Teachers are idealists.
Without idealism, it simply wouldn’t be worth the bother, rage, stress, and toil.
We seem to learn this towards the end of our teaching careers, though.
I taught English for a few years overseas before deciding I wanted my very own class. I left the country I loved and was thriving in; I left my partner, my friends, my drumming: I left it all to come back and learn to be a real teacher. I wanted to be part of people’s lives, people’s communities and schools, and have the ability to help make real change in the marvellous country I was born in. I wanted to inspire young people, to see them writhe with delight, gasping at the foot of Great Literature; to watch them debate against their stubborn elders with flair and ferocity. I wanted to see them paint and sculpt and sprint with courage; to see them stare at the surging sky with everything they had. I wanted to see them want and work and get and have and see. I wanted to watch them learn.
I knew it would be hard, being a primary school teacher here in Aotearoa, but I never ever knew how hard. Nobody told me what it would really be like. Teaching is a noble profession, people said carefully.
Aue. I slid into a decile 1a school, where my noble profession punched my face in as I tried to hit the ground running. Bullying and fraudulent principals (I worked with one of each) were close to the least of my worries.
I didn’t know there would be up to 8 meetings a week outside of teaching hours, with no time allocated for all the planning, marking, assessing and obsessing. I didn’t know that I would work a 60-80 hour week, every week. I didn’t know that the fabled school holidaaays yay would be almost completely taken up by meetings, planning, and by sorting out all the projects and tasks I’d had to park until I could finally get around to them. I didn’t know I would lose my cosy home; that it would become just another place to spread my work each evening and on weekends.
I didn’t know I’d get punched, kicked, bitten, infected, infested, and insulted. I didn’t realise so many painfully disillusioned and distrustful children and adults would resent and hate me by default simply because I was an adult, or a Pakeha, or an authority figure, or a woman. I didn’t realise I would spend the next few years running on adrenalin, losing my hair and my sleep over my kids, my class, my job. I didn’t know I would get nightmares about the situations my students lived in. I didn’t know I would have to break up gang fights, 50-student brawls, or cower with my kids in lockdowns while people roamed the school with machetes, looking to chop each other up.
I didn’t realise there is little time left for the arts, and even less for science, my two great loves. I didn’t know it would basically be all literacy and numeracy pressure, all the time. I didn’t realise that nothing would ever be thorough enough, skilled enough, prepared enough, insightful enough, or plain old good enough. I didn’t realise that the job was never ever done.
Boy, I learnt, though. I learnt all sorts of things.
I learnt to keep my head down. I learnt not to try to change things. I learnt not to complain if you get sworn at, assaulted, or ganged up on. I learnt that as well as all the thousands of caring, righteous, gentle, clever, hardworking, passionate souls, the teaching profession attracts occasional frightening control freaks, and vicious, narcissistic bullies.
I learnt of the vast, horrifying divide between the wealthy and the poor in this country. I learnt how to check for and get rid of nits and scabies without my friends and family having to find out. I learnt about the extent of poverty, malnutrition and hunger in New Zealand, and as well as the vast stores of compassion people have for one another, I learnt too much about the unthinking misery and cruelty people inflict on one another in such an upsettingly everyday fashion.
I learnt that everything you could think of can be thought of as a teacher’s responsibility (someone, somewhere is at fault!!), from making sure everybody eats every day, right down to figuring out which of your 30 small and defenceless students may be getting fingered in their beds each night.
I learnt that there comes a moment when you’ve been at school since before 7am and you’ll be there til after 7pm before going home to do more work: the exact moment is normally 8.55am, when the bell rings for class to start, and you desperately think, Oh, no – I don’t have time for class. I have too much work on to do any teaching right now!
There is a phrase that sums it up, though, which gets tossed around by teachers: the shame-cry. This is when you snatch a moment when you don’t have a meeting or a duty and you dodge ten thousand things you should be doing, go and hide in the toilets, and weep quietly and savagely for just a moment. That’s your shame cry. That’s all the time you can spare. You go back to whatever it was you were doing – until the next shame-cry lets some steam off the constantly-near-boiled-over pot, that is.
The unending stress ages and deflates people like no other job I have seen.
For all this, with two university qualifications, we are paid a starting rate of somewhere in the late $40,000 area.
Because I am a human being, and adrenalin doesn’t last forever, I burnt out within a few years of fulltime teaching, and left my profession in my past.
I don’t care if I never teach again.
But I will always side with teachers. I will stick up for their dignity, their hardworking, never-ending, heroic efforts to make a difference, their kindness and self-sacrifice, and their pure dedication.
I will use whatever small voice I can to highlight the difference between the everyday trauma of teaching versus almost any other job in the world.
So when I see MPs, who already earn at least three times a teacher’s pitiful salary, getting yet another pay rise, I become so angry that can do nothing but sit quietly, watching the clouds outside roil and fret, listening to the blood thud in my ears.
I call upon all MPs to protest this gross, repulsive slap in the face towards teachers and the underpaid masses struggling through each day in this country.
I call upon all MPs to reject this unnecessary, excessive expenditure being wasted on those who do not need it.
I call upon all MPs to reject it publicly. Send us your press releases if the mainstream media isn’t interested. We’ll publish them.
We are waiting.
Who among you has decency?