Recently I have been tired. Bone achingly, soul crushingly tired.I feel like the fire has gone from my soul. It is the end of term, I had a 2 day field trip last weekend, meetings three days after school this week (including friday – who even does that..?), Parent teacher interviews 2 nights next week plus a whole load of other stuff I should get done. I haven’t finished uploading the #scichatNZ #teachmeet videos, I haven’t finished a scholarship resource I planned to do, and I haven’t marked a level one science test my students did last friday. I’m also really certain I am not the only teacher in the country saying 6 days to go…… and then you see articles like this one saying holidays need to change.
And worst of all I feel like I am letting everyone down. Myself, my students, my schools, my family. The ‘guilt’ is crushing.
A couple of weeks back I had a chance conversation with some-one about my concerns for teacher workload and teacher PLD – how can we make is sustainable and fair and even accessible for everyone. I talked about scichatNZ and why we (Matt Nicoll and company) had started it, and how educamps and teachmeets might help fill that gap. The reply I got was unexpected and thought provoking…. it was something along the lines of
‘this is the problem with the heroic model, people fill gaps so the problem isn’t addressed, and then people burn out’.
Which is exactly what I have found – the team definitely burned out, and me with them. Even trying to be more sustainable this year, it has been a massive struggle to get people involved and contributing.
Having only recently been introduced to the heroic leader model by Welby Ings fabulous book disobedient teaching, I had never considered this to apply to me. I don’t consider myself a hero!! But in the couple of weeks since this conversation, and watching my colleagues crumble into piles of tired, flu filled ‘grump’ I think that perhaps many teachers and schools fit this model to a degree. We are asked to be heroes and champions, we are asked to do the impossible, every year gets more complicated and full, and we just keep doing what we do. And as Welby Ings says of heroic leaders….
In the end they become self defeating because the more heroic they are, the more they increase the gap between dependancy and empowerment.
(Ings, disobedient teaching 2017)
And as David Bowie says – we can be hereos, but just for one day.
So are teachers, by their can do attitude, yes I’ll pick up the slack, yip I’ll bend over backwards, actually causing harm by making the system too reliant on them? Are teachers fixing a problem for a short while, but unintentionally masking the real issues behind them.
So how does this apply to me in the classroom?
I can apply this thought process to my students learning. If I spoon feed them all the answers and don’t provide opportunities for them to fail, then I don’t think they ‘learn’. True, they might be able to repeat back some facts about Chem. But I don’t just want my students to remember Chem, I want them to learn resilience, compassion, empathy. I want them to relate what they are learning about to their lives and the lives of others. I’m struggling with the idea that to teach them these things, I might have to be less compassionate myself. It is a strange saying, sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind. Is it true though?
I recently went a bit ‘ranty’ at my level 3 Chem class because I got a torrid of excuses for not having completed some work and/or bombing in an assessment. ‘I couldn’t find the notes online’. ‘I was doing a different internal’. ‘I didn’t understand it’. Why didn’t you ask I said. Blank stares and I didn’t have time type defensive comments followed. So I told them all if pak n save rang for a reference, I wouldn’t recommend them for the job. They demonstrated they couldn’t follow instructions, avoided a simple task, and then did not take responsibility for not having done said task. If you were an employee and didn’t do something you were asked, and then said you didn’t know how but didn’t ask for help, I’m pretty sure most bosses would be saying see you later. You can imagine the looks and feels I got for that statement 🙂 But as a classroom teacher I do bend over backwards to help my students, I am available via email or text pretty much whenever, I give up noncontacts and after school for tutorials and questions, and I know I am not alone in this. I have heard of teacher picking kids up on weekends to get to a tutorial. I know the harm that this could cause my students – this idea that Mrs Chisnall will come along and save the day, so I don’t need to panic now – does, but I also really really want my kids to achieve success. And my school wants kids to achieve success, and my community wants kids to achieve success. At the end of the day, the credit crunch counts and it is my ‘job’ to get kids over the line.
Another (more heartbreaking and more complex and political ) way I think this can be applied to schools was this article about kids going hungry in the holidays because, in many cases, the food they got at school was the only food they ate all day. I was torn between anger at the fact that kids go hungry at all, frustration that poverty in New Zealand is so real that some families genuinely can not afford to feed their children, and sadness that some parents assume that school will feed their kids, and so don’t think about it when it is holidays. A prime case of dependancy rather than empowerment. Heroic schools and teachers are not just about changing education, we are being (in my opinion) asked to fill the role of parents more and more. That article lead to this blog post about why we still have cracks. So many students are still falling through them, despite all the heroic efforts of classroom teachers, schools and community groups. My school feeds quite a few kids in different ways, and again I have a box of muesli bars in my supermarket trolley each week for just this. Because if kids are in poorer communities, even with their teachers being heroes, they just don’t get them same levels of achievement.
And again, there have been an increasing number of articles (here, here,…) about students unable to participate in sports teams and school activities because the cost is out of reach. I’m sure there are others. And it is awesome that the community rallied around these boys so they could get the money, but it does mask the fact that the family is living in poverty. And there are many families like this, who simply can not offer their kids the opportunities they ‘deserve’ because of cost.
Recently I had another conversation about what was important in education. And how all the various ‘facets’ involved all probably think they are the only ones doing the right thing. Teachers are accused of moaning about conditions and pay scales – really we don’t care about the kids. Senior leadership in schools care about budgets and stats – really they don’t care about the kids. Board of Trustees care about the schools reputation and ERO reports – really they don’t care about the kids. The Ministry of Education is accused of cutting any and all costs – really they don’t care about the kids. The Ministry of vulnerable children is accused of meaningless paperwork and bureaucracy – really they don’t care about at risk kids in our schools.
But really, EVERYONE on of these departments/agencies/groups cares about the kids. Maybe they are looking through a different lens, but everyone cares. Everyone is being a hero in their own way, and we don’t always work very well together, or even look through the same lens, that often.
And teachers are leaving. Admit it or not, teachers are leaving in the profession. This is an article from 2002, so this is not new news! New teachers don’t stay, teachers are ‘burning’ out, teachers are leaving for overseas or for jobs in educational companies. At times, there have been too many teachers trained and so those teachers can’t get jobs and left. We are training less teachers than we did. Schools are being forced to use distance learning or change their options because teachers can’t be found. The much quoted ‘average’ age of teachers is in the mid to late 50s. Teachers are coming back from retirement to fill gaps (again, teachers stepping up to save the day!) because there are not the graduates coming through in the ‘right’ areas.
So then the really hard question is how to we break out of this heroic model. Because, by being heroic, teachers and schools are possibly limiting the ability of their students and communities to be empowered. By picking up the slack are we masking other issues of dependancy in the community? Are we slowly contributing to the falling status of our profession, and the reporting around teaching in New Zealand would be enough to put most people off opting into teaching as a profession?
By doing our utmost, are we actually doing harm?
It isn’t a nice thought, and it is one I am struggling with. By teachers and schools shouldering these additional burdens, are we doing more harm than good? If we keep saving the day, will the underlying causes never be address? Or is this the way it is now, and the gulf between the haves and the have nots will get wider and wider, and the champions will get fewer and fewer as they burn into cinders and ash.
And then, according to my favourite current heroine, Katniss Everdeen, fire is catching. How do we get those burnt out teachers back to roaring flames? How can we ensure we get new growth?