Essay

Compulsory wellbeing

The choice between burnout and demoralisation

SUCH GREAT PAY and all those holidays. Plus you only work from nine ’til three…is often the response a teacher receives when they say what they do for a living. It hurts, but we generally don’t defend ourselves. That’s partly because we’re aware of our reputation as being whingers and partly because we feel embarrassed – embarrassed for the person who said it and their gross ignorance. Teachers understand the public perception around the work they do, even if the public does not.

Watch the teacher who receives those words the next time you hear it said. You dumb-arse, they’re thinking. You have no idea what I do.

Such great pay and all those holidays.

So why don’t you do it? is what teachers really want to say.

Teaching sounds easy when it’s spoken about in terms of holidays and pay scales. And when we look through the nostalgic lens of our own school experiences, teaching appears simpler still. We find ourselves assuming that because we went to school we know how to teach.

How hard can it be? is the subtext of so much public commentary around education.

The truth is that teaching is hard.

It is hard for the same reason it is exhilarating. Teaching is a strange kind of magic that requires you understand another’s thinking. It is the original, organic Bluetooth. Teachers connect their minds to those of their students, tuning in to understand what they understand, and then guiding them to deeper conceptual clarity.

Teaching means meeting students’ needs to foster the social and emotional conditions students require to learn. It is emotional work that demands compassion and patience. Teaching is showing young people a world beyond themselves and a way of being in that world.

Teaching is like herding cats. It means bringing together disparate individuals and convincing them that acquiring an understanding of cells or Shakespeare or coding is a worthwhile enterprise. It’s messy too, like a kids’ party on steroids. It’s body odour and playground duty and lunchboxes and learning platforms. All of that and so much more. That’s teaching. The very bare bones of it.

Yet these days, it’s rare for a teacher to engage in the fundamentals of teaching. There’s no time anymore, and priorities have changed. The teaching–learning loop – planning, delivery, assessment, feedback – has been hijacked by endless ‘reforms’. We now have an education system that looks like a Christmas tree decorated by an overenthusiastic eight-year-old. It’s heaving under the weight of so many trimmings, nobody can be sure there’s still a tree beneath all the tinsel. Education has been shaped into an industry, with the expectation that it is capable of performing according to a business model. As a result, the practice of teaching has become an endless series of tasks related to accountability: collect data, record data, report data.

Such great pay and all those holidays.

Clearly, the pay and the ‘holidays’ aren’t compelling enough. Teachers are leaving the profession. Interestingly, in an ‘industry’ obsessed with data, there is no national database on teacher attrition. Estimates vary but suggest that between one third and one half leave within the first five years. Teachers are also retiring early and leaving mid-career. A recent NSW Teachers Federation survey revealed two thirds of teachers are reconsidering their future in the profession.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that those teachers who are practising are not thriving. A majority of teachers, responding to any given research question or survey, identify as being depressed and/or having persistent anxiety. Principals are recorded as experiencing extreme stress and are subject to more abuse and threats of violence, in various forms, than the general population.

Such great pay and all those holidays.

There’s another reason why teachers don’t speak out against this wildly inaccurate statement. There seems to be no point in a profession where the voices of teachers are actively supressed. For obvious reasons we cannot talk about our students, but we are also bound by codes of conduct that prevent us from talking about our working conditions. Rather than teachers driving the discussion around education, the discourse is driven by politicians and policymakers.

So imagine my surprise when, burnt out, I left teaching and found myself propelled into a strange kind of fame with the publication of ‘Teaching Australia’, an essay for Griffith Review 51: Fixing the System in 2016, and a subsequent memoir, Teacher, in 2018. After years of feeling voiceless, I was on the bestseller list – and media interest poured in.

‘We’ve always wanted a teacher who could speak freely,’ television producers told me.

Really? I wondered. Are you ready to hear what teachers have to say?

 

‘EYES, EYES, EYES to me!’ is a saying many teachers chant in primary classrooms. It’s a call for quiet, for attention – a call to listen.

