The first term of the school year is coming to a close. For most beginning teachers the school holidays cannot come soon enough. All of them feel exhausted.
Most will be anxious about the quality of their work - have their students been learning, are their colleagues satisfied with their efforts, are the parents happy?
Many will be wondering if they can make it through the rest of the year.
Some will leave.
What is so hard about teaching?
Teaching is complex. A primary teacher manages the learning of around 25 students each day. A secondary teacher has around 100 individuals to connect with each day.
In primary school, the teacher must organise learning in all the curriculum areas - an expert in adverbial phrases at 9am, phonology at 10am, improper fractions at 11am, the respiratory system at 12pm, musical notation at 1.30 pm and the history of federation at 2.00pm. And that’s just Monday.
Knowing their “stuff” is just the beginning of the task - they have to turn it into learning that is both accessible and engaging for every student in their classroom. And when learning doesn’t happen for some, the teacher has to figure out why and come up with a new plan.
But, as complicated and challenging as all this is, beginning teachers understand this is what they have signed up to. Working hard to help their students in their learning is what they thought the job was about.
What really surprises them is all the external pressures. Bureaucratic and political demands put administrative loads on them that take up their teaching time, and sometimes steer them to do teaching that is at odds with their beliefs about the purpose of education.
Indeed, Andreas Schleicher, the education director of the Organisation for Economic Development, blames Australia’s fading results in international tests, not on a lack of phonics or Christianity in the curriculum, but on reduced teacher autonomy and over reliance on prescribed curriculum.
Does it have to be so hard?
Watching beginning teachers is a little like watching balls being flung around a pinball machine. At first glance it all looks quite random, and it seems that being knocked around in the first year is inevitable.
But the closer you look, the less random it becomes. There are patterns. The big flippers (events) hit the balls (beginning teachers) and throw them in the same general directions every time. It is entirely possible to prepare teachers for these big events.
Here is some advice to share with a beginning teacher in your life, or in your workplace, to help make the first year a little less turbulent.
Hold on to your dreams
You probably didn’t get the class you have always dreamed of. Your visions of yourself with a Year 5 class of independent inquirers will have to be readjusted now that you have Kindergarten. You may even be teaching in an area in which you have only theoretical experience, for example, special education.
However, this doesn’t mean teaching isn’t for you, or that you can’t be the teacher you have always dreamed of being. You just need to allow some different people into your dream.
Hang in there
As the end of first term nears you may be feeling despair, particularly if you are a high achieving individual who is used to be being very good at what you do and now shocked to find yourself struggling. Reading the Facebook updates of fellow graduates who seem to have perfect classes just feeds your self doubt. Trust me, almost everyone is struggling.
You only feel the way you do because you care so much. Don’t leave - we need teachers like you. Things will get better.
Don’t take it personally
The teachers most likely to stay in teaching are the ones who don’t personalise the challenges of the first year, but rather see them as challenges shared by the school, the system and society.
Help your school, your system and our society understand their role in the successful education of our young people.
When you see misguided practice and policy, speak up and speak out. You may be a beginning teacher, but you can, will and do make a difference.
For many this first teaching job comes at a time of great changes in your personal lives. Engagements and marriages happen, long term relationships break up, grandparents die, babies are born and mortgages are taken out. Life is tumultuous and you must work on finding that elusive work-life balance.
Your heavy school workload is exacerbated because you are doing everything for the first time, and you struggle to understand which are the important tasks.
It is going to take you much longer to write school reports than the other teachers because you have never done it before. And, no, you don’t have to have a laminated personalised birthday chart for every child in your class by tomorrow - sleep is more important.
What kind of teachers do we want?
What happens to beginning teachers in their first year is important – not just because it may be bad enough to make some leave, but because, for those who stay, it will shape the kind of teacher they will become. Will they become the teacher they had hoped to be, making a difference in children’s lives, or just a widget in the education wheel of fortune?
Parents and principals - what kind of teacher do you want for your children? Do your words and actions help them be that teacher?