Teaching myself a lesson

After years of being an academic, this year I have become a teacher in a secondary school. Academics don’t need any teaching qualifications (long story for another blog), so I am working on a Dip Ed while I teach.

With years of tertiary teaching experience and a PhD in Computer Science Education, I thought I knew how to teach. And it’s true that being in front of a class holds no fears for me. I know a fair bit about pedagogy and the principles of learning and teaching. But teaching in a school has come as a huge shock. Not because of behaviour management – I am exceptionally lucky in my school and my students, so there haven’t been any drastic issues, and I don’t expect there will be. Not because I am standing up in front of a group of adolescents and expecting them to pay attention – by and large they do. Just because of the sheer, mind-blowing intensity of the job.

I am part time, and working far more than my allotted hours, and still not getting everything done. From the moment I arrive at school to the moment I leave (invariably late), I am running, sometimes physically, but always mentally. Then there is the catch up work at home, for all the urgent things I didn’t get done during the day. And this is without considering the study I am supposed to be doing to gain my qualification.

I have to force myself to stop for lunch, to actually talk to my colleagues and make a sanity break during the day, and what both fascinates and horrifies me is that I am not alone in this kind of obsessive, workaholic behaviour. Far from it. It seems to be characteristic of the teachers in my school. Perhaps my school is atypical (in many ways it is actually unique), but I suspect it is a characteristic of teachers who care about their work, and about their students.

A colleague recently blogged about how she struggles with the conversation that ensues after she meets someone and says that she is a teacher. The classic response is “oh, you’re so lucky, you get so many holidays!” For the first time I have come to realise how deserved those holidays are – together with the fact that they will inevitably be filled with work. I am looking forward to first term holidays already, because they will give me a chance to catch up on the work that I am not finding time for now.

My 7 year old, who was initially proud of me being a teacher, turned around last weekend and said “I don’t want you to be a teacher any more, Mummy! You work too much!”   When I told my mentor at school about this, he laughed. “Don’t worry, Linda, tell her there’s always school holidays!”

I retorted, “Look me in the eye and tell me I won’t be working during the holidays,” and he grinned and deliberately turned his back. I know as well as he does that he works a lot during the holidays. And I know I will too. At least I can be home with my kids while I do it, but I am not sure that they will be hugely comforted by that.

Teaching is amazingly intense. I dare say there are jobs like medical and emergency response that are more intense, and more draining, but not many. And I am happier, and more proud of what I do than I have ever been before. Yet I got more respect when I said I was a lecturer in Computer Science (standard response: “You must be SO smart!”) than when I say I am a teacher (those holidays again).

I am so smart. Smart enough to realise that this is one of the most important, draining, and rewarding jobs I could ever do. Now, if you will excuse me, it’s Saturday night, and I have work to do.

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8 thoughts on “Teaching myself a lesson

  1. Joe

    Hear hear.

    I typed a dozen different things here, but they were all dilutive tangents from important agreement.

    Overworked, under-appreciated, massively important work.

  2. Exactly. I sometimes compare what we do to being an actor in every scene of a live performance of a full-length play and having to perform it twice or 3 times in a row. To teach well requires a constant willingness, energy, and ability to be present to the students for 6-7 solid hours a day. Incredibly tiring. Incredibly rewarding.

  3. I used to work 70+ hour weeks when I was teaching, and there was always stuff left to do. During a two week ‘holiday’ I would sleep and/or be ill the first week then be back at school the second to finish up and prep for the following term. It can be hugely rewarding, but I don’t think I could hack the pace any longer.

    1. I left teaching in 2001. I loved teaching, hated grading when it wasn’t true assessment. Worked my ass off doing the 70+ hr/week thing and got paid 24,000 US$. Like Kloppenmum, while I found it very rewarding to create learning experiences and guide my middle school students through them there is no way I could return to that pace.

  4. Daniela Tymms

    Hi Linda, just wanted to share a lovely story about my late father, who was a GP (of the old school – another story). When I achieved a position of responsibility at my last school (Head of Middle school or such like) and was telling him about the interviews I had with parents, he said to me “you are one of the most important persons for them, after their family doctor of course”.
    Whilst I had to laugh about my normally modest father talking himself up indirectly, I also took it as a great compliment from him. We teachers must always realize that we are very important in the lives of our students and their families – and if you work out how many human beings that is, you will understand the complexity of tiredness yet devotion that goes with the job.

  5. I have learnt in teaching that there is no such thing as ‘finished’; for good teachers there is always a desire to want to do more or do better.

    All the best for what is a very rewarding profession…. and enjoy those holidays !

  6. Neil

    I suspect there’s something inherently difficult about becoming a teacher after experiencing the University environment. It’s something that those new to the profession who have graduated from the university environment need to unlearn.

