Earlier this year I was standing in front of a class of 14 year olds, working with them to identify their own values and moral compasses, and try to match those very vital things to their direction in class, in school and in life.
“Really, guys,” I remember saying, “the point of this activity is that, in your life, when you are trying to think of choices, or perhaps you’re taking stock of how things are going, you can return to this sort of thinking – knowing what matters to you and how you want to improve the world can help inform so many things that you do.”
Later that day, in my own quiet moment, I felt like I was a total fraud – saying on thing and doing the other. Worse than that, I was giving advice I felt really mattered, and advice I wasn’t taking myself. What a hypocrite. I knew, the whole time saying that, that I hadn’t wanted to be a teacher for awhile.
For anyone who has known me well over the last seven years, maybe this will be a shock. I’ve spent a lot of energy and time in the classroom and I’ve spent a lot of time advocating for teachers, teaching and students. I know of at least two people (my parents) who took awhile to come around to the reality that I am done.
In some ways, all the things I loved, and said mattered, still are things that matter and that I love. Many students have made me think “shit if I ever have a kid, and they are anywhere near as good a person as you I’ll be stunned”. Many times I’ve had to learn and grow up. I remember the first time a student had a personal tragedy. I remember a kid breaking down because their parent refused to see them, week in, week out. I remember being on suicide alert. These are things that forced me to grow up very quickly, and I’m grateful for the perspective, humbled by the experiences. I think about these experiences a lot. Who would I be without these memories? Would I have developed as well? I doubt it and I owe a lot to teaching.
I remember so many great jokes, so many excellent moments. Kick to kick in Mildura where I followed the ball into a pond (so many memories, Mildura, the best thing to ever happen to me). The unbridled creativity of students in Warrnambool’s high flying English class (if you’re reading this, some of the videos you made were ab-hurtingly excellent, Seb in particular all these years later still brings a smile to my face). I remember Year 11 English in Craigieburn – a dozen of the best kids in the world – reluctant readers, most of them, but gorgeous. I remember being in England and teaching Year 8s about Indigenous mythology instead of Grecian myths, then helping them realise what we’ve destroyed. I remember a perfect class of Year 9s, not willing to accept the complacency of their parents and the boomers in charge here in Canberra. Never grow cynical.
I remember my all time favourite student comeback. In Mildura, in a class, two students were arguing – one an Afghan refugee, the other a white Australian. After a few minutes of me trying to calm both down, the Afghan kid, stone cold, looked at the white kid and said:
“I grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan reckoning with the Taliban. If you think you’re white trash, river rate bogan shit is going to frighten me you’re as stupid as you sound. Cow.”
10 points to Gryffindor. Also detention. Sometimes a moral victory costs you.
I think about these memories a lot, what they mean and how luck I am to have them. Most people’s experience of teenagers is much worse than mine has been.
When you do something for so long, I suppose you either have to accept it on its terms, changing to meet the work halfway or eventually find a barrier. For me, I think it’s obvious, I’ve come against the second condition. To be the teacher I want to be I have to be very calm, very patient and very kind, and I can’t be all those things enough of the time. I feel dejected working on the same problem over and over and over. Teaching a student to write an essay for the 40th time in their life. Trying to find motivational ways to overcome anxiety about reading out loud. Convincing students, day in, day out, that learning is good for them and they can do it and that they will be glad – today – if they work and succeed. It’s worn me out a bit and started to make me a bit indifferent to the work. Not the people, but definitely the work. Ok, honestly, sometimes the people too.
Some days I get home, Quan will ask how my day was and I can barely say anything. What’s there to say? I went knowing that I’d come across the same problems I’ve faced all year, tried to chip away at them, got a little closer (or not) and came home. How do you look someone in the eye and say “I’m not there yet,” or, “I failed again”? That’s what’s got me down – years of that feeling.
When I succeed in solving some of these problems – maybe opening up a student, or helping them find joy in their least favourite subject, or getting something they’ve always wanted my god it feels like I’m on the top of the world, I’m flying.
But then a new year starts, a new class begins, a new set of educational problems comes. Most of the time they are similar to what I’ve just solved, and I feel defeated. Another 12 months of working on the same problems with a different person. Sometimes things take time to get right – even experience doesn’t speed everything up. And when you’re impatient, student don’t like you much. I guess I’m sick of feeling impatient and disliked as well.
This isn’t just about students, either. With adults there are recurring problems and failure. For example, I’ve tried – at every school – to get the English department to teach a modern, Australian novel that students would respond to. Something written engagingly, something about poverty and growing up, something that doesn’t shy away from our country, our countrymen, and the lives that people here lead. Every single year I get nowhere. Every single year I fail.
I guess maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not the salesman I need to be, or by avoiding promotion I’ve cut myself off from having a say. If those are true, that’s ok, I can accept that things are my fault.
I wrote something similar last year – about leaving a Trauma-Informed work place. I wrote about the highs and the lows and what it meant and what I learned. I feel a bit embarrassed, honestly, sitting here now writing this. Running away from something again. Truthfully I tried to solve a lot of the underlying problems by switching jobs, but realised, finally, that what I can’t handle in the long term isn’t going to change, and I’m unable to change myself enough to meet it.
I’ve got a few months left, though, until Christmas time. Then I’ll no longer be a teacher any more.