‘Eyes, eyes, eyes to you,’ the students reply.

And indeed, all eyes are on our teachers – judging and scrutinising – but never really seeing.

In recent decades the landscape of education has changed. Information from the Gonski Review was curated by politicians to create frames and packages that were self-serving. One such frame was the idea of ‘teacher quality’, a soundbite fed to the media as a means of distracting attention from the big- ticket item of funding. Graded A–E report cards infiltrated our schools – and little ones, on the precipice of falling in love with learning, grappled with words such as rubric and criteria. They discovered quickly that big school was a place for measurement and competition. The high-stakes NAPLAN testing regime was implemented. A national curriculum was rolled out. Professional teaching standards were enforced.

The subtext of each of these initiatives was the same: we cannot trust our teachers; we need to watch those teachers.

Eyes, eyes, eyes to me!

Eyes are on our teachers. They are being asked to close gaps, to perform faultlessly even in a pandemic and to be innovative with ever-changing technologies that are inequitably distributed. There’s an expectation of a world-class education riding on their shoulders and they’re constantly being told that their efforts are falling short – even when they follow the directives and initiatives imposed upon them by people who have never taught a day in their lives.

The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership website provides a classic case in point. Clicking the ‘Research and Evidence’ tab it reads: Education ministers have agreed that learning progressions and online formative assessment should be a national priority initiative for education. Who are these ministers? And where are they now? What qualifications did they have in education in the first place – apart from their experiences as students? Ironically, all of those learning progressions are time-consuming, data-plotting tasks that serve neither students nor teachers, but they do provide handy evidence for politicians and policymakers.

Eyes, eyes, eyes to you.

 

WHEN I FIRST met Gwen it was 2015 and we were teaching at the same school. Gwen was a graduate who was looking forward to making a difference. I was falling apart; teaching kindergarten, taking antidepressants and seeing a psychologist. I was burning out in a spectacular way, like a handheld sparkler, my career’s end writ bright across a night sky.

Despite her enthusiasm, which seemed abrasive in the face of my decline, I liked Gwen. She was older than a typical graduate, with a bachelor of applied arts, a major in glass-casting. And she’d worked for many years in high-end hospitality. She knew how to communicate, how to manage people – and she was creative. Gwen had the makings of an outstanding teacher. By the end of her first year, Gwen was finding her feet. I had resigned.

Years later, Gwen is still in the trenches. She’s at a different school now, a public high school, in another state.

She calls me, crying.

‘How did you know that you wanted to quit?’ she asks. ‘I didn’t want to,’ I say. ‘I had to.’

I remember the way my body had made the decision. I recall the panic attacks and the inertia that followed. I tell Gwen about the persistent numbness, how I couldn’t laugh or cry.

‘At least I’m crying,’ she says. We giggle then and I am hoping with every part of my teacher heart that Gwen will be okay. Please, I pray, don’t let her be broken.

Gwen is an art teacher, fabulous and gifted – but she’s teaching out of subject. She’s got a full load of English: Years 7, 8, 9 and 10. She’s also got Year 8 drama and Year 9 for a subject they’re calling digital.

‘Any art?’ I ask. ‘Year 8.’

‘No senior art?’

‘Have to earn my stripes,’ she says. ‘Or wait ’til someone retires.’

She sniffs and I know fresh tears are not far away. Teaching out of subject is common: a recent Teachers Federation survey showed eight out of ten teachers have taught, or were currently teaching, outside their area of expertise. Data from staff in Australian schools surveys shows out of subject teaching at 20 per cent in maths and 16 per cent in English.

‘What’s happening for you?’ I ask carefully. I’m no counsellor, just a recovering teacher who sometimes considers setting up the equivalent of an AA meeting for teachers like Gwen. Thousands of teachers have contacted me since Teacher was published. My story has come to stand for many, helping teachers to feel seen and heard. It’s small comfort because the change we need is not forthcoming – and in the meantime, teachers are suffering.