    I believe those of us who have made it through University, more than less view learning as a personal and almost singular endeavour, where success is in part proving that one’s brain is brighter than others through the ideas we are capable of understanding and creating. It’s a simple enough measure, and we come to understand the rules of the game. Figuratively, our instructors teach us not only to read lines, but we figure out how important it is to read between the lines and subsequently develop our own. Furthermore, it’s a pursuit that generally has milestones spaced out over semesters and years rather than minutes or seconds. Indeed, this success is earned through prolonged study and inquiry, the longer the study the brighter one becomes and/or is expected to become. The common outcome from this experience is that we are recognised and rewarded by a traditional and dominant institution, forever associated with its prestige and history through the additional letters and references that precede or follow our names. We rightfully expect this measure of success to count for something.

    On entering the teaching profession, one is unsettled by a gut feeling that the worth of the experience and success we had at University has been challenged by the practice of teaching. Sometimes this manifests itself in second-guessing the content we know, while at other times it’s second guessing our ability to relate to our students.

    For some reason what happens at school manages to challenge what we know about learning and teaching. Soon enough, so strong are our formative experiences of University that we feel there must be something not quite right about how we fit into the school. Surely our success as a learner within the University system inferred success as a teacher? Some recruits drop out within the year, some stick it out to two years by changing schools sometime between Christmas and Australia Day. Those who drop out reckon teaching just wasn’t for them, citing a lack of support, large class sizes, inadequate preparation or a stressful environment.

    Of those who stay, some decide to refashion whole units of work as a means of learning how to reframe the content to suit their students. Some decide to pack into a course so much content that students are bound to learn something. Generally, whatever is practised, it is framed in a way that encourages teachers to identify which brains are brighter than others. All in all, the template isn’t too dissimilar from that which is experienced at University.

    What I never learnt in my graduate teaching degree was the idea that measuring success in teaching has both a seemingly impossible timeframe and multiple frames of reference. It’s measured in milliseconds, minutes, lessons, outcomes, units, years, choice of University course and eventually careers. That success is measured by our ability to make brighter not our own brain, but that of each student in each of our classes. Moreover, this success is further measured not by our singular efforts to educate a student, but through our collective efforts as a body of teachers. For me, the catch is that success isn’t experienced across all time frames or frames of reference at once. Consequently, success appears or feels fleeting, lucky, illusory, mysterious, and yes sometimes magical. I think it is because of this that the profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves compared to other professions. Somewhere in all of this, the practise of an expert teacher who can question a student as skilfully as a brain surgeon handles a scalpel, or a year-level coordinator who knows how to diffuse a situation between a demanding parent and their child, with the equivalent prowess of a hostage negotiator, is lost to the ordinary person or graduate teacher.

    As a professional, I know that that identifying the students with the brightest brain matter is important, but that it is only a small part of what matters. I know I’m making a difference when I help a student overcome a misunderstanding, facilitate a meaningful class discussion with a colleague, obtain evidence that my student has applied a concept, know that they found useful something I taught last semester in a different context, credit me on their Media product, or decide to undertake further study in media or communications. Sure these don’t all happen at once, but that some happen at all is what keeps me wanting to be better at what I do. Yes it is a rewarding job, but the rewards are unorthodox by nature, and seeing the smallest of these rewards accrue one by one for most people isn’t as big a deal as saving your first life, winning your first court case or clinching that company merger.

    My non-teaching acquaintances have also observed the seemingly generous school holidays teachers get. I say acquaintances because my non-teacher friends know better than to get me started. What these acquaintances haven’t been taught is that school holidays are basically time in-lieu for teachers. On average teachers in Australia get 11 weeks out of school. Take out 4 weeks of annual leave, that leaves us with 7 weeks. Take out the overlaps with public holidays such as Easter, Christmas and New Years, that leaves us with 6 weeks or 30 days. Now add up the minimum of 2 hours of work per weeknight across 35 weeks to a total of 350 hours. Divide 350 hours over the imposed 30 days and you have 11.6 hours of time in lieu per ‘school holiday’ day.

  7. I enjoyed reading this.

    I made myself a rule a few years ago that no work was to be brought home. (Except when year 12 has a SAC and I have double the amount of essays to correct in a short period of time; then that weekend is a write-off. No pun intended.)

    I’m a single mother with 4 boys, so I realised that I had to split my life in two. When I’m at school I’m THERE. Fully and totally. It’s rare that I bring work home, though it does happen. I don’t leave work till 5 or 6 when I have a class of corrections, all the while envying those Maths teachers who correct with a simple tick or cross. (I’m an English teacher… *waves at Darce*) At home I have the weekends to try and get everything done, while racing around after/with the teenagers. My work at school is done to a much higher standard than the housework and gardening…

    Holidays? Yep… the first week is spent sleeping, sleeping and thinking about sleeping. Then I’m galvanised into activity doing all the things I didn’t get done during term. It’s exhausting…

    I love this job though. The kids make me laugh each and every day and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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