STOP #1 South Melbourne, VIC
Don’t write this down, as none of the months are set in stone. Imagine instead that they’re written in sand while the tide is coming in. At least half of each month will be washed away by the many, many commitments that I’ve made to edit magazines, record podcasts, and create resources for the Wine with Teacher Wellbeing Club. So, keep that in mind. This tour is reliably unreliable – in other words, flexible.
So here it is, the many mini tours of Our Creative Classroom x Wine with Teacher in 2021. A series of extremely flexible dates that may or may not be adjusted for covid-restrictions and dental surgery. If there is one person who can improvise when faced with an unexpected adjustment or last-minute detour, it’s a teacher.
- April – VIC and SA
- May – SA and VIC
- June – NSW and ACT
- July – NSW and QLD
- August – NT
- September - TAS
- October – WA
These mini tours are about uncovering our current collective experience as teachers in 2021. Connection is at the centre and heart of these conversations. I felt it immediately in the hugs from all four teachers who arrived today; ready to share untold personal stories from their careers, ready to be indescribably vulnerable with someone who is (essentially) a stranger.
Each person followed a different path into teaching, and it was enlightening to hear their individual revelations and personal discoveries while embarking on their unique journeys. I found comfort in the energy that exuded from all four teachers, observing how their faces truly lit up when they spoke about:
- Finding the personal interests of disengaged students to hook them back into learning.
- Working at a school that had supportive leadership and staying for fifteen years.
- Returning from maternity leave with a new level of patience and understanding.
- Stoking the passion for teaching, like burning wood over the hot coals of a fireplace.
- Bouncing back from workplace bullying to find a school that recognised strengths.
- The power of self-belief and using teaching skills to start a new creative business.
My role right now is to listen, empower, and record a series of personal and in-depth interviews. Each line of questioning is intended to provoke teachers into revealing their brightest and darkest moments from their teaching careers. I won't be sharing these recordings, instead I'll be using these conversations as a foundation for a future discussion.
Inside each answer there is a lesson to be learned. I'm ready to learn it.
So, what’s your story?
Take all the time you need.
STOP #2 Avondale Heights, VIC
More effortless conversations and tasty pastries shared between groups of teachers who have met through the internet. We possess an uncanny ability to recognise the look and sound of a teacher, despite us all looking and sounding so delightfully different. It also appears that we are all 'huggers'.
I’m thankful for the comforting familiarity that exists among teachers, like a knitted cardigan that you already know will fit without needing to try it on. We throw our arms around each other with ease; not an awkward misstep, accidental cheek kiss, or uncoordinated headbutt in sight.
You know, small talk has always felt pointless; a deeply unnecessary social interaction that could be skipped with ease. Why waste precious minutes on an entrée when you can gobble down the main course? I’m ready for the meatier conversations with open-minded teachers.
I’ll be asking about your triumphs and challenges; pushing for the proudest parts of your career. Each line of questioning is intended to encourage you to share your most devastating discoveries and epic epiphanies. For we are nothing but our lived experiences. Personalities carved out of daily interactions and attitudes. Not to mention the countless other contributing factors, like gender, age, ethnicity, family, support, and socioeconomic status.
What changed your approach to teaching?
Motherhood. Workplace bullying. Challenging classes.
When did you show resilience, and in the face of what?
Poor leadership. Pressure. Stress. Student trauma.
How are you looking after your wellbeing?
To be honest, I'm not. I'm learning. In the meantime - do as I say, not as I do.
Let’s break down your story into morsels that can be dropped to the ground, leading us with breadcrumbs towards the bigger picture. Repeating again and again, you are not alone in this.
Seeking clarification. “What do you mean by that?”
Asking again in a new way. “How could this have happened?”
Looking for changes in body language. “Can you tell me how you’re feeling?”
And always offering the reassurance:
"I have experienced this too."
"I have a friend who has experienced this too."
"I have had another teacher message me who has experienced this too."
"Teachers around Australia have experienced this too, you are not alone."
STOP #3 Lilydale, VIC
Grateful (and slightly overwhelmed) by the turn out, I awkwardly pulled the mangled microphones and oversized headphones from my bag. I’m hyperaware of any body language that follows; quietly observing nervous twitches hiding in the corner of a smile, eyes darting around looking for who will interview first, then hushed laughter. Teachers are well acquainted with centre stage in their classrooms, but it is rare to find themselves under the spotlight on such a personal level outside of school hours.
We are seated in the car, but it is the politicians and policy makers who are sitting in the driver’s seat taking us for a spin. If the car crashes and anyone is injured, you can be sure that it is the teachers who will bear the full brunt of the blame. We are expected to navigate the obstacles despite not having any control of the wheel.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2020) there are more than 295,000 teachers employed full-time in Australia; not to mention all of the valued and relevant part-time and casual teachers. These are the opinions that should matter most regarding any decisions affecting students or learning.
