our once lost playful side, find an inner courage that we never realised we possessed and achieve personal and professional growth that we never thought possible.

We have moments of doubt in our own abilities, but then can stand firm in the belief that we are part of a movement of people that is bigger than ourselves and take comfort that we are all working towards a common purpose. We experience the intense, flooring vulnerability of loving our students unconditionally every single day and hope that one day our love will have given them the strength to live a life they have reason to value.

Teaching has changed my life and has enabled me to see the astounding beauty of humanity through the eyes of a child. We are all flawed, but we persevere. We fight a myriad of structural, social and economic imbalances every day, but we find time to play and have fun with our students. And together, I believe we can break the cycle of disadvantage and give the next generation the life they deserve. With the people we have on our team, how can we not.

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