The best part of my job is engaging with people who are at the very start of their journey as teachers. I love seeing their early engagements with the concepts and the skills that they will use in their classrooms; the revelations that come by jolts, lesson by lesson, task by task, conversation by conversation, along with the failures and the unpicking of failure that happens just as fast.
I remember from my own early days as a teacher how stressful that is, and how all-consuming. I remember the nerves before every class that never went away. And I remember some of the wins; the children who told me how I had affected them; and those who I still know, some of whom have themselves gone on to be teachers.
This wonderful mix of challenge and joy, the complexity with the simple pleasure of interaction with young people, is often lost in our struggle to attract enough people into our profession.
Teachers face very real challenges in both their workload and fight for salaries that recognise the skill and commitment that is required to make a difference for children. Through my work I hear daily about the reality for new teachers working in schools serving low-income communities, and sometimes the incredible trade-offs that they have made, for themselves and their loved ones, in order to commit to it.
But in the broader picture, I wonder how we can start to talk more about the bigger story of a profession, unlike any other, that impacts directly on every one of our lives in such a powerful way.
I recently talked to an academic who interviewed a number of our participants about their experiences of teaching in schools serving low-income communities. She talked about the major dissonance that teachers face, especially those who join with the explicit focus on and awareness of the broad social inequality that affect their students. These are factors with relevance far beyond the walls of any classroom, and deeper than any teacher could ever dig alone.
Nonetheless, like so many who join the profession, our teachers battle to balance their day to day desire to grow as competent and, hopefully, outstanding teachers, with a dual role as people capable of affecting these broader systemic issues. As a teacher, however passionate and expert you are about your subject, compassion and commitment to changing young peoples’ lives means that it’s just not possible to ignore the realities of the lives of the children in your class. That’s why so many teachers give so generously of their own resources: time, emotion, and often money, well beyond the letter of their contracts.
That is a huge responsibility, but also incredible and inspiring.
Teachers didn’t create educational inequality and they certainly can’t resolve it alone, but they will definitely be at the heart of however we as a society decide to properly tackle the systemic causes of inequality.
Teachers have the potential to influence a transformation in Aotearoa New Zealand for the better because of the complexity and entanglement of education with broader social outcomes.
In Budget 2018 the government announced additional funding and policy initiatives to address the serious shortage of teachers in this country. We welcome this and hope that it will make a significant difference immediately, and set the structural foundation for the medium and long-term to make sure all children have what they need to live long and happy lives.
As we address the shortcomings of the current system though, perhaps it’s also time to start telling the inspiring story of how teachers can lead the way in transforming our society into a fairer and more equitable one. That’s not on its own going to solve the issue of teacher shortage, but as Jacinda Ardern said last week: “If we’re not here for kids or the future for the country they live in, what are we here for?”. For anyone who wants to change the world in this way, there’s possibly no better place to start than teaching.
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