The envy of the unknown

People envy air hostesses because they get cheap overseas flights.

Some are jealous of gardeners for being able to spend so much time outdoors.

Others lust over the 9-5 predictable structure of some office jobs.

And many long to know what it might be like to have 11 weeks of holidays each year.

We often idealise other people’s jobs without knowing what their day to day reality is really like. Despite this romanticising, we do know that in reality every job has its positives and negatives, the things people love about what they do and the aspects they wish could be different.

I’ve seen survey results that include teaching very high in the list of occupations that make us happiest. And there’s no doubt that teachers are the recipients of considerable job envy when it comes to the school holidays.

As a consequence, conversations around school holidays are often conducted in a defensive manner. When teachers hear flippant comments such as, “you shouldn’t complain, having so many holidays and all…” or “9am to 3pm work day and 11 weeks holidays, sounds pretty good to me!” we instantly get our back up. At any insinuation that we don’t work very hard, we are bursting to explain just how exhausted we are or how much marking we have or how difficult it is to ever switch off completely from our work.

It’s happened that a genuine attempt on my part to explain the reality of my work and its pros and cons has been met with a sceptical look in the eye of my listener, as though I am bluffing, furiously trying to justify something I am deluded about. Sometimes I feel as though the general perception is that teachers are too entrenched in their own work routine and are unable to comment objectively on how the experience may be similar or different to other occupations.

Unfortunately these kinds of conversations rarely end in either side learning anything substantial about the others’ perspective. And the myth of school holidays and the general reality of being a teacher goes on.

To shed some light on this much envied aspect of the job, when it does come around to the school holidays, here are a few things that Victoria’s 70,000 teachers might find themselves indulging in…

  • Catching up on sleep they have missed during the term due to late night planning or correction or worry about the next crisis to erupt in their Home group.
  • Engaging in the all-important creative work of planning a new unit, assessment or excursion which the busy schedule of the term didn’t allow.
  • Marking student work at their leisure, without the anxiety of an impending bell for the next lesson to begin.
  • Going to the bathroom at whatever time they want, without any worry about duty of care.
  • Switching off from work to allow emotional and physical energy stores to replenish for a new term.
  • Having enriching conversations with fellow adults without having to remind them about the homework or check that they have understood paragraph structure correctly.

Many people think they know what being a teacher is like simply because they have been to school and were once a student themselves. But it would be madness to suggest we all know what being a doctor is like because we have been sick before and visited a GP.

In my first two years of teaching I felt like my stamina lasted just long enough in each term to get me to the next holidays. Although it sounds melodramatic, on several occasions when the end of term arrived, I felt I would not have been able to muster up the emotional energy or enthusiasm to front up to another class.

At the end of Term 1 this year I said to a colleague, “for the first time, I think I could actually teach for another couple of weeks if we had to”. I wasn’t actually exhausted at the end. It was probably the combination of a very restful summer holiday and the fact that Term 1 was a short term this year. Perhaps I had also managed my energy levels better and had fewer commitments outside of school. Or maybe the stars just aligned, the tea leaves lined up correctly in my cup or some holiday god decided I was worthy of a break.

Learning is a fatiguing process. Students, especially young ones, struggle with the longer terms and teachers notice declining motivation and concentration levels even from otherwise very conscientious students.

However, even if we aren’t all completely exhausted at the end of each term, the holidays serve a very good purpose for students and teachers alike. I can understand why the school holidays are a source of envy for people in other professions. However, I also believe we need to talk about them in a more open minded way and not just as this aspect of the job in which teachers don’t realise how good they’ve got it.

Do you ever struggle to explain to friends what your job is really like?

Is there something about the nature of your work that others envy?

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