Updated: Dec 11, 2019
Teaching in systems
Twenty eight years ago, I was persuaded by my High School English teacher to teach English alongside her at a small independent school in Benoni. Not my dream job. Not my dream school. But, I could not have been happier: life was good at twenty-two.
Two years into teaching, despite my passion and romantic-idealism for teaching English, I accepted that an education focused on divergent thinking, individuality, and genuine learning was horribly unrealistic, hindered, often, by bureaucratic disconnect and systemic devaluation. It became clear that the job which I was capricious about made me a little more contrary. I understood quickly that genuine creation and effective collaboration would be forever secondary to administrative agendas, systemic mandates, and a tireless effort to maintain the status quo. Crestfallen, but not exhausted, I submitted a letter of resignation and decided to try my hand at journalism -
for which I had initially qualified.
And, 12 months later, after enduring the Cruella de Vil of sub-editing, I walked back into classroom at a Technical College. I turned the key to my classroom, and smelt the faint aroma of students long gone, of used books and floor sanitiser. Indeed, I was home and vexed, wondering why I had left teaching at all. I was filled, again, with the same old romantic-idealism.
I had to admit as I looked at the neat rows of empty desks: I am an educator. This is where I belonged; in a high school, teaching English. And, so I relinquished any journalistic ambition, and stayed teaching at the Technical College for over five years. But, the hunger for corporate ambitions and titillations did take hold on two more occasions over the next ten years. And that is how it was for almost 10 years: in teaching; out of teaching; back in again. Then everything settled. I settled.
The ideas and experiences expressed, hereafter (and in many other written pieces on education) simply comprise my experiences in education; my story. There are no grandiose revelations or suggested shifts and transformations in education. There are no references to ground-breaking educational theory or pedagogy. There is no more idealism. What follows are real observations made by a real educator within the never changing educational climate. And guess what? You know this story. We all do. We have read about it in books and articles, seen it played out in movies and television shows. We know the issues and we know the narrative. And, that is exactly the problem: my experience is in no way original; in fact, it is all too unoriginal.
The sentiments shared are held and expressed behind closed doors, in offices and break rooms, by various stakeholders throughout the educational realm. Certainly, it’s not the only narrative out there, but I believe it is a common one, and therefore worthy of at least some attention. If we as a society, truly value education, then educators - the ones in the classrooms every day, the conduits of educational content, the ones supporting and inspiring our students need to be listened to. That said, here’s my story.
It was never my plan to be a life-long classroom teacher - though there were certainly moments where I dreamed of one day channelling the inspiration and wisdom of Mr. Feeny, Mr. Keating and other television teachers whom I knew and loved. Fuelled, though, by naiveté and perhaps a willing and prideful ignorance, I convinced myself that, even if it wasn’t my end goal, teaching English in a high school classroom was the best job ever... talking about books, inspiring students, changing lives, and shaping the future - what more could I ask for?
And, once I had found my home at the Technical College, and after that teaching at International Schools things were good, really good. Then, sometime in my 19th year of teaching, they weren’t. Suddenly, the rose-coloured spectacles came off and I realised that this job that I loved was eating me alive. Having time to write was non-existent. I realised that I was not alone: teachers were expected to feel this way.
I knew that something had to be done. After intense personal and emotional contemplation, and with remorse, I arrived at the decision to resign. It was a hard decision to make, a decision that I, at times of weakness or self-doubt, still find myself questioning. For most of my life, education and sustainable working relationships have been something that I believed in, something that made sense to me.
As a student, I was fortunate enough to have a handful of amazing teachers who instilled in me a thirst for knowledge and an appreciation for the learning process. Their passion and dedication inspired creativity, collaboration, and progress, which became central pillars of my professional philosophy. Years later, when I stood in a classroom for the first time, I longed for the opportunity to have a similar impact as an educator: I wanted to change lives.
My days were charged with an electric energy. Students loved me, my colleagues and I worked well together, and admittedly I was good at what I did. Electing to spend weekends preparing class work, I pored over curriculum, finding ways to best deliver instruction to diverse students. I viewed the world through a teacher's lens in hope to connect everything back to content. Teaching quickly became my identity, my life - a reality that is in retrospect quite troublesome. Never, though, had a job so perfectly aligned with my personality, skills, and abilities making those personal sacrifices seemed justifiable. The excitement of this reality moved me to live out the mantra ‘’Carpe Diem’’ in which students hungered to understand, express, and defend their own personal beliefs, idea and thoughts. My aim was to encourage students to showcase their lives after high school - advice which coincidentally came to contrast with my own life trajectory and professional dilemma.
The Classroom vs. Everything Else
As time moved on, however, and as I became more immersed in the world of teaching - joining committees, taking on leadership roles, overhauling curricula — I began to realise that perhaps my ideals of an education focused on genuine instruction and growth, on creativity and collaboration, were disconnected from the day-in and day-out reality of teaching.
In the classroom, we emphasise the importance of collaboration and divergent thinking to our students; we encourage them to seek out opportunities to think critically and grow in their passions.The reality, though, is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, for most teachers to put these ideas to practice in their own lives. Certainly, there are some who do work to create effective educational experiences not only for their students, but also for themselves. Many, however, do not. Amidst the increasing number of mandated meetings regarding frameworks and assessments and other agenda items that seem so disconnected from the actual classroom experience, and in the absence of any real accountability, the system encourages these very dedicated and sacrificial teachers to become complacent. I watched good teacher bowled down like skittles.
I came to understand that if we are expected to change and progress together in our curriculum and instruction, then teachers need time - flexible, unstructured, use-however-you-need-it time to change and progress together.
When the system does not actively support the needs of its teachers, when complacency reigns unchecked with no sense of collective accountability, people become resistant, or at least reluctant, to change. In turn, the brunt of instructional and curricular responsibility is thrust onto a very small, over-dedicated, group of educators, willing to sacrifice, without compensation their lives outside of the classroom, their energy and time, to make education better. They will do this, and they will do it well.
And yes, in the end, this small band of passionate educators will create change, and it will be effective, but this does not mean we should preserve the status quo. These ends do not in any way justify the means.
After 19 years in education, I found myself in that smaller, tired population of teachers, and I realised that I had to make a choice. If the system would not support me, if it would simply rely on my willingness to blur the line between who I am and what I do, to sacrifice my personal life for my job, then something had to change. Though I was wholeheartedly thankful for the colleagues, administrators, and friends who have helped me accomplish and experience all that I have in my educational tenure, I had to leave and start a school of my own. And, I did. Not out of anger, nor out of sadness, but out of a genuine desire to find an opportunity that will allow me to create, collaborate, and grow, and one that will encourage my colleagues.
While the concerns expressed herein are limited to observations from my own experiences, they are without a doubt indicative of larger systemic issues within the current education system. Certainly, there are many areas where this system succeeds, but there are so many others where it tragically fails. I strongly contend that these issues are worth attention and action now, especially as we quickly encounter wide spread teacher shortages. In the future, I sincerely hope that these problems are addressed with urgency and that such a societal effort would lead to the development of real and lasting educational change. Furthermore, what is said here just begins to scratch the surface of the issues (emotional support, organisation, financial compensation, administrative disconnect, lack of value, physical safety, political agendas by the examining bodies, corporate identities and money making by educational brands… the list goes on) faced by educators slogging through the trenches of the education system.
If we truly value education, if we care about the future and the success of our students, then we must listen to these stories. We must learn from them. They will challenge what we know and think about education; they will shatter paradigms. By, listening to and supporting these educators - the people in the classrooms every day - is the only way we will ever make permanent and effective educational change.