We should be angry about the state of our teachers?
Whether you have kids or not…you should be angry about the state of our teachers in this country! It’s affecting our kids and the future of our workplaces and very soon will be at crisis point!
As a teacher myself - formally in the public primary sector, now through the coaching and consultancy space - I am furious about what is happening with our teachers in schools and that no one is talking about it!
Our teachers are responsible for educating the next generation. They have the power and impact to shape a child’s vision of themselves and where they fit in the world. They have the capacity to inspire and create drive. They can open whole new ways of thinking for children, beyond the safety of the family home and in a supported environment, encouraging managed risk taking and discomfort in order to grow and learn! They can ensure that the child who excels can be challenged where they need, and those who may struggle are supported and given belief in the value of progress, not just attainment! Teachers are the cornerstone to creating the citizens we need in the future - the people who will be in charge when you and I depend on them!
And yet we are letting our children down and I’m so angry about this!
What is causing this anger?
We are expecting our teachers to do this whilst making every effort we can to prevent, stall, challenge and derail these very outcomes we want, and the effect on mental health of the teachers is the first casualty - with our children a very close second!
Workload management and the quality of mentoring new teachers are cited as reasons for teachers leaving the profession. Mental Health initiatives and best practice in the workplace centre around managing these very aspects of the job that new teachers are struggling with.
Teachers are the 2nd highest employment group making work claims for mental disorder, with more than 1 in 5 teachers making a claim. Why are we not more worried about this?
In my previous work as a primary school teacher in a growth area of Melbourne, I experienced the very stress and conditions I am talking about. Our school was and I believe still is a fabulous school with excellent leadership and enthusiastic and dedicated teachers. We had around 43 different nationalities and cultures comprising our cohort. We had a range of children with special educational needs - ADD, ADHA, Autism (across the spectrum), ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder for those of you that don’t know that one!), Dyslexia…and that was just in my classroom of 25!
There were of course, the kids ‘without a label’ too. The student who scored just one point too many to secure funding to have an education support assistant (classroom aide) to support them for even a few hours a week. The students who struggled to manage their anger and lashed out regularly. The students who found keeping friendships a challenge. We had the child who refused to work. We had the students who wouldn’t or couldn’t speak, sometimes through lack of English knowledge, often through lack of self belief. The child who tells us their dad thinks the work is too easy, whilst never actually finishing the easy work. We taught the academically brilliant who struggled with social interactions.We taught the academically brilliant who challenged our knowledge of a subject!
And these are just the kids…
We had the parents who told us how to do our jobs. We had parents tell us to hit their children to make them work harder. We had parents who threatened to hit us for making their child work harder. We had parents who ‘forgot’ to give their child lunch…every day! We had parents who struggled and battled their addictions and often couldn’t get their 5 year old to school. We had parents regularly pick their children up at 4.30…with no explanation or apology. We had parents complain there was not enough homework for their gifted child. We had parents who complained there was too much homework as their child had to swim/dance/play sport/go on the ipad every evening. We had parents tell us their child was hyperactive and pack them a lunch of 6 donuts. We had parents who worried so much for their child’s safety they would peep through windows and fences to watch us. We had parents complain that they had to read with their child at home - we should teach reading. And we had parents who kept telling us the child’s books were too easy, they needed harder books and should be moved ‘up the levels’.
But how could any of that cause stress or burnout you must wonder?
As teachers how did we respond?
We embraced them all!
We embraced the bright, the beautiful and the brainy! And for the record…there were plenty of them too! We saw through the anger of the prickly kid and drew them into our hearts and those of their classmates. We reassured the nervous parent. Fed the hungry child without uttering judgment of their home life. Gave fruit to the sugar junkie. Educated ourselves, during our own time about another syndrome, disorder, allergic reaction.
We found joy in the friendships that the students formed. We delighted in their discovery and excitement on learning new things or mastering a new skill. I’ll never forget the wonder in an eight year old girls eyes and she told me about a miraculous machine from years and years and years ago, that when you put this round thing on it and spun it around, there was a needle that made music!!! (I think even her parents were too young to know vinyl records.) We rejoiced when a previously timid child would stand in assembly in front over over 800 people and share something they had learnt. We claimed to be “Just doing our job” when a parent at the end of the year would hold our hands and tearfully thank us for teaching their child and retell what a growth they had seen in their confidence and abilities…and we asked for no thanks for the student we really did go the extra mile for… spending lunchtimes practising reading or colouring their dragon pictures so they could escape a crowded playground and have some quiet time within the safety a small, trusted group of friends.
We were teachers…we do whatever has to be done! We know we can’t teach a child if they’re crying over a lost Pokemon card (I know that’s going to be dated now). We were more than teachers for some…on demand, we needed to be psychologists, nurse, sport commentators, historians, cultural inclusion specialists, dentist (“It’s ok your tooth fell out…that’s why we have the tooth fairy!”), parents, counsellor, camp guide, motivational speakers, sales gurus (Why learning X is even necessary, Why not working with your best friend everyday can be a good thing etc)…the list goes on and changed daily!
