What is a teacher?

People keep asking me about the current teachers’ strike in Victoria. “If it’s not about pay, what’s it about?” they inquire, with pardonable scepticism. The government tells us we don’t deserve a pay increase even in line with CPI. The government tells us we don’t work hard enough, nor long enough hours. The government wants to implement performance pay without any solid, objective metric of performance.

I hear conversations and see posts on facebook about how we’re really a pack of whingers. We get these long school holidays, and work such short hours during the week. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” goes the saying. I hear sneers about the quality of reports, and the amount of work we actually put in.

And yet I see the teachers around me, both at my school and my kids’, putting their heart and soul into their work. I see bright and motivated graduates coming into teaching with stars in their eyes – knowing they will make a difference, and giving everything they have to make sure that difference is awesomely positive.

I see my friends burning out and moving away from teaching – into careers that offer them a work-life balance that actually balances. Giving up those luxurious holidays in favour of having a life.

So what is a teacher?

A teacher takes responsibility for every child in every class. Once they’ve been in my class, they’re “my kids” forever.

A teacher puts hours of after school time into preparation, and more hours into marking, and still frets that it’s not enough.

A teacher is constantly scanning life for engaging and contentious examples to use in class.

A teacher takes on extra curricular activities because the kids will love it, and it’s something to engage that one kid they haven’t reached yet.

A teacher spends lunchtimes running tutes for kids who are struggling, and fretting over the kids who don’t show up.

A teacher wakes at 3am with an idea about doing something differently for the kids who didn’t get yesterday’s topic.

A teacher ends the term with nothing left to give, and starts the next wanting to give it all.

Sure, not all teachers are like this. Some teachers phone it in. No profession is perfect through and through. But this is what teaching means to me. It is what I see around me every day. I love my job, and I am proud of what I do. I dream of a world where that is recognised and rewarded, not denigrated and sneered at.

Today I was chatting with one of our new teachers. As a veteran of two years (!) I wanted to warn him about the tough roads to come. The incredible overload that is term 2. The fact that feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared never completely stops, regardless of how long you have been teaching or how well you have prepared. And the fact that public opinion doesn’t value us. After two years and this bitter dispute over pay and conditions, I am tired and overwhelmingly cynical.

But I was charmed by his enthusiastic optimism. I saw my face reflected back at me in a kind of time-warp mirror. That’s how I felt when I was just starting out. That’s how we should always feel. This is an amazing job we do. It’s such a privilege to work with these wonderful young people, and to make a difference to them on a daily basis. If only the government negotiators could spend a week with us, seeing what we see, and feeling what we feel.

Maybe then they’d understand what it is to be a teacher.

4 thoughts on “What is a teacher?

    1. lindamciver

      Always! Preferably with a link to the blog, but where that’s not possible, attribution will do fine. :)
      Glad you like it, Dana!

  1. John

    Hi Linda

    Are you not simply perpetuating the idea that to be a “good teacher” you need to work so hard it leads to burnout? Just because there is an emotional aspect to the job, does not mean that it has to dominate your life. It seems unrealistic and somewhat detrimental to the profession to try to suggest that only those that make martyrs of themselves make good teachers. In fact, since so many teachers leave the profession in the first five years, we should be encouraging teachers to approach this career with the mindset of looking after themselves first: secure your own mask before helping others.

    As a beginning teacher myself, it is quite concerning to see these kinds of attitudes perpetuated: both that teachers are lazy, AND that teachers must work above and beyond their paid hours in order to be good teachers.

    I hope to be in the profession for a while, but with non-teachers calling us lazy, and teachers themselves saying we shouldn’t expect a work-life balance because otherwise you aren’t a “real” teacher and just “phoning it in”, well, it’s not very appealing.

    1. lindamciver

      Hi John,

      you’re quite right. Work life balance is crucial, and something I have not yet mastered (obviously!). I would never claim that teachers who maintain a real balance are phoning it in. That comment was aimed at the kind of teacher who tips the balance the other way – never updating materials, teaching the same course for 30 years, making no effort to make it engaging or relevant. We’ve all seen it, but my point is that it’s not the norm.

      I was thinking when I wrote about a passion for teaching, rather than about balance. I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive, but it’s a tricky dance!


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