‘It’s just hard,’ Gwen says. ‘I’m becoming a shit teacher.’ ‘I’m sure you’re not.’

‘I am,’ she says. ‘Two boys came in for digital and they were stoned. I didn’t do anything about it. They’re difficult kids and I felt…’ she pauses. ‘I felt grateful. It meant they’d sit quietly and I could get through the lesson.’

‘Do you say anything?’

‘I’d be reporting something every day. I’ll never get a job next year if I’m complaining all the time.’

Gwen’s contract is temporary. She reapplies for the position each year. This means ‘all those holidays’ are partially unpaid and Gwen has no job security. This makes things such as mortgages and maternity leave problematic for teachers like Gwen – not to mention that teaching out of subject again becomes an issue as teachers stretch themselves in order to secure contracts. This casualisation is an unnecessary phenomenon that destabilises our schools, impacts student learning and devalues the profession.

‘I spend most of the weekend marking,’ Gwen goes on. ‘And doing online documenting for compliance. Most kids don’t read the feedback I give.’ She sighs. ‘Then when I assign grades, parents tear strips off me and insist that I give a better result, even though I spent hours marking against a criteria.’

Gwen tells me a story of a recent attempt to redirect a student who was using his phone during the lesson.

I’ve got to finish this game, he told her. Calm the fuck down, Miss! I’m nearly at the next level.

‘I feel such shame at how they treat me.’ Gwen breaks then, her pain manifesting as a sound that reminds me of a newborn baby, helpless and hopeless.

Such great pay, and all those holidays.

It would be easy to make presumptions about Gwen’s experience. It’s probably a poor town, right? Low socio-economics. They’re probably kids with illiterate parents, the kind of people that have kids with several different partners. They had their first child at sixteen and now they’re on the dole. They’re probably drug addicts.

But this is not true.

Gwen’s school is in a regional area and there is some disadvantage, but not for the bulk of students. These are parents who, for the most part, work full time in agriculture, construction or tourism. They are tax-paying families with mortgages. Many own their own businesses and have completed Year 12 and some have university degrees. When the world is healthy and stable, they holiday in Bali.

Perhaps then it’s school leadership that’s lacking? But Gwen can’t speak highly enough of her principal and the leadership team. ‘They’re all doing the best they can,’ she assures me. ‘We’re all just trying to survive.’

Gwen is living out the cumulative effects of an education system that has been buffeted by political winds and propelled by the neoliberal ideology that drives our society – every entitled man for himself. Gwen’s experience speaks to that paradigm as it plays out in education: the casualisation of the profession, teaching out of subject, working at accountability tasks that achieve little, and being abused by students and parents who perceive themselves as customers.

I chat with another colleague. I’m sure Joan’s been teaching children to read since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. I share snippets of Gwen’s story, hoping this veteran will offer insight. Instead she shrugs, her expression resigned.

‘It’s no different to them making me teach from a script,’ she says.

Joan’s referring to a reading program that was once employed for students who needed intervention but has now been rolled out for all kids in the classroom. Joan has had to set aside her years of successful experience and professional knowledge to read from a script. She notices her students are not becoming the engaged readers she knows they could be and she can feel her own passion as a teacher withering away.

The unique artistry of teaching, the particular flavour of learning a teacher brings to the room, is no longer valued. Increasingly programs are implemented in schools that follow a one-size-fits-all model and both teachers and students suffer. Joan tells me how the scripted program is time-consuming yet pacey, jumping ahead before learners are ready. She laments the lack of nuance – how it doesn’t cater for different learning or teaching styles.

‘I was a good reading teacher,’ Joan says. ‘I’d assess the children and group them accordingly. We’d read aloud together and play word games.’ She shakes her head and looks aggrieved. ‘Now, I’m mandated to do what I know is the opposite of good pedagogy.’ Joan sighs. ‘It’s demoralising.’

 

WHEN I FIRST heard the expression ‘demoralisation’, I had been recover- ing from teaching for two years. It was the title of an article by a researcher from the US named Doris A Santoro. ‘Is It Burnout? Or Demoralization?’ I stared at that title for minutes before reading on. A tiny idea uncurled within me: maybe my failure wasn’t my fault. I read the article desperately.

