The moment you realise, as a kid, that your teacher is also a human being is a startling one. Like the time my high school teacher sobbed through an entire lesson, holding a handkerchief to her nose as we bent over our books stealing glances, hushed and wondering. Like the science teacher who endearingly sliced off the top of her finger trying to scoop condensed milk out of a tin. And the English teacher who read a poem of mine in Year 8 in which I described a classroom tutor writing on a chalkboard with a hand “weary, like her spirit.” Next to those lines were two thick ticks, and an “EXCELLENT!” in capitals.
At which point I realised my teacher probably was a bit tired.
Those moments flashed back into mind at the Byron Bay Writers festival when, on a panel with authors John Marsden and Lucy Clark, self-described “recovering teacher” Gabbie Stroud suddenly started to cry.
In her 30s, bright and kind and driven, with the sort of personality that would inspire you to forge paths through thickets in search of adventure, Stroud became burnt out after 15 years of primary school teaching. She spoke vehemently about the need to nurture each child, to wrest free of the administrative stranglehold of constant testing, and the crowd clapped.
And to her surprise, her eyes welled up and her face crumpled.
Surely I was not the only person in that large muddy tent to be staring at her, thinking what a great shame it was that she was no longer a teacher. Especially given how crucial big-spirited, creative, expansive teachers can be to nurturing ambitions and fertilising dreams.
In an essay in the Griffith Review, Stroud wrote that she was rarely required to teach anymore: “Apparently I’m more valuable as an assessor, an examiner, a data collector. I have had to dull my once-engaging lesson sequences. Now I must begin by planning the assessment, consider how students will show what they’ve learnt and pre-determine what they are going to learn … It is mechanical and rigid and driven.
“This testing costs me dearly – it costs me time with my learners, it costs my energy, it costs me the trust of my students. But it’s costing Australia too – the price of our young minds and their desire to learn.
“My career has not been long but in that time I have endured the imposition of initiatives such as A-E reporting, NAPLAN, My School, Professional Standards for Teachers, Quality Teaching Frameworks and a national curriculum. I have become morally and ethically conflicted as I am drawn away from my students and their needs and drawn towards checklists and continuums.
“And with each new agenda comes paperwork, so much of the stuff that it piles up on my desk and crowds out the note from Donna’s mum about her asthma and the book I wanted to share with Toby and the picture Kalindah has drawn for me.”
Stroud’s beautifully crafted lament is arresting not just for its candour, but for the fact that this kind of struggle among teachers is already well known and well documented. We know that:
1. The morale of teachers in America, the UK and Australia is at a 20-year low, and is leading to an extraordinarily rapid turnover. Almost half of teaching graduates drop out after just five years. Dr Philip Riley from Monash University’s faculty of education, says this trend of leaving a teaching career early has reached “epidemic proportions”.
2. In 2010, only 8 per cent of teachers in 23 countries thought that they would get greater recognition if they improved quality. (Grattan Institute Report)
3. The most commonly cited reasons for low morale are: excessive, unmanageable workloads and long hours, lack of control over the classroom curriculum, unsupportive staffrooms and lack of recognition.
4. Teacher morale has a significant impact on student performance and wellbeing: In 2016 an OECD report, Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed, found that: “Students who attend schools where teacher morale is lower are more likely to perform poorly in mathematics, compared with students who attend schools where teacher morale is high … even after accounting for the socioeconomic status of students and schools.”
5. We have not yet worked out how to address this problem. When Stroud resigned from her position at St Patrick’s Primary in Bega on the NSW south coast late last year, she wrote on Facebook: “Teaching – good teaching – is both a science and an art. Yet in Australia today [it]… is considered something purely technical and methodical that can be rationalised and weighed.
“But quality teaching isn’t borne of tiered ‘professional standards’. It cannot be reduced to a formula or discrete parts. It cannot be compartmentalised into boxes and ‘checked off’. Good teaching comes from professionals who are valued. It comes from teachers who know their students, who build relationships, who meet learners at their point of need and who recognise that there’s nothing standard about the journey of learning. We cannot forget the art of teaching – without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.”
And after reading all of this and thinking about the weary spirits in our schools, I guiltily realised that as I carefully navigate my little ones through primary school, I have been too preoccupied with their wellbeing to think too much about that of their teachers’. I know, we’re all burdened and busy, we send in gifts and pop in to reading groups and do our best, but what more could we be doing?
Apart from challenging those who promote the idea that teachers would only flourish under more stringent rules? Is this really an inexorable trend? I know I need to think more about this. In fact the distressed face of a talented woman who could no longer bear the load of teaching our littlest kids to stretch and reach and grow their brains, should make all of us stop and think.
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