Regular readers will know that this year I became a high school teacher. I am privileged to teach in an exceptional environment, with incredibly talented and motivated kids. I used to be an academic, so I was used to teaching at a university level. My PhD was in computer science education, and I thought I was already a teacher. I had no idea.
I suspect most people share a tendency to think we know what teachers do. After all, we’ve all been to school. We’ve seen what they do. They teach our kids, and we hear about some of their finest moments, together with some not so fine. What’s to know?
Wow. Where do I even begin?
For starters, the only reason I have survived this year is that I am part time. I officially work 3 days per week – and only two of them are teaching days (one is officially study leave). This means my formal work hours are 9:30 til 2:30 three days per week, and all day Wednesdays. In practice, I start earlier, finish later, and regularly work at night and on weekends, and I still don’t get everything done. Those much vaunted school holidays are spent doing marking, curriculum development and generally trying to get my head above water. And this is with a much lighter teaching load than most of my colleagues.
Sure, I am new to this, and as I get more experienced some things will get faster and more efficient. But I will always be developing and refining the curriculum and materials of any subject I teach. The day I stop doing that will be the day I quit teaching. There’s no point in being here if I’m only going through the motions.
Every year, indeed every different class, comes in with a wide range of different skill sets, different knowledge bases and different interests. Part of the thrill of teaching lies in engaging and enthusing students in your subject, and to do that you have to get to know them, know their abilities and their interests, and engage with each student personally. That is thrilling and satisfying, but it is also an immense effort. The emotional investment is huge, exhausting and utterly draining.
About two weeks before the end of each term I hit the wall, and feel as though there is no possible way I can make it through to the next lot of holidays. I know that I will need to temper my emotional input if I am to stay the course, and yet even the experienced teachers around me are deeply invested in their work – why would we do it if we weren’t? For the low pay, the lack of community respect, the long hours and the vast amounts of take home work? For the holidays that we spend getting ready for the next term?
Early this year my 8 year old decided she didn’t want me to be a teacher anymore: “You work too much, Mummy!” And it’s hard to blame her. I suspect that many teachers find their families get the short straw to some extent. And yet… and yet… I am happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been in my life. The days when I really connect with the students, and feel as though I have made a difference, are euphoric. Not every day is like that, of course. Many days I am painfully aware of my shortcomings, and the kids I haven’t reached. I want tangible measures of my success, and there aren’t any.
I can’t point to an object and say “I made that.” I can’t look at a mountain and say “I climbed that.” Perhaps one day, if I’m really good, when I have been teaching for years I will have students come back and say “You inspired me.” And I know I will want to frame those moments. Right now I live for the more immediate moments when a kid grins at me and says “Now I get it!” Or when I mark a batch of assignments and see that they really do get it.
We are a week and a half away from the end of term 3, and I am dragging myself towards that finish line. They tell me that term 4 is easier, but I’m pretty sure they’ve said that every term. I’m too tired to argue. Teaching is a hell of a ride. Fortunately it’s worth it.