Teaching – Why I won’t suck it up

Last night I posted this to facebook: “and for today’s $64,000,000 question: is it possible to teach in a satisfying, rewarding and effective way without feeling crippled by the workload?”

A touch on the self-indulgent, self-pitying side. Bit of a first world problem, you might say. The status attracted this comment: “So breathe, smile, suck it up and remember how lucky you are to be able to choose.” My friend also pointed out that I was almost certainly trying to do a full time job as a half time employee, and this was a life choice.

My first response to being told to suck it up is never pretty – particularly when I suspect it’s justified. But then I thought about the whole idea of  sucking it up. Essentially that means “sit down, shut up, stop complaining and appreciate where you are.” And it occurred to me that there are times when sucking it up is a bad idea. In the case of my toe, sure, it’s time I did suck it up and stop sooking about it. And certainly I am lucky – I love my job and am passionate about it. I have an awesome workplace and the students are astounding. I am incredibly lucky to be where I am, and that’s nothing to complain about.

But in the case of a typical teaching workload, I think it’s time we stopped sucking it up. It’s when we spit it out that we effect change. And if spitting it out only means that I talk, blog and tweet about how hard teachers work, that in itself may eventually change a few perceptions around what teachers do. There are still people out there who think teaching is a great family job – after all, you work 9-3:30, you only work during the school term, and the rest of the time is your own, right? (My apologies to all the teachers out there who are now turning purple and emitting steam from their ears.)

Last time I blogged about teaching it attracted a comment from a recent graduate about how unattractive the picture I painted of the teaching profession was to aspiring teachers. John complained that I made it look as though being obsessed with your work, having no work life balance and working yourself into an early grave was the only way to be a good teacher. “Are you not simply perpetuating the idea that to be a “good teacher” you need to work so hard it leads to burnout?”  

Unfortunately, under our current conditions, this is what it takes to be a teacher, as far as I can see. An experienced teacher for whom I have great respect replied to my facebook status with ” Nope the crippling workload comes with the job.”

But does it have to?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead.

At my school a full time teacher teaches 14 periods per week. Our periods are 75 minutes long, which leaves just 5 periods per week to do all planning, marking, meetings, and extra student help. Most of the teachers I know are running extra activities most, if not all lunchtimes, and after school. They run extra-curricular activities, workshops for struggling students, and extension activities for advanced students. They stay late for exhibition nights, sports competitions, meetings, parent information nights, parent teacher interviews, musical performances and productions of various types. They stay late and arrive early to give students extra help. And in and around all of that they fit in all of the marking and preparation that never gets done during the school day, on laptops they have paid for themselves.

During the last round of negotiations the union “fought off” an attempt by the government to increase our workloads, but it has finally dawned on me that we need to do more than fight off higher workloads. We need to talk about what we do. We need to show the doubters how hard we work, and we need to fight for a lower workload, just to give us time to do justice to each and every student.

I teach a year 11 IT class of 26 kids, and every student is at a different stage in his or her learning. If I teach one middle of the road course then at least half of my students will fall by the wayside. So I put everything I have into providing options for every student – and I don’t always get it right. But the more time I have, the better the resources I can provide, the more I can differentiate the curriculum to meet everyone’s needs. Every week it comes back to the same problem – I just don’t have time to do it properly.

Before I was a teacher I had great respect for them, but no real clue about how hard they work. Nobody wants to be labelled a whinger, and we don’t have time or energy to go on about the workload anyway. And sure, every profession has its dead weights. Everyone is ready to tell a story about a teacher who didn’t bother. But maybe it’s time to start spreading the stories about the teachers who work themselves to the edge of burnout and beyond. Maybe we can change the world to the point where teachers are given precious time to do their jobs without burning the candle – and themselves – at both ends.

Martin Luther King once said: “Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter.”

I think this matters. So I am not going to suck it up. It’s time to spit it out!

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5 thoughts on “Teaching – Why I won’t suck it up

  1. Don’t suck it up. Demand more resources. It will only make you better. That helps the kids, who are what’s most important. Imagine what teachers could do for their students if they weren’t exasperated 24/7?

  2. rebecca

    Hi Linda, at the risk of being shamed in your next blog, I have to say this…..
    1. You talk about what it takes to be a teacher…. this is what it takes to be a GREAT teacher. I know other teachers who say, and this is a quote I did not make this up, “Don’t really like kids I just do it for the holidays” and another who tells his class on day one “You would be lucky to score a job in Woolworths you useless lot” because it cuts down on the questions through the year. Not all teachers are as dedicated. Hell, I remember having teachers who couldn’t give a damn, who would struggle to remember my name. And also 2. with the way the economy is out there we are ALL doing it tough. I know teachers work hard – you remember my mum! But I work in a company where at best you be reasonably certain you have a job for 2 months….. and every day we are being told we are lucky to have anything. And that overtime is an expectation and you don’t HAVE to do it, but times are tight…..And if you take holidays or get sick .. well, we’re really sorry but… your desk was free…
    I think back to your blog a while ago where we should all give each other a break…. it’s a nasty world out there at the moment, we are all being asked to work as hard as we are able. Sometimes it’s too much and that’s where we have to decide for ourselves where the line is.
    <3 Bec

    1. lindamciver

      I don’t deny that everyone is doing it tough, Bec. Nor that there are teachers who phone it in. BUT the current conditions select for the teachers who phone it in, and actively push the teachers who want to be GREAT right out of teaching. Why should it not be possible to be a great teacher without pushing yourself to burnout??
      I’m tired of the rhetoric that teachers are slack, that we have such great hours, and that it would be a cushy job because of all the holidays. Time to set the record straight!

  3. Joe

    Haven’t had a payrise in five years. Spent fair chunks of that working over 60 hours a week. And I don’t get the benefit of doing anything rewarding or valuable (subjective values apply here of course).

    But it would be good if the conditions for teachers encouraged dedicated engaged and adequate participation by enough good teachers to reach more kids.

    Would you say there are (significantly) more people out there who could be great teachers but aren’t (aren’t great or aren’t teachers) due to the money / conditions?

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