I sat down to write this and had to start over many times. I’m not sure how to go about explaining why I left teaching in a way that doesn’t come off as judgy, or blamey or a woe-is-me tale. I suppose many educators feel like this.
Teaching seems to be the one profession everyone feels qualified to have an opinion on, seeing as we all went through a school at some point. When I first started teaching, I had creative license and freedom to plan my days with my class. If a kid turned up with a story about how the cat had had kittens that weekend, we could embrace that teachable moment and spend 20 minutes talking about mammals and pets. If I had a few chapters left of the shared novel, we could shift something else and finish it off if we liked. As time went on, this freedom of professional judgement was eroded.
Classrooms now are full of swaps for different subjects, children leaving for extra curricular activities during the day, or specific times to access valuable resources (like computers, libraries or sports equipment.) I don’t want to seem ungrateful, because I love that children have new ways to learn and new environments to do it in; I just wish it hadn’t come at a cost to teacher’s time and our ability to use our judgement on what works for our children.
I worked in a school where we had a large space for co-operative teaching, where the syndicate swapped children around based on their levels. I can imagine some people’s eyes glazing over, so I will try to paint a picture instead.
Imagine a large hall-like space with three teachers in different areas, each reading with a small group of children. Scattered around are more groups of children, some on laptops, some on tablets, some with board and card games, some sitting in corners together working in their exercise books. You might imagine its harmonious, a buzz of children learning, both independently and supported by teachers. Unfortunately, for the majority, this is not the case.
The teachers with those groups have about 15 minutes to get through their reading, before swapping to another group in order to meet and assess them, meeting them all over a week period. Questioning, checking, hearing children read, explaining and clarifying, and all that intense learning that happens in a guided reading situation. But one of those kids forgot their book in the other class, so they have to run and get it. That’s 2 minutes gone. You can’t really start without them, or you’ll be repeating yourself. You look over and see the group that have an ipad activity to do are actually on maths games – you get up to intercept and move them back on task. Over in the library corner a group of children who are meant to be reading and working in their exercise books are clearly off task, but that first child has returned with their book- and now you’ve only got about 10 minutes left before you need to change the rotation, so you call out to one of the other teachers (also trying to get through the guided reading) to check on those off task students, well aware that you are cutting into their time too. You sit back down and go over the learning intentions and begin to get into it, when a group playing with the games has a disagreement and an incident breaks out – so again you are forced to stop, to sort that out.
Rinse and repeat.
I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make is that this is JUST reading. You have maths interchange next, and then topic interchange. And you are on duty at lunch, and then there’s a staff meeting after school… Some days I would arrive at school before 7am and not get home till after 6:30pm, and that’s with a box of marking to do.
Now add into this those children with high learning and/or behavioural needs that can’t organise themselves, can’t cope with having a different teacher, or can’t manage being a “self directed learner”. And those who had a bad morning (or weekend) at home and are wound so tight that they might explode at any time. And the child who isn’t coping with social things and is isolated, and the mean kid who’s been hassling the outsider. All that social stuff is still happening… But somehow you have to set up the classroom for the next lesson AND find a minute or two to cram something vaguely nutritious into your gob.
As an educator 10 years ago you had the time to actually teach. Eventually I felt more like a person whose job it was to keep things running – even if that running wasn’t beneficial to the learning of the majority of the children.
Before I left teaching I was stressed, anxious and feeling like a failure every day. I had been assaulted by a special needs child multiple times, and was managing two volatile children with aggressive and violent behaviours, all while maintaining this modern idea of what learning should “look like” and spending so much of my time making sure I was collecting all the data for the children and planning their next learning steps, too.
There was no fun or fulfillment anymore. It was like failing every day.
I saw children who just wanted to be with the teacher, who wanted to learn, but who were being swept along in this seemingly never ending rotation of ‘new ideas’ and ‘innovative learning strategies’. Everything was measured and monitored because we also had data to be collecting for assessment and reporting.
I’m not for teachers becoming the facilitators of busy work to serve some ideal that is the current flavour of the month. I spent three years studying education, children, reading, writing, maths and everything else only to find my days as a teacher filled with behaviour management and making sure children are in the right place at the right time. And that’s not to mention teachers who are struggling with learning new technology and navigating these spaces themselves, all while still doing their regular job!
My personal experience was one that made me physically and mentally sick.
I continued to give 100% of myself because, like most teachers in New Zealand, I am passionate about children getting the best education and reaching their potential. But the system as it is, that actually destroyed me. I burnt out. I would wake up crying in the night for no particular reason. I would dread going to work again as soon as I left. Thinking about the unending cycle of planning, implementing, and hoping I got through what needed to get through – and that the children held up their end and did the work, and that there were no breakdowns in behaviour that would derail the sessions and cause me to have to cut out something else to ‘catch up’.