Santoro’s research concluded that while burnout was the way we were typically explaining the ongoing exodus of teachers leaving the profession (it’s not a problem unique to Australia), it was also a symptom of something much larger. She described that as demoralisation.

Put simply, demoralisation is the discord a teacher feels when they’re asked to perform tasks and follow procedures that produce moral and ethical conflict for them as a professional. Demoralisation is the experience of facing ongoing barriers to enacting their work in ways they know to be correct – and their efforts to change this situation have been futile. Demoralisation is the constant stripping away of teachers’ autonomy as professionals.

In practical terms, demoralisation is Gwen’s experience of teaching out of subject, having no job security, being threatened by parents and being disrespected by students. Demoralisation is wise, experienced Joan reading to little children from a teaching script when she knows she should be reading from a storybook.

Demoralisation is the national conversation about the work teachers do when it’s stuck on a single erroneous idea: such great pay and all those holidays.

 

THE EFFECTS OF teacher demoralisation manifest as burnout and as a chronic dissatisfaction with teaching – and that’s what has teachers leaving the profession in droves. The recent independent inquiry into valuing the teaching profession commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation forecasts a ‘teacher drought’, while media reports use the words ‘shortage’ or even ‘crisis’. While this exodus has been noticed, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in the cause. Apparently, the solution to teacher attrition is to come from the teachers themselves.

Teacher wellbeing is now a ‘thing’. Two words pushed together to create a particular idea and become another sexy catchphrase cavorting through the world of education. Teacher wellbeing seems to have snuck in through the back gate like the stray dog that busts into a school and causes havoc in the playground. It needs to be returned home and chained up – only the students have named it and nobody knows where it came from.

Like that stray dog, teacher wellbeing is difficult to define and its origins are equally as slippery. First used in a medical context post-World War II, the concept of wellbeing has infiltrated economic, psychological and social dimensions. And in the world of education, the notion of student wellbeing morphed throughout the early 2000s as teachers – who learn early on at university about links between wellbeing and learning – were encouraged to bring mindfulness and meditation into their classrooms. Positive psychology, the ‘science of wellbeing’, had arrived in schools. And then came the stray dog. Now, teacher wellbeing is an agenda item at the staff meeting that should’ve ended fifteen minutes ago.

‘Remember our extra meeting on teacher wellbeing,’ the principal instructs. ‘6 pm on Thursday. We will be led by an expert in breath work. It’s important you take care of yourselves.’

Too bad if your idea of wellbeing is being home with your family. Too bad if breath work isn’t your jam and you’d rather be out for a walk. Too bad if you have marking and programming to get through. Too bad, so sad. Compulsory wellbeing for you. An entire industry is coming to life around teacher wellbeing and there’s money to be made: courses and resources, podcasts and coaches, wellness days and retreats…all potentially enriching and well intentioned, but perhaps not exactly what’s needed.

We don’t have to sit an exam to puzzle out the idea that instructing teachers to attend to their wellbeing is an attempt to address the teacher haemorrhage. And of course teacher wellbeing is important! Wellbeing matters for everyone, whatever their job. But the idea of teacher wellbeing being the answer, the panacea to professional attrition, to rocketing stress levels, work overload and excessive accountability is wrong for several reasons.

Suggesting that teachers should ‘attend to their wellbeing’ as a means of managing their ‘feelings’ about their work is another instance of demoralisation. It’s akin to offering a bandaid to a gunshot victim. Wellbeing, as it’s often presented to teachers, instructs them to manage their diet, prioritise their rest and foster their routines of self-care. And teachers who endure well-being delivered in this way often find themselves fuming.

Being offered an early mark from a meeting or chocolates on the staff- room table at report-writing time is more of the same. Even unions advocating for better pay do little for teacher wellbeing: all these measures are reactive and transactional – tokenistic at best and demoralising at worst. Addressing teacher wellbeing in this way does not address the underlying structural problems that cause teacher ‘ill-being’.

