Sarah-Kay Coulter

When I decided to go into teaching it was because I had a hunch. Yes, a hunch. I was sitting in a design job in London, looking out at a moody grey sky and this idea came into my head that just didn’t want to leave that suggested maybe I should go teaching. It nagged at me and after returning back to New Zealand I thought it seemed like a good idea at the time to study. I liked kids. I liked people. I liked learning. So I made some sacrifices, lived in a grotty student flat in my mid-20s just off Ponsonby Road, got a student loan and followed that intuition.

Now a decade on, I’ve gathered experience in both private and public schools, have taught internationally and worked in and managed Early Childhood Centres. When I was at teachers’ college I had thought how cool it would be to make a difference to the lives of young people and was motivated by one day having the reins of a classroom and being part of the profession. Teaching made me feel good. And it felt like I could contribute something and do something positive in the world. It really wasn’t a complicated decision. Idealistic for sure. But not complicated.

Back before we had the trendy term ‘wellbeing’, I explored teacher burnout for my final project. For this I interviewed teachers who had been in the profession for at least 20 years and asked them why they were still loved teaching and I remember vividly that each response was simple: they just liked teaching children. Regardless of what subject they taught, regardless of the age they taught the response was the same ‘they just liked teaching young people’. It wasn’t about the other teachers, it wasn’t about the profession as a collective, nor the planning, it came down to connections with the children and liking their work. These teachers had genuine enjoyment working with children and I was excited to get this sparkly piece of knowledge to take with me as I marched forward in this new career.

Yet, over the last few years I feel like the ‘I just like teaching children’ ideology has lost its charm. I still love teaching kids and love working with other educators. But all I continue to hear in education circles is the ‘over-evidenced’ demands of the profession – and from this culture of high performance, I think we have lost something.

We’ve lost our teachers. We’ve lost their spark and the profession is hurting.

We have lost out on good quality teachers by muddling up why we got into teaching in the first place. Perhaps we have lost our way and pushed out teachers who may not be overly interested in the academic side of education, but they still bring something extremely valuable. The connection side, the human side of learning. This isn’t to imply that those academic types don’t have that side to them, but it is important that not all teachers have strengths in the same areas. Perhaps we need to place value on the goodness each person brings to the profession – not the frameworks, the continual documentation and the multiple confusing layers holding us back from why we wanted to teach in the first place.

Labels like ‘priority learners’ and ‘deciles’ confused me when I entered the profession as although I could see the stats for educational outcomes, this focus and marginalisation of whole groups of people seemed so odd to me that we’d bundle children into categories and expect success to look the same for everyone. Maybe the system was flawed, not the children? But I wouldn’t say anything because the dominant thinking, legislation and all documentation indicated that is the way to think. Swallow it. Similarly, when I started in Early Childhood Education I got such a surprise at how it was structured and although we might have another centre 500m down the road, we are expected to compete for children and enrolments, as teachers depend on their enrolments to maintain their hours and income. I found this hyper-sales approach and culture of competition right from the early years of learning so odd. So against why I went into teaching in the first place.

Perhaps as a profession that is comprised predominantly of women, we’ve been busy on the ‘shop floor’ as these changes have all taken place and the ‘good girl’ in each of us has kept quiet and allowed these changes to happen without deeply considering if it works for us, for our communities and if it authentically supports child development and New Zealand’s future prosperity? But here is the thing. We can say something. We do have agency and choice to speak out.

I wonder if as teachers we should use learning journals as a way to track our progress. Not for public scrutiny, but as places we can deeply reflect about our thoughts and feelings without having to show or discuss these intimate thoughts. Perhaps when we are asked we can verbally discuss aspects of our learning journey, but this constant need to gather and store, then show and tell to strangers in the form of an ERO visit is ‘old school’ and we can do better. I do believe in accountability so the children and communities benefit, but I wonder if the current way in which we approach it needs the reduction of evidence and deeper consideration?

Currently minds are converging in the early childhood sector to discuss the next ten-year plan. I am certain they are as deeply troubled as I am that the stats indicate that 46 per cent of staff in ECE have experienced a work-related injury, physical or mental health problem in the last 12 months. Blimey. That is almost half. But perhaps this is actually a very good thing to really make us stop and consider what is going on.

Teacher wellbeing is a continual discussion within our learning environment. The reality of teaching is not the Pinterest board, but there is good stuff and good fun to be had and lives in which to contribute positively. We are currently guided by our legislation and responsibilities but we’ve been talking a lot about being with the children. Just being present. Enjoying our purpose and the contribution rather than the need to be in constant judgement of self and others, as well as documenting and making meaning for each and every moment of the day.

The profession needs satisfied and content educators to continually rejuvenate and replenish thinking. We need healthy people who want to show up, who want to be a part of developing childhood, but perhaps we need to be vocal about what no longer serves us and critical thought is necessary. We also need teachers from all walks of life involved in the lives of our children and shouldn’t narrow the lens to all being of the same mindset. We are not the same. It is the differences and individual strengths that unite us and that ‘hunch’, that ‘feeling’ that we can and will make positive change in the world.

Teaching is about children, but it is also about us as teachers going back to why we got into the profession in the first place. We all have different motivations. I think it is important to reconnect with your ‘why’ on those days you feel challenged, overwhelmed or questioning the decision to be part of the profession. Let’s keep the spark alive and continue to explore why we have a teaching shortage and what needs to change in the profession.

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