Steepest of learning curves for graduate teachers

A teacher’s first teaching placement is often an uphill battle 

A new AEU NT member* writes about her difficulties as a teaching graduate entering the workforce

As a passionate believer in quality education, the data surrounding new teacher retention rates seemed unbelievable. The AEU has recently submitted some reasons to a parliamentary inquiry for teachers leaving the profession: lack of job security, little professional autonomy, teaching out of field as well as placing inexperienced teachers into highly challenging environments to begin their careers as some of the reasons that teachers exit the profession so early.

As a graduate teacher, the reports now make perfect sense. I now understand the lightning speed at which new teachers need to develop resilience and understand their workplaces. I now also understand the harsh reality about how well-intentioned, hard-working and emotionally intelligent people could give up on their dreams during their first five years of teaching in a system dedicated to student outcomes yet indifferent to teacher wellbeing. It is glaringly obvious that these seemingly opposing forces are inextricably linked.

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress experienced by a person who holds two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. Teachers are more vulnerable to high levels of stress due to the high level of job demands placed on us. Graduate teachers, often optimistic and somewhat naïve experience many types of stressors, usually all experienced at the same time at the very beginning of your career.

Teachers are to reward individuality but reprimand students who have not yet learned how to conform and disrupt others.

Other seemingly contradictory examples include, but are not limited to, how teachers are to develop meaningful relationships with students, while copping the brunt of abuse when mistakes are made. New teachers then sustain a hyper-vigilant approach to teaching, instead of sustaining their own teaching style. Teachers are to encourage creativity yet gradually give up their own creativity in exchange for classroom management.

Teachers are to reward individuality but reprimand students who have not yet learned how to conform and disrupt others. Teachers are to be passionate about a subject yet be prepared to have it torn to shreds by students (sometimes literally). Teachers are to read widely but spend every spare hour meticulously planning or marking. Teachers are to have utmost confidence and control yet face constant criticism and denigrating probation (“performance”) meetings. Six months is an unrealistic timeframe to perfect the craft of teaching.

Ironically, we teach students how to voice their opinion … while many of us are suffering in secret.

Teachers are to be deeply reflective but not too self-critical. We are to be sensitive and show empathy but be bulletproof and retire both tear ducts. Teachers are to have high expectations of all students while being prepared for the worst. Ironically, we teach students how to voice their opinion, question things and work hard to solve problems, while many of us are suffering in secret.

Despite these conundrums, science has shown us that mindfulness meditation for 30 minutes per day can relinquish symptoms of stress. My days that begin this way are significantly easier than the days that begin with the bell and her associated sounds of morning morale. It is one strategy that reminds me to be grateful that even in my first year of teaching, hanging by a thread off the side of the steepest curve, I have a meaningful opportunity to positively affect other people’s daily lives.

The systems within which teachers work lack a duty of care to those new to the profession. For example, in other states’ enterprise agreements, early career teachers are given extra time off class to help adjust to the demands of being a teacher for the first time. This is sadly not the case yet in the NT. While the DoE are working on a framework for teacher wellbeing, there are real concerns for the new educators struggling in our system right now.

* This piece has been published anonymously at the member’s request.

This article was first published in the Term 3, 2019 edition of the Territory Educator magazine