Let’s ask these teachers for input on three questions, group brainstorm:
- How can we make the current teaching workload more sustainable for teachers? What needs to change so that engaged learning and growth can be facilitated most effectively in each classroom?
- How can we change, reduce, or simplify the Australian Curriculum so that teachers have creative control and freedom to follow their students’ interests? How can we slow it all down to give all of our students enough time to process everything and truly fall in love with the learning journey? How can we take into account the yearly disruptions (events, sick leave, testing, assessing) to each term’s timetable?
- How can we change our approach to staff wellbeing to avoid the predicted teacher shortages due to low workforce retention caused by workplace bullying, excessive demands of time, and issues with adequate level of support from leadership?
Perhaps I'm idealistic to wonder what changes could be made if all of our voices were heard and real systemic change was possible.
Back to the teachers in the spotlight.
I can happily reassure you that all conversations on tour are recorded for my ears only, a simple but necessary accommodation for my issues with auditory processing and working memory. This feels somehow less intimidating than filmed on camera. Nothing visual is linking each teacher to their interview; that voice could be anyone, really. Whereas, camera footage adds another complex layer, an unknown pair of eyes watching and judging; the presence of that tiny screen is intrusive and creates a barrier between what teachers are comfortable sharing.
The first two interviews didn’t work because a connection had become loose, then the next was a garbled mess for no apparent reason. Finally, the microphones were working, and the crowd of teachers descended into discussions in every direction. Normally an avid people-watcher, I tried to steal glances at the conversations around me, happily observing the big smiles and loud laughter. Teachers were connecting, strengthening the support of this already close community. It was actually quite beautiful to witness.
This time I discovered that many of our personal triumphs involved consistently having to prove our capabilities to others. We were proud when a parent finally realised that we had their child’s best interests at heart, or when a toxic colleague recognised the value we brought to a team. Another example was proving that we could manage a class of distinctly different personalities and challenging behaviours. We enjoyed striving to prove ourselves to others.
Is that the people-pleasing in us all? Whether it is consciously or subconsciously, there is a drive to change the perception and judgement of a teacher. We are fighting to gain respect for the vocation that we love.
We prove ourselves time and time again - through our workload, our overtime, our planning, our commitment, our results, our students’ results – the list goes on. We are yelling into the wind that we love our students and are doing our best to support them. We do our best to show parents that we are in this together, as a team. We show our leadership that we are following best practice and doing everything we can to thrive.
Our triumphs are all connected to making a difference.
But who will make a difference and prove themselves to us?
STOP #4 Adelaide, SA
That same student who struggled to trust yet another adult who could let them down.
That same student who lashed out repeatedly, kicking and screaming when feeling overwhelmed.
Academic progress is but one piece of the puzzle. We are detectives, sifting through interests and motivations, searching for the clues to support our students’ lifelong love of learning. We keep searching for ways to support their social-emotional progress; we build up their resilience, guide them through problem-solving, and demonstrate the rewarding effect of genuine kindness. All of it is embedded into our approach and woven through our delivery of curriculum. We have the opportunity to leave students with a memory of a teacher who truly believed in everything that they could achieve, as well as everything that they could one day succeed in if they believed it too.
Quotes from the road:
If you’re looking for examples of verbal red flags, here are a few. I can still hear myself learning and re-learning the lesson of burnout in my first five years of teaching. The determination to work a little harder, push through a little longer, and stretch my limits. We burn through all of our spare time (afternoons, nights, weekends) and risk becoming completely consumed by the flames of passion that we feel for teaching. It reduces our energy to nothing but a pile of ash. You are not alone if you have fallen into this pattern of thinking. It is continuing to crop up across both states (SA and VIC), with specific language being echoed by the masses.
“It takes a lot of effort to make something appear effortless.”
Imagine if the public could understand the scope of intentional and incidental learning that comes with working inside a classroom. If anything, our capacity to love our students more than the curriculum, and be endlessly questioning whether we are doing enough. We find ourselves trapped on a weekly basis, between fighting off teacher guilt to do more and advocating for our wellbeing to do less.
I’ll say it once, and I’ll say it a million times if needed:
And that’s hard, because this idea is so deeply ingrained in society’s belief of what makes a good teacher. Look back at the historical rules for teachers in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Educators were forced to live a life without romance or marriage, childless, solely dedicated to their students, sacrificing their personal wants and needs.
My best advice is to regularly take the time to imagine that you are talking to a person who you love and care about; imagine that they are making the same repeated sacrifices of time and energy. You can see that they are burning quickly through the candle at both ends.
Would you allow this to keep happening?
Would you watch as they burned out, or would you step in?
Start stepping in for yourself by finding the school that cares if you're burning out.