It’s so dramatic: what new play Chalkface gets very right about being a teacher

By Meghan Stacey and Nigel Kuan

Chalkface is a new play about teachers, currently being staged by the Sydney Theatre Company and playing at the Sydney Opera House.

Written by Angela Betzien, Chalkface is advertised as a black comedy in which an ‘old school’ teacher clashes with a bright-eyed newbie. As a researcher of teachers’ work and a head teacher Science, we hoped the play would be a fresh take on the profession we live every day; that it would make us laugh, and maybe even have something insightful to say.

We went to see Chalkface last Saturday evening and overall, we think that the play gets a lot right.

From the peeling paint, to the old mis-matched chairs, out-of-service hot water tap and enormous tin of Nescafe Blend 43, the set is without question the quintessential public school staffroom in Australia. There is even a resident rat* eating through the precious limited stock of coloured paper in the supply cupboard. Meanwhile, one teacher tells the newbie teacher to note the school’s general scent, which he describes as “old fart”.

Between us, we’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of schools. While some are newer or better-resourced than others, we can tell you that this is generally a pretty accurate representation of public education in NSW. (The “old fart” smell in particular seems, curiously, universal.)

What the accuracy of the play’s set, and jokes about lack of resources reflect, however, are a systemic underfunding and lack of maintenance of government educational facilities which will not be news to any local audience. It is well known Australia has a problem with educational equity, and the play takes frequent jabs at wealthy private sector schools. While the teachers in the play guzzle Blend 43 and rotate cleaning shifts, for example, the private school up the road has apparently just hired a full-time barista for its staff. The contrast here is stark, and while not all private schools are hugely wealthy, some of them certainly are and despite years of debate about developing a ‘needs-based’ funding system, we aren’t there yet.

Chalkface doesn’t end its commentary on education policy with resourcing, however. The school principal wants teachers to focus on NAPLAN preparation at the expense of richer learning activities, as he angsts about the possibility of losing students to other schools. This experience has a sound basis in research; the marketisation of education through the ongoing encouragement of parental ‘choice’ and the displaying of NAPLAN results on the My School website has had well-documented flow-on effects of ‘teaching to the test’.

Nicknamed ‘Thatcher’, the principal is renowned within the school for his austerity, even stealing kids’ lunchboxes from the lost and found. His anxiety about the school’s budget reflects not only an overall lack of funding, but also the current positioning of principals as school ‘business managers’, having a larger share of financial responsibility for the running of the school. Our bright-eyed newbie teacher, for instance, is on a temporary contract, which she is told is because she is cheaper; the rise in fixed-term contract work in teaching is also a current issue for the profession.

The relationship between ‘Thatcher’ and the rest of the teachers in the school is, indeed, fractious. The principal establishes a ‘suggestions’ box which is derided, by everyone other than him, as a “black hole”. Again we see resonance with current themes in policy and research: under autonomous schooling conditions, principals in NSW have been described as chronically over-worked, their attention diverted from engaging with staff perspectives and working conditions.

As for the teachers themselves, the divide between the ‘old’/experienced, and young/‘new’ teacher may seem stereotypical, yet also raises important questions around teacher burnout. One of the discomforts we felt while watching Chalkface was the way in which the teachers, especially those more experienced, talked about their students. Usually these were jokes but they were always disparaging, and not always funny. ‘Deficit’ talk – where students and/or their families are described as lacking, either in intelligence or desirable social norms – is indeed rife in teaching and probably does rear its ugly head most frequently in school staffrooms. It can serve to support cycles of poor academic outcomes for populations of students experiencing forms of educational disadvantage. It can also be linked to burnout, as indeed the younger teacher in the play identifies: one of the three dimensions of burnout is ‘depersonalisation’, and we see much of this in the staffroom talk of Chalkface.

Also of concern is the raft of rather alarming health conditions the teachers experience, caused by their jobs. One has a damaged coccyx from having a student pull a chair out from underneath him; another has spent the summer holidays in a psychiatric ward after being locked in a cupboard overnight by a student. These are extreme examples. They are funny, but they are also not funny, reflecting genuine, current concern with teacher wellbeing.   

There are some positive outcomes in Chalkface. The two women teachers who are the main characters learn and grow from each other, and it’s genuinely enjoyable to see them do so. But that is about it. Ultimately, nothing is done about the inequity the school faces and the difficulty of these teachers’ jobs. In fact, most of the teacher characters leave this under-resourced school by the end of the play.

