Opinion: What teachers should be taught before stepping into the classroom

by Naomi Barnes19 Apr 2016

I've been writing, reading and researching about teacher-workplace learning with the aim of working out why new and good teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

It's very easy in that particular space to always be looking at the policies and the programs. However, in the last couple of days, I've had some interactions with teachers (not involved in the research) that might reveal a further complexity.

Do teachers care too much?

By wearing their hearts on their sleeves for kids, are teachers running themselves into the ground with emotional exhaustion?

One of the teachers I spoke to was retired and very bluntly told me that while uni does a fine job of preparing new teachers for the policy and curriculum side of the profession -- lesson planning, curriculum interpretation, inclusiveness expectations -- how often do we sit down and say: “It's tough. Really tough”?

I sometimes think I sense a panic underneath the beautiful, professional learning sharing on EduTwitter (the discussion of education on the social media platform Twitter).

It's almost like everyone is ignoring the massive elephant in the room: no strategy works if you or any of the kids are having a shit day. Or a shit life.

I remember very clearly sitting in a liaison meeting at a school with a bunch of Pre-Service Teachers (PSTs) last year and being hit with their shock at how the teachers talked about the students.

They said things were being said like: “They won't try so don't even bother”, “That kid never shows up. She is a lost cause.”

This talk confused the PSTs to no end. Their young enthusiasm was being dealt a massive blow. Their hearts were breaking all over their sleeves.

By the end of that prac, each student came to my office to have their reports signed. I asked them how the prac ended up. Fantastic all around. The school was great. The kids were great. The teachers were so committed to the school. I wondered if the earlier talk was simply a coping mechanism.

I know I built a massive fortress around my heart working in many schools -- and the prestige of the institution makes no difference.

I remember a Year-12 independent-school boy coming to my class with a heart palpitation monitor on because he had exams, Queensland Core Skills (QCS) and Australian Junior Rugby try outs all in the same fortnight.

I remember the refugee kids that had been tortured, brutalised and malnourished. This year, I met a young man who had been tortured and forced to watch people be disembowelled. He is five years old. I remember a Year 8 Bosnian boy in the early 2000s who wouldn't be taught by women. I remember a 22-year-old Sudanese man in Year 11 English Communications who hated that his fellow students resisted their schooling.

I remember the verbally violent boy in Year 9 that we could do nothing with. His parents were in and out of jail. The one time his father was called to the school, the man lifted the boy up by his throat, threw him against a wall and beat him -- at the school.

We called social services and he went to live with his mum, who hid drugs on him regularly during police raids because he was underage and couldn't be body searched. I remember the Deputy telling the boy that if he didn't want us to call his dad, he needed to not give the school cause. The strategy worked.

I remember the other Year-9 boy who got drunk at a party and ran out in front of a car, and the Year-8 boy who dropped dead of an aneurysm during cross country.

I remember the Year-11 girl who told me if I called social services for the belt welts across her stomach, she would run away from home. Her sister was removed because of a call the school made and was now a heroin addict in her group home. My student preferred the belt to the drugs.

I remember cuddling my Year-12 student's baby so she could concentrate on her final exams.

I can still remember the dread that sets in when students far too young know far too much about sex. The girl that got raped on schoolies by two classmates and had it plastered all over Facebook, while she pretended she'd consented.

The list could go on and on.

Maybe what teacher education lacks is a warning. That the profession makes you cry. That the intense desire to work with kids is reinforced by the heartbreak. We know what our duty of care is to these children and their cases are moved on to people far more qualified. But there are only so many times your heart can break without needing professional help to debrief.

The local pub on Friday is good, but far from enough. Social workers and psychologists are required to have such professional "supervision" (or debriefing with a professional counselor) for 10 hours every year plus extra with their peers.

Teaching is tough. We need to stop hiding it.


Naomi Barnes is an education sociologist studying academic usage of social media at Griffith Institute for Education Research (GIER).


  • by Jacqui 19/04/2016 2:16:27 PM

    I am a leader of a Primary school. Over the last 15 years of being a school leader I have supported a large number of new teachers as they have begun their teaching careers. For many new teachers there is a sense that a bubble bursts, when they realise that the theories they learnt at uni, and things that might have worked on Prac don't always work. They have to deal with the fact that they are working with students, who all have their own personalities and none of them come with an instruction booklet. Put 30 of them together in a class and you have a minefield of possibilities. Teachers not only have to deal with the students, there are the parents and their colleagues as well. Add to that an increasing amount of paper work and it's no wonder new (and indeed not so new) teachers struggle. However once over the initial shock and with resilience and perseverance and an understanding that you need to be flexible and willing to learn and that you are going to stuff up. I have seen some very good new teachers, who wanted to quit, hang in and become outstanding. They have needed support and I have often wondered how uni could prepare teachers better. Some do it better than others. We do need new teachers to understand that it is hard, perhaps showing them examples of good teachers not coping would be helpful for them occasionally. We want them to see great examples, however sometimes I think it would be good for them to hear and see the messy side of teaching a bit more before they get out there as well.

  • by Steve 19/04/2016 2:44:03 PM

    I don't disagree that our vocation has its 'tough' aspects - but it is more than balanced by the wondrous outcomes we help facilitate and bear witness to! Sir John Jones describes great teachers as 'magic weavers' - and he's right! Teaching is not a job, it's a vocation focused on the most precious commodity our society has - our children and, yes, even the teenagers!

  • by Peter 22/04/2016 11:44:39 AM

    No time to go to the pub!