Talking About Teaching
Updated: May 26
What is it about teaching?
Why does talk about teaching raise so many conflicting emotions?
I have inadvertently found myself an advocate for the teaching profession. I stumbled into this role when I wrote Playground Duty. I say stumbled because I wrote the book as a kind of love letter to the profession. I'd been teaching on and off for most of my life and wanted to leave something behind. I wanted to celebrate the profession and the women and men who dedicate their lives to improving the lot of countless generations of young Australians. I also wanted to disabuse all those people who spend their lives attacking teachers of the notion that teaching is a doddle. I wanted people to appreciate what a complex, demanding but ultimately rewarding profession teaching is.
I loved writing the book. It was a joy. I'll never forget the feeling of answering the knock on the door and receiving my newly minted copy. It was quite unlike anything I'd experienced before even though I'd had quite a few plays published. I literally took to the streets to promote it. I hit the airwaves and had a few nanoseconds on one of those morning TV shows. I went to the Byron Writers Festival and had a ball. It was all good. The response was mostly positive. So were the reviews.
My book's publication coincided with a spike in the education debate. I wrote a few articles for various publications defending teachers and pointing out that things like "performance pay" would do nothing but cause division in staffrooms around the country. I tried to argue that the results of good teaching are often unquantifiable and that Naplan Tests only told half the story. When the Gonski Report came out I joined in the chorus of support for these much needed reforms. Nothing I had to say was particularly ground breaking. I'm by no means an expert. Both the book and the articles sprang my personal experience of nearly forty years in classrooms of all shapes and sizes.
What blew me away was the kind of vitriolic response that many of these articles drew. It was my first foray into the brave new world of online publishing and boy, was it an eye opener! The sheer volume of responses knocked me out, quite apart from the content. Writing about teaching sure draws people out of the woodwork!
I’m not worried about criticism. I’m a playwright and an actor. I’m used to the vagaries of reviews. I’ve had plenty of good and bad. So, I was prepared for criticism and for people to disagree with my arguments. That’s the nature of public debate.
But many of the responses weren’t really about what I’d written. A lot of them seemed to take my articles as being an opportunity to get stuck into teachers and the teaching profession. Some of the comments were bordering on vicious.
I wonder where this comes from? No teacher is surprised when a shock jock or a tabloid headline gets stuck into them. It’s tedious but it’s to be expected from journalists who are paid to make a lot of noise. The responses I’m talking about are different. They are from individuals who seem to have an extraordinary antipathy toward teachers.
These people seem to think teaching is an easy, even cushy job. Great holidays, reasonable hours, not too much stress.
Let’s consider this. At a typical high school a teacher will teach something like 28x40 minute periods a week. In those classes they will have anything from 20-30 teenagers aged 12-18. Teenagers. The same teenagers that have the average parent tearing their hair out. Except they won’t be dealing with one or two. They will have a classroom full of them.
At primary school the teacher has the same class of 5-11 year olds every minute of every day of the school year. If you think this is easy have a crack at coaching an under 8 sporting team. And remember you’re coaching for an hour or so, once or twice a week. And you can walk away.
Added to these simple facts we live in an age when every parent is convinced that their child is a genius and that there is nothing they can’t achieve. Nor is there anything they can’t have. I reckon some parents give their kids a prize for getting out of bed in the morning. The idea that their children should have any boundaries is anathema to these parents. They send them off to school with IPhones and Ipads and anything else their hearts desire. Then they blame their teachers for not getting “good” results. No matter that the child has spent every waking minute texting and can’t concentrate for more than a second at a time.
I could go on. Clearly. What I’m trying to say is that teaching has become harder not easier. Expectations are higher. Wages aren’t but expectations are.
Teachers are a resilient bunch. They have to be. But I get a sense that many of them have reached the end of their tether. I was giving a talk at Blackburn Library in Melbourne the other day and was explaining how I’d written my book as a celebration of teachers when I noticed a woman in tears. She was an ex teacher. She was driven out of teaching by a combination of lack of support and the constant criticism she was subjected to. She loved teaching and she loved the kids she taught. She passed that on to her daughter who is training to be a teacher.
Maybe we need to be a bit more understanding of what teachers do so that this young woman doesn’t get driven out of the profession too.