I love my students and the effect I can have on them, but I’m despondent about the state of the profession – and I can’t see it getting better any time soon.
I’ve hung up the whiteboard markers and returned my ministry-issued rental laptop. After 12 years of secondary teaching in schools around the South Island, I’m done. I sat through my last butt-numbing prize giving last week, waved at grateful parents and admired, for the last time, the incredible poise of today’s teenagers. (Where is the orange make up? The greasy hair and ill-fitting clothes?) At the staff break-up, I was farewelled by my colleagues with a colourful and heart-felt speech, as is tradition.
The glib explanation I like to give about why I no longer want to be a teacher is that I came of age during the “knowledge wave” of the ’90s. “I was promised five different careers in my lifetime,” I tell people, “and I’m going to have them.” But there’s more to it than that. The job has irrevocably changed since I started in 2010. And at the age of 38, I really shouldn’t be this tired.
I remember the constant nerves of my first year of teaching – unable to swallow my lunch in anticipation of the tricky class that was about to follow. But quickly, I came to revel in the creativity of the job and also the springy, goofy energy of young people. I know a lot of adults are either slightly scared of teenagers, think they are gross or just prefer to ignore them, pretending they were never one themselves. But I found young people truly delightful – and still do.
The past three years have been hard on rangitahi, and the cracks in the education systems are starting to show. This includes the potential for teacher supply to worsen even further. Stress and fatigue levels have been unusually high over the course of the pandemic but to be honest, I can’t see teaching returning to the challenging but fun job I once loved. The sector needs to urgently address a few things if they want to ensure a supply of quality teachers. Here are the realities, from where I sit, anyway.
Teachers are overworked, but quite well-paid (eventually)
I earned a very comfortable base salary as an experienced teacher – $90,000 is the top step of the pay scale. It’s just that it takes a really long time to get there. Entry level pay is low, comparatively. I came to teaching after a few years of full-time work and remember my first pay being not far off what I had been earning as a retail assistant and after-school tutor while I completed my teaching diploma. And the low pay is really off-putting to the many competent teachers who are entering the profession and doing exactly the same work as their experienced counterparts – plus running more extracurriculars, going on camps and generally volunteering for more jobs around a school. It’s pretty hard to stomach for those new teachers which is perhaps why we’re losing around half of them in the first five years of teaching, according to the PPTA.
It’s not the money that keeps good teachers in the job
Ask any teacher what they need more of, and it’s hardly ever more money. It’s time – enough time to do the very best by our students.
We spend much more time directly teaching students than many other OECD countries, particularly at upper secondary school level. In New Zealand this means Year 12 and 13, when we are preparing and teaching complex subject matter and making high-stakes assessment judgements. More contact time means a lot less preparation time, and a lot less time to do administrative work – marking, emailing parents, writing reports and liaising with outside agencies, for example.
New Zealand is the only country in the OECD to have three years of high-stakes national assessment. In the NCEA revisions we have retained NCEA Level 1 as an “optional” qualification but it appears most schools intend to offer it. From what we’ve seen so far, the move to fewer, larger achievement standards and a simplified structure will improve workload for both teachers and students. However the revisions will take another four academic years to implement and a few more to embed. And meanwhile, we lose half of our fresh teachers.
When I was head of learning area, I’d often remind our team that you can’t be a good teacher without being a person first. Teaching is as much an art as it is a science. And if you spend all your time assessing, analysing achievement data and report writing, you become very good at the science part but neglect the art of the job. Quite simply, teachers need to spend more time in the real world to do their job well.
The not-so-slow creep of edtech
Let’s talk about tech, baby. (Side bar: if there’s one thing the education sector likes better than acronyms, it’s an extremely outdated pop culture reference.) When I first started teaching, students went to the public library to check their Bebo accounts and in professional development we talked breathlessly about “ICTs” transforming education. I could book these things called “CoWs” – “computers on wheels”. When students got to the publishing stage of a piece of work, I’d call in the CoWs to finish off the job. There were a few teachers who still favoured overhead projectors and one stalwart had staunchly retained her blackboard and chalk.