Chalkface lands on a description of pedagogy as the “art and science of hope”. Generally, the play feels authentic. It made us laugh, and sometimes grimace in frustrated recognition. But ultimately, its ending portrays a bleak situation for public school education. We hope this part isn’t accurate, although we worry that it is.

*Spoiler alert: it turns out, it’s not a rat.

Meghan Stacey is a senior lecturer in the UNSW School of Education, researching in the fields of the sociology of education and education policy. Taking a particular interest in teachers, her research considers how teachers’ work is framed by policy, as well as the effects of such policy for those who work with, within and against it.

Nigel Kuan is Head Teacher Science at Inner Sydney High School. He holds a Bachelor of Science with Honours in Physics Education and a Masters of Teaching. Nigel has presented at Teach Meets and other practitioner forums, and takes a particular interest in student engagement and scientific literacy. 

Header images from the Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Prudence Upton From left to right: Susan Prior, Stephanie Somerville, Catherine McClements and Nathan O’Keefe in Sydney Theatre Company’s Chalkface, 2022.

6 thoughts on “It’s so dramatic: what new play Chalkface gets very right about being a teacher

  1. Chris says:

    I agree with much of your commentary about public schools and there many deficits. In my experience as, student, teacher, head teacher, deputy principal and acting principal the major redeeming feature for me was always the students. Yes some of them were difficult for many reasons, but the joy of seeing any hint of development or improvement was just enough to keep me going. Even as a senior executive I still taught a class, even though it was a senior one and out of hours. I still spent a large part of my day visiting classrooms, working with teachers and students in a range of curriculum areas. I spent a lot of the break times out in the playground catching up with the kids. I talked with many of the kids about how they were going, what they were doing and what aspirations they had. Yes there are times when teachers discuss student deficits but mostly I found this came from a sense of frustration at the inequities they faced, the disadvantages they needed to overcome – we were strongly aware that some of them were victims of injustice. The overriding concern was for the student’s wellbeing. On the whole, I found teachers trying hard to work with students and their families to help them make something worthwhile in their lives. Even though they may not have scaled the heights academically for some it was the security and acceptance found in the school that they valued.

    Maybe for those non teachers in the viewing community some insight into some aspects of the lives of teachers in schools may make them more accepting of the need to once again recognise the value of this often much maligned and imposed upon profession.

    Yes there was lots to laugh at in Chalkface but as you suggest there were also many moments of pathos too.

  2. Meghan Stacey says:

    Thank you for your comment, Chris. ‘Much maligned and imposed upon’ puts it well (unfortunately). Hopefully an increased recognition of the lives of teachers will be one result of the play!

  3. Carol Reid says:

    I find the reference to ‘older’ teachers using deficit talk appalling. Do you think the critique of deficit thinking and talking is something just invented in the last 20 years? Most teachers who were educated (not trained) in the 1970’s and 1980’s were very much focused on these discourses but also structural power, something missing from contemporary teacher education. Younger teachers – casualized, non-union members and marginal – are no less or more likely to use deficit discourses. It is a perennial problem and can’t just be taught through a post structural lens, which is part of the problem now. As for ‘hope’ – which has also dominated teacher education – there is a murky epistemology to this take on how to respond. It has a basis in faith, rather than action. And yes, public education is in a dire state of affairs that only large-scale structural change will fix. But there is no appetite, because so many people in teacher education and positions of power in policymaking are or were private school educated (and that includes Catholic education, which people pay for unlike public education, which takes all-comers). In other words, they are compromised and conflicted.

  4. Meghan Stacey says:

    Thank you for the comment, Carol. We agree that a young/new vs old/experienced binary is simplistic (and problematic). To clarify, we weren’t suggesting that deficit perspectives are exclusively, or particularly held by ‘older’ teachers (indeed the article we linked to on deficit, by Mills & Keddie, focuses on pre-service teachers). This did however seem to be part of the narrative structure of the play. And we note that although the new teacher character seemed to be painted, in contrast to those more established, as the idealist, ‘idealism’ does not mean there cannot be deficit thinking involved (in fact sometimes quite the opposite – the Mills & Keddie article also makes this point). We appreciate you sharing your thoughts, thank you.

  5. Brittney Ayer says:

    Sorry, but what part of teachers having time to sit down in a staff room is authentic?

  6. Meghan Stacey says:

    Thanks Brittney – yes you are so right! We talked about this after seeing the play too. A more realistic representation of the morning of the first day of term would be teachers running around organising resources. In the play, they literally chat until the bell goes and then they go to class! We wrote this off as dramatic license – watching teachers prep lessons possibly wouldn’t make for an interesting play – but I definitely agree with your point. Thank you for the comment.

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