I did not become a teacher the day I walked out of university. I was trained as a teacher but it took many years for me to feel like a teacher. I’m still not sure I’m there yet.
Often transition takes years. There is a lot written about how to act in the first year of a new education environment. There is a lot written about what we should know and what we should do. There are myriad competing ideas about what a good induction or orientation looks like.
What drops through the gaps is often the very challenging identity work that happens as you move from being a university student to becoming a teacher.
How do we shift into our new identities in our new environments? It takes a long time to feel like a teacher even though we might call ourselves teachers.
Negotiating the first year of teaching
A lot of the first year of teaching is learning what not to say and how not to act. Negotiating new personalities and politics within a school community can be difficult.
Soon you begin to tell yourself that permanent work comes with a certain type of behaviour or performance, and you begin to pick and choose what you talk about with colleagues and what you keep silent about.
You may hide that you don’t really know how to do something. You might be less than honest about how your Year 9 class is to teach. You might talk about the student centred activities you have facilitated and play down the amount of direct instruction you use. You might be buying things for your classes because it is easier than ordering them through the school budget.
You tell your official mentor that things are going well, but cry into your pillow at night.
We need to talk about the difficulties we continually encounter as teachers
Teaching has a massive attrition rate. The availability of secondary teaching staff is reaching a critical point. It is not that we don’t have enough teachers in Australia. We have plenty. But they are no longer in teaching. Being a teacher is not easy and it is not smooth sailing. It takes years of personal and professional struggle to decide on it as a vocation. We need to talk about it; break some silences.
I am not saying that early career teachers should break their silence. I am saying experienced teachers should. When dynamic and respected teachers say that they had a terrible second prac, it demonstrates something that cannot be taught in a pedagogy or curriculum class. It fills in some gaps.
Breaking the silence demonstrates that we learn by jumping hurdles; not by pretending they don’t exist. In fact, the more hurdles we jump the better we get at it. We need a conversation that balances how difficult teaching is as a profession and why people stay in it. Honest conversations about why we come to this profession and what decisions we make that keep us there.
For those reasons I have decided to share my story.
I was brought up in a conservative family and alternative school where girls rarely became something other than teachers, nurses or stay at home mothers. I realise now that this mentality was archaic for the early 1990s. I think my mother did as well, because I was half-heartedly encouraged to look at engineering, but always told it was good for a girl to have a trade. Something she can fall back on for when she had her babies.
Teaching was a trade to my family. Teaching was considered to provide flexibility of hours that ensured I could still be the primary care giver and have a career.
I resisted teaching and instead worked towards international studies because it was a good profession that incorporated my love of the social sciences, especially history. My guidance counsellor told me that no one from my school ever got their first preference. I thought I was being clever and put History teaching first, international studies second.
I got my first preference. My first preference was in Brisbane and I had a reason to escape the small town.
So I trained as a secondary teacher.
Why I stayed in teaching
I’m not sure I ever really committed to teaching because I felt uncomfortable with the teaching bit all the way through my degree and for the first five years on the job (I loved the History and Social Science bit). But I was brought up to honour my commitments. It was embedded. “You always finish what you start, Naomi.” I can still hear my father’s Protestant Work Ethic in my ear. I also couldn’t think of anything else I could do that would allow me to be paid for working with History.
One day I remember having a Year 10 class brutally destroy my love for History. I walked away from work that day at a crossroad. I stick out the profession or find a new one. If I was to stay I needed another reason to be there.
The situation in the classroom was pretty bleak but as the weeks went on, evidence came to light that the key perpetrators of my disillusionment were in a pretty bad place. In fact, one of the most difficult students was being online bullied by the other culprits. It was pretty sophisticated bullying as well. Both the police and Microsoft got involved.
Suddenly, I realised that teaching could not be about the subject I was teaching but it had to be about the students. I gave myself an ultimatum. I needed to be there for the students or leave.
I stayed for eight more years.
I am at another crossroad for teaching
Now I am on maternity leave. I will be on leave until 2018 when I will again have to make a decision. I have to weigh up teaching but this time against new variables.
Will I go back to the classroom or will I pursue education research? Who knows, but I’m sure I’ll work it out. I just don’t want to be silent on it.
What’s your story?
Naomi Barnes is a postdoctoral fellow at the Griffith Institute of Educational Research. Her key areas of research are transitions and social media in educational research.