Even though whiteboard markers are mentioned in the first sentence, the truth is we don’t use them that often anymore. The job has become irreversibly digital, it feels. Classrooms are all slideshows on TV screens, laptops, earbuds and phones where it was once tactile and vocal. Three of my colleagues have developed repetitive strain injuries in their wrists over the past few years from laptop overuse. Teaching feels like a desk jockey job now – the very thing I was trying to avoid when I entered the profession.
New Zealand has gone too far and too quickly with technology in education. I think we are asking teenage brains to cope with insane amounts of input and I figure that’s the reason why all the Silicon Valley suits are sending their kids to tech-free schools these days. Here, our students are managing six or seven Google Classrooms for their classes plus all the year-level, whole-school and extracurricular info that gets fired at them. It’s easy to see why young people never check their emails…
“You’re digital natives,” we were told at teacher’s college. We convinced ourselves that technology was the answer to engaging students. “Gamifying learning” was touted as a way to harness their wandering attention when seated in front of a device. And it’s true that tech makes the job of both students and teachers so much easier. It’s alluring. We can fire information and digital worksheets at them with the click of a button. But all that’s done is allow students to produce a higher quantity of output, of a lower quality.
Students’ connection to their laptops (in certain subjects more than others) is so strong that it takes a very well-planned and energetic pitch to engage them in anything that’s not computer-based. I miss the spontaneous debates, discussions and games. I also worry about how much information Google and Microsoft are collecting from their education apps. There must be an awful lot of data sitting on those server farms about our young people, what they know and don’t know; their hopes and dreams.
The job is a lot more than just teaching English now
Schools today are over-stimulating, demanding environments. Our students are stressed and anxious, and with so few counsellors, many schools are now teaching teachers how to teach wellbeing strategies to students. I’ve noticed an increase in the number of students applying for separate accommodation for assessments due to diagnosed anxiety.
We’re also working with young people who present with increasingly complex behavioural issues and cognitive differences. Teachers, by their very nature, want every student to succeed, and therefore we commit ourselves to upskilling and making learning accessible for students with oppositional defiant disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia and the full gamut of neurodiversity. In one class this year, I had 11 students with special assessment conditions. That means for every assessment (three internal assessments, plus school exams) I planned for and booked readers and writers for these students. My school put huge resources into levelling the playing field for them but as a teacher, I did not have the time (or expertise, if I’m honest) to help students use their conditions properly. I constantly felt like I was letting students down.
On top of the modern complexities of the job, school attendance rates are seriously worrying, nationwide. When students don’t come to school, they miss learning, lose confidence and their social connections get shaky. This puts further pressure on teachers to get students to school, and then not just to catch them up but to help them see the point of it all.
In the education sector, the “knowledge wave” has since been reinvented by expensive professional speakers as “future focused”. We’re told over and over that schools should “prepare students for jobs that haven’t been invented yet”. That comes with a certain amount of weight and anxiety for teachers – is everything I’m teaching them potentially irrelevant?
So unsurprisingly, burnout is rife among teachers. Last year I had to take four weeks off to calm the hell down. Even watching Pasta Grannies on YouTube wasn’t helping to stop my mind churning during the night. I just couldn’t do my job. It was time to do something else.
But yet, despite everything I’ve just said – I wholeheartedly recommend a career in teaching. Working with teenagers is unpredictable, infuriating and just so much fun. A day is never, ever the same and the work stories are top shelf. It really is such a privilege to see a young person try on different versions of themselves before settling into a final form. And here’s what it’s like to witness.
It won’t happen for six years or so, but one day, a past student will take your order at a restaurant. She’ll recognise you, admit that she was a pain in the arse, apologise, but then say that English was her favourite subject. You were hard on her, always expected a lot and told her she was a good writer. Remorseful, she’ll say she really wanted to study law and regrets leaving school early. You will ask her what’s stopping her and tell her (in your teacher voice) that she should go now. There’s still plenty of time to start again. A year later, you’ll get an email. She’s just finished her first year of law and loves it.
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