I burnt out. I damaged myself to the point where I will live with that for the rest of my life.
Our teachers are a resource. You can’t replace our care, knowledge and ability to teach with fancy spaces and new technology. Piling these expectations on teachers and children isn’t improving our system- it’s creating another rod for our backs.
When I studied post grad with a group of young people in their 20s, I was amazed at how poorly they managed themselves, and I wonder why we expect school-aged children to be able to do it?
There are so many complexities to the things eroding our teachers’ spirits and well-being- this is just a tiny glimpse, and not even the full picture. I could talk about disenchanted staff, apathetic senior management, poor resourcing, the social issues in school communities, negative and punitive assessments, and an obese curriculum. And, of course, under-funding of our schools and support staff. But I won’t, because we all have other things to do today.
Teachers want to teach. That’s why we became teachers! We want to have meaningful relationships with your child to help them achieve their potential. The education system in this country has moved away from allowing us to do that and morphed into something very different.
For more on a teacher’s daily work life, read this great post by Melulater.
An NZ teacher writes:
I’m having a remembrance day.
I remember sitting on a couch with a boy who was around six. He was drawing a purple cat under a turquoise scribbly sky. He had dark hair and deep brown eyes. His teacher was across the room from us. Not too far. She said- so very vehemently – “I don’t want him in my class” and pointed at the boy next to me. He lifted his head. Looked at his teacher. Looked at me. I was reeling in shock at the outright rejection I’d just heard so he probably noticed that the smile I gave him – that was meant to be reassuring – was quite wonky.
I remember standing in a long and narrow “resource room” of a secondary school with the head of the English department and a curly haired, hugely built, usually tall but at that moment curve shouldered and stooped teenager. The same teenager that had written me a naïve but still detailed with understanding sympathy card when he had found out my father had died. The HOD was rifling through a grey filing cabinet, outlining all the ways the teenager was failing. She gave me his behavioural contract (lots of red marks and red pen comments from an assortment of teachers.) She gave me unfinished assignments. I recognised the student’s penciled printing and could easily imagine him writing every letter sooooo carefully. She gave me pristine textbooks with relevant pages marked and “The Diary of Anne Frank” which she wanted the teenager to summarise. She kept saying “He needs to take responsibility for this poor performance” and she gave me a deadline for when everything she was shoving my way was due in for him. I was feeling like I’d just been tackled by someone not unlike Jonah Lomu, so the teenager probably noticed the wobble of my voice as I faux merrily said “Do you want to grab all that stuff, mate……my bag is full of lollies and booze……”
I remember walking with a child from my class after school. A colleague came up to me. Very upset. Telling me very loudly in front of the child from my class that one of my other students shouldn’t be allowed at our school. She could see how this child “just didn’t belong with us”. She had seen how this child behaved. She had told the mother of this offensive student that her daughter shouldn’t be here. She was on the way to tell the principal that the child needed to go. I looked at the student from my class. She looked at me questioningly. Then looked down at the ground. So she missed my fake wink – again supposed to reassure that at least one of the adults on the scene wasn’t going to go nuclear.
All these young people I was so, so privileged to work with and have in my life for a while had special needs. And they were all treated so badly.
In my time in special education – and mainstream – I have heard and seen monstrously unfair things. Things so cruel they made me revert to the question children ask of each other when they can’t believe an injustice they’ve just been dealt. “Why are you being so mean?”
I’m a full grown adult – yeah, all altruistic and “overly emotive” (actual quote) – but I still ask “Why are they being so bloody mean?”
As an adult I know – The teacher who didn’t want the child with ADHD and Autism in her class was getting no ongoing support or understanding from her management team.
The HOD had no understanding of the teenager’s diagnosis. She had no idea what to do with him. She was hyper aware of the judgment that was being flung her way over the failing mark in her departmental bell curve of achievement that the teenager represented.
The colleague that was railing at me was also ignorant. And scared. And angry about something that probably wasn’t even to do with me or my student. I can’t rightly say what her exact issue was.
What I can say is that when I first saw and heard these monstrous things and felt like I’d been punched in the solar plexus, a part of me thought “I’ll probably get used to this.”
Yesterday – for reasons long and complicated – a person who has also been in special education for a long time walked into my mainstream classroom. I was relieved to see her. From the moment she started talking I realized how long I’d been worrying for, fighting for and trying to protect this particular student and her parents from “the mean people.”
It was like seeing the cavalry coming.
I can’t describe the relief.
It was only yesterday I figured out that as an “overtly emotive” person I’m never going to get over the shock of people willfully and fearfully misunderstanding others and trying to punish them and isolate them instead of trying to address their own ignorance.
It ALWAYS sucks when people are treated this way , and I will always, always remember it.
~ Secret Teacher NZ