Teachers know how to look after themselves; after all, many of them have to teach wellbeing in some form or another. ‘We all know the way to Dan Murphy’s!’ I often say when speaking to an audience of teachers about this pervasive topic. Everybody laughs. What teachers need is time to attend to their wellbeing in ways that are satisfying for them – and the agency to make such choices for themselves.

At a recent professional gathering of teachers, I mention this phrase. ‘Ugh,’ one teacher groans in response. ‘Those words make me sick.’

Because teacher wellbeing implies that the problem is with teachers. Time and again, it’s insinuated that teachers are the problem. It’s there in the competitive hierarchy of professional teaching standards that has been so detrimental to this collegial profession. And it’s there in the ongoing discourse around ‘teacher quality’ rather than ‘teaching quality’ – a simple suffix change that shifts thinking from the person to their practice. Yet we remain stuck on teacher, always the teacher, always in need of improvement.

Be better teachers: that’s the constant messaging we receive. Be better at what you do. Be better at who you are. And be better within yourselves.

Teacher wellbeing is yet another redirect, another sleight of hand to keep us all from considering what’s really going wrong within our education system. It is yet another simple supposed solution offered to an increasingly complex problem.

Eyes, eyes, eyes to you.

 

I CALL GWEN to check in. She’s taken some sick leave and seen her psychologist. She’s brought all her record-keeping up to date, just in case the shit ever hits the fan and she needs to stand up in court one day and give evidence about stoned students or assessment procedures. I ask her about the wellbeing measures that have been put in place at her school.

She laughs and cites a prerecorded webinar all the teachers had to watch one afternoon after an exhausting day of remote teaching during lockdown. ‘We had to email in a written response afterwards so they could tick and flick the wellbeing box.’

‘Was it useful?’ I ask. ‘I can’t remember.’

A pause and Gwen laughs again. ‘There’s also a wellbeing poster,’ she says, her voice sounding mischievous. ‘It’s pinned up in the shared staff toilet.’

‘The perfect place for wellbeing!’

‘It says Take Five,’ Gwen explains. ‘It says: Use your senses and become present.

Then it says: What are five things you can see, touch, hear…’

‘Smell!’ We say it together and then both laugh like kookaburras. ‘Does it also say taste?’ I cannot help but ask.

‘Not sure,’ Gwen says. ‘I’ll have a look tomorrow.’

I cannot see her face – we’re speaking ‘old school’ – audio only. But I know we’re both smiling sadly now.

 

IT WON’T BE enough for me to tell you that our teachers need things to be better. That ubiquitous shorthand – such great pay and all those holidays – has created something of an archetype in the ways we let ourselves think about teachers and the work they must do. And even though many people speak well of teachers – even though recent experiences of locked-down home learning provoked encouraging signs of renewed respect for the teaching profession – it still feels as though there’s little desire for the big transformational changes that are required for teachers to flourish and thrive. As a teacher, I know that a better angle is to appeal on behalf of the children, my students. Because everything I’ve described here impacts not only the teachers but their students as well.

What kind of teachers do we want for our children? Do we want teachers who are stressed and medicated? Do we want teachers teaching out of subject, exhausting themselves on casual contracts? Do we want to position teachers as ‘business operators’, forced to tolerate disrespect from students and parents because they are the ‘customers’? Do we want teachers who are sniffing the air of a shared toilet cubicle, trying to find a meditative moment?

Or do we want something better?

Neoliberalism. Political interference. Call it what you will. There’s an obsession in education with measuring, making standard, collecting data. It does not serve any of us well – teachers, students, the societies to which they contribute. It has skewed the way we think about learning and it has eroded our trust in, and respect for, teachers.

Such great pay and all those holidays.

The way we will know that our education system is flourishing and that our teachers and students are thriving within it, the way we might measure it, is when people’s first comment on meeting a teacher is to say: That’s important and challenging work. How are you going with it?

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