New teachers, old taboo

Tim Blackman

Tim Blackman: there's a discussion all teachers must have

Early career teachers are struggling and too often the system is failing them and their students. Whilst this article may not be the most uplifting one at the beginning of a new school year it is a conversation we all need to have.

To say the last two years as a teacher have had its ups and downs would be an understatement. The ups in this rollercoaster ride were a direct result of education and teaching and the downs a result of the schooling system.

The reasons for poor teacher retention rates, particularly in the first five years, are well researched. Four tropes of challenges make me consider whether I should continue teaching: workload, neoliberalism, psychological stress, and pedagogical challenges.

Entering my third year of teaching I’ll no longer get the additional release awarded to beginning teachers and already this makes me nervous.

You may have seen the reports that show teacher workload is increasing at an alarming rate and experienced this yourself. On top of time spent in the classroom and planning for time in the classroom I’m forever doing negative referrals, positive referrals, incident reporting, learning adjustment logging, mandatory online training, attending meetings, registrations, audit paperwork, checking checklist boxes ...

Sometimes it feels like I see more of SENTRAL than I do of students.

So much of what we as educators now do is concerned with student wellbeing, and so it should be. In the allocations of teaching loads, however, no consideration has been given to this new reality. I am often in awe of my colleagues in primary schools who receive such a dismal amount of release from face-to-face. The allocation of teaching loads assumes all we do is teach content; it’s outdated.

If the demands on our time and what it means to be a teacher are to change, then so must too the formulas that work out the numbers of students we teach and the time spent teaching them. This point must be made vigorously in our schools, communities, to our employer and to our members of parliament: if you want us to change, the time you give us to do it must also change.

Much of our workload pressures can be attributed to neoliberalism, which dictates education policy and bastardises teaching pedagogy whilst not advancing the educational needs of students, especially those from disadvantaged or diverse backgrounds.

Neoliberalism is the quantification and privatisation of social responsibility and society in general. It introduced into the education system business concepts such as audit, accountability, business managers, choice, My School, school marketing, standardised testing, and dangerous ideas like “class sizes don’t matter”. Education becomes a commodity with quality to be based on instruments such as NAPLAN or PISA.

This brutal agenda makes it increasingly difficult for teachers. If your philosophy of education includes social justice or radical teaching, comrade, it’s a tough gig.

Fighting the system daily or succumbing to the pressures places a huge emotional burden on teachers. Yet there are many ways we can look after ourselves and one another. Removing the taboo to talk about our psychological wellbeing is a good start.

There is a taboo that exists in going deeper than simply venting about stress, in actually having a conversation about looking after our mental health as teachers.

This is a reasonable conversation to have and it's a professional one also. Our psychological wellbeing is protected by work health and safety legislation and it is the responsibility of school leadership to ensure legislation leads to action. The erosion of our passion to be quality educators is a work health and safety issue and should be treated as such.

Good teachers and teachers with potential to influence individual lives and contribute to the broader project of quality public education will continue to leave the profession because they feel isolated and alone. Solidarity and support between us is needed more than ever.

To manage my own stresses and challenges I use some of these resources:

  • regular psychologist or counselling sessions — the Employee Assistance Program is a free counselling service provided through the Department
  • mindfulness activities
  • academic research or publications that provide strategies for being the teacher you want to be while in difficult circumstances (try Federation's library and Rethinking Schools, online)
  • engagement with the union. Seek comradeship with those who might be experiencing the struggles you face or who are passionate about quality public education. You can do this through Association meetings, training courses and conferences and reading this journal.

In starting 2017, I urge all early career comrades to not abandon hope and the profession, to seek support when needed and pay attention to your mental wellbeing. I plead with school executives to understand the challenges faced by early career teachers and not adopt a sink-or-swim approach. I encourage colleagues to know and protect your rights and take the time to breathe and relax this year.

On top of that, continue providing what is the greatest endeavour of them all: public education.

Tim Blackman is a Councillor for the St Marys-Mt Druitt TA and works in western Sydney as an HSIE teacher