But that was OK. Stressful, but OK. Until it’s not. For me, in one school, an unsupportive leadership made it not OK. The constant projection that as a staff (of approx 30 people) we were not just sub-par, but literally and I quote “ 2/10”. I thought by leaving that school I could leave the feelings that that leader had created, but as we know, words are powerful.
At my new school, as team coordinator, I balanced the demands of the Education Department, parents, students and my team’s wellbeing. With so many stakeholders in the process, my stress levels increased.
We were being told by researchers and educational specialists to teach a 21st Century Curriculum. We developed an amazing Inquiry based program that embraced creativity, communication skills alongside the more ‘traditional’ approaches to learning. We saw children blossom. We had people move into the school area because they had heard that the school was good.
But the ‘Department’ didn’t like our NAPLAN figures. We would look at the students and wonder how they could tell us we were underperforming. We were basically (without the actual words) being told we needed to teach to the test; we needed the ‘My School’ website to look better.
As the department put the pressure on our school leadership, they began to put the pressure on us, and as the cycle goes…we undoubtedly put pressure on the students!
Speaking for myself, I saw I was becoming less tolerant, I was frustrated by the misalignment of the pace we ‘needed’ to go and the pace we were ‘capable’ going. I was disillusioned by having to disregard what I believed that student needed and think about how to enable them to pass a test that would never enhance them now, next year or in the future.
Please note - I am not against testing. I’m not against national testing. I am against teaching to a test and judging based solely on one test - especially when resulting data at that time took 3 months to be given to teachers and therefore totally irrelevant - but that’s a different rant.
I left my job because of burnout (more and more challenging students, higher and higher workload). I know I mismanaged myself during this time, I knew I couldn’t cope, but felt that leaving was the only option. I believe the figures on teacher retention are actually mis-reported as I know my leaving has not been recorded as mental health stress or the newly syndromised burnout.
And I am not alone!
At a lunch with five former colleagues, two of us have left due to stress and the effect on our mental wellbeing, one was bullied out of the profession and one took earlier than wanted retirement. Of the two who remain, one has reduced to part-time and the other loves her job but is often disillusioned with the system.
There is increasing data to support the challenging nature of the principal’s role – higher than average negative measure for burnout, stress, depression, sleep trouble etc. Professor Philip Riley has been conducting ‘The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey’ yearly since 2011 and he reports the clear decline in the mental health of principals, coupled with increased workplace stress. Principals have the unenviable task of managing their own, staff and the stress caused by managing mental health in students along with increase in violence both threatened and physical. My former Principal talked candidly with me how he had seen through completing the survey over the years there had been a decline in his answers. He told me of a principal he knew committing suicide due to the pressure!
Professor Riley’s report highlights the urgent need for school principals to be given opportunities to take proactive, prevention-led focus towards mental health of themselves and their staff in order to get the best possible educational outcomes for students. His calls for action are falling on deaf ears though.
Teachers are leaving the profession in significant numbers —Statistics suggest 53% of people who hold a teaching degree do not currently work in education. Newly qualified teachers are numbers leaving – estimated at 40-50% - within the first 5 years. Yet the Australian Education Union states ‘Victoria needs 1,600 extra teachers every year for a decade’, and Victoria had the highest numbers of teachers leaving in the country.
Why are we not angry about this?
As parents we know when we are tired, sick or stressed with work, we often can't be the parent we wish for our child - imagine what is happening in our classrooms? Not because teachers don’t care, but because the ‘system’ and the expectations of the job has exploded to include so much more than teaching of an academic subject or skill.
I have had the privilege of working with amazing and dedicated teachers who agonise over how to achieve the very best best for every student in their grade and it angers me that as a society we are so quick to assume the opposite!
So what can we do about it?
It’s time to turn the anger into action...and I want to suggest 3 things:
Remove the responsibility of something as important as education away from politicians who have short sighted, point scoring strategies that do not take into the needs of the future employers and needs of our our children.
As parents, we stop focusing on ‘exams’ and ‘tests’ and help schools embrace a future oriented curriculum, the ‘soft skills’ of creativity, empathy and critical thinking are already being acknowledged as of paramount to employers. Schools want to develop them and society should embrace this too. Unless we have been active in a school in the last 3 years, we as parents have very little understanding of the true range of skills students are being exposed to (resilience, mindfulness, communication techniques, listening skills, questioning skills), and the expectation of the student to drive their own learning and develop intrinsic motivation.
We must acknowledge teachers as professionals and that possibly, whilst our children may not like something, there could be a bigger lesson being taught. I have never known a teacher to actively seek to upset, bully and crush a student (I will acknowledge it can happen, but in my experience, limited to 15 years in primary education never saw it). I have known teachers use different strategies as motivators and consequences for different students - and being human, occasionally chose the wrong one and I’ll include myself in that!
If we use the analogy of it ‘taking a village to raise a child’, let’s work from the assumption that we are all - parents and teachers - doing our best, and we should be angry when something or someone is preventing this!
Jo O’Donovan is the founder of Workplace Relationships, based in Melbourne. She works with companies to increase their productivity through focusing on their culture, people and relationships. Jo has a particular passion for improving the mental health of employees through developing the human connections within organisations.