A window to a teacher’s soul
This year will mark my fifth year as a teacher. It feels like quite an achievement considering the statistics out there about teacher retention, particularly in the first five years. A quick Google search yields various statistics, in some instances 30% of teachers leave the profession, while others state the number as closer to 50%. Either way the fact is that teachers face the highest risk of leaving in the first five years, as a result I’ve felt like the five year mark will indicate my legitimacy. By making it to five years, I am now officially a teacher.
It’s not just the feeling though, there is also a sense of this gig is getting easier, in some senses at least. I am more comfortable with my pedagogy, classroom management, and having been fortunate enough to teach at the same school, I have now settled into my comfort levels with the ebbs and flows of a school year. Things that never get easier are the constant changes to curriculum and therefore the need to update and re-write curriculum documentation, the constant need to justify the work we do as teachers, and the constant negativity in the media about teachers. The easiest part of my day is the time I spend in the classroom with my students, while everything outside of it is hard work.
I read Gabbie Stroud’s memoir Teacher and was struck by some of the things that have helped keep me in teaching. I work at a school that has an embedded mentoring system for all new teachers and teachers new to positions of responsibility. Having this support in my first year was invaluable. I remember sitting in the social staffroom in my first year with my mentor Kiran and she would go through the textbook and show me which chapters correlated with which weeks of the Student Weekly Planner. I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t comprehend simple instructions such as this without support. I feel very fortunate that I’m working in Staff Development for the past two years and supporting new staff as I remember too well the grey fog of fatigue in my first year of teaching. I had numerous chest infections that felled me for days at a time, a cough that lasted for months and wouldn’t leave even with four doses of antibiotics, and was so fatigued that I did not have any memories of the last two weeks in term two.
We also have a very robust Wellbeing department who are qualified social workers who deal with student issues. In the five years I’ve been teaching I have had issues of self harm, suicide and bullying surface in my classrooms and have been able to refer the students onto Wellbeing to support them. Another thing that I love about working at my school is the support of Coordinators whose role it is to communicate with parents so that I can focus on the job of teaching. I have parent teacher conferences twice a year, and outside of those times any concerns go through the coordinator who communicate with the parents on an ongoing basis. I love this. While my school is not perfect by any means and with any workplace there are issues, I feel very fortunate that this has been my first teaching experience.
I also realised that another thing-I’m lucky to have is a househusband who has taken on all the caring of the household. While this wasn’t our choice (he has had to take a backseat and retrain and start a new career) and this has created some financial tension because until this year we have been a one income family, it has meant that I can just be teacher. I have been able to just focus on my full time job and in the first few years when teaching was encroaching on my personal time and took all of me, I still had small pieces left to be with my daughter because I haven’t had to take on any household responsibilities. I don’t know how to use my washing machine, have vacuumed three times in the past two years, and when I went away with my writing group I had to get instructions on how to boil eggs, so I have been well and truly spoilt. Next year as my husband establishes his new career and takes on new hours, I might actually have to learn how to use the washing machine, maybe.
By far though the most important thing has kept me in the teaching profession have been my students. Our cohort are incredibly lovely. I have been in the classroom preparing for an induction by taking down chairs, and a student I never saw opened the door, asked me if I needed help, and then proceeded to take down the chairs for me. They are, in general, incredibly respectful and appreciative of the hard work I put in.
In the five years I have worked as a teacher I have had the opportunity to teach English and Humanities for every year level 7-10, as well as develop and teach Creative Writing as an elective at Year 10. This year I am taking a foray into English as an Additional Language and have loved having this opportunity to teach students who are new to English. It has been my most challenging class to date with the various student levels and challenging behaviours, and yet when I had my students complete a student survey on my teaching they were the ones who I received the highest endorsement from. Just as we tell students that the hardest tasks are the most challenging, so too does the same apply with teaching.
This time of year I have been teaching poetry in English. An activity that I undertake with my year 7 students is a list poem. I have been teaching year 7 students for five years, and have completed this activity in the last three years. Each time I introduce the activity to my students I model the poetry writing where we write a poem about me as a class. Reviewing my previous poems I’ve realised that they are window into my evolution as a teacher.
I am poem, 2016
I am a lover of books and a slave to my muse
I am curious to know other people’s life stories
I am a wackle, my laugh echoes like a witch’s cackle
I am the red pen that constantly criss and crosses words on a page
I am the smooth, creamy dairy milk chocolate that sweetly melts on my tongue
I am the sadness as I watch mothers and daughters bond together and remember the times I was without my mother
I am my daughter’s demands for hugs and cuddles on my tummy
I am a mother, teacher, writer, and reader
In 2016 I was struggling to maintain my writing while I was teaching full time. It felt like a constant battle to find writing time. I had friends at work who made me laugh a lot and there were comments that my laugh could be heard across the whole staff room, or as I liked to joke, “they can hear me in the next suburb.” My students got to experience my red pen in their notebooks as I learnt the most effective way to give in class feedback was correcting and writing comments as they wrote. Chocolate was my daily companion as I found ways of consuming sugar to keep going. I was writing my memoir and reflecting on my relationship with my mother, which had been fraught during my youth, and the closeness I had with my own daughter who still slept with me. I realised that all of my identities were interconnected and felt quite proud of that.
I am poem, 7B 2017
I am kind and smart, your cheerleader and your coach
I am a ready ear, always waiting to hear your stories
I am the scribbling red pen that writes in your notebook
I am the mind-seeker searching for your ideas
I am the seeker of justice and impartial judge
I am the tears that fall at the cruelty in the world
I am the book of unturned pages at the front of the room
I am a teacher
When I asked my students for my two characteristics they said I was kind and smart. This class was easy to classroom manage and I felt like they could see my lighter side. A lot of them had difficulties with friendships and there were some cruel comments, so I had to be their referee. We bonded over our love of books and I started a classroom blog where we posted book reviews.
I am poem, 7B 2018
I am scary and funny
I inspire terror and sometimes I make you laugh
I am full of wonder at your curious quirks
I am crink, the knife cutting a cake
I am the shimmering blue horizon on a sunny beach
I am the inspiration that moves your pen
I am the cruel insult that cuts you to the quick
I am the crinkling page I turn to find out your story
This year my year 7 class have been challenging and I have had to be very authoritarian hence why they see me as scary. My two most often said phrases have been “There’s the carrot-if you finish this task we’ll get to play a Kahoot quiz, and the stick-if you don’t you stay in at lunchtime/recess to finish.” I have discovered red velvet cupcakes and they are my current favourite dessert. A few weeks ago I spent an amazing day at the beach with mum and kept remembering the feeling of watching the waves on the ocean and the horizon shimmering before me. The school introduced English students having a writing notebook for the whole year and I feel like I have really developed my pedagogy around using these and teaching the process of writing, revising, and re-writing.
I just met my new Year 7 class during orientation on 11 December. I wonder what sort of a teacher they will inspire me to be?
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Amra Pajalić is an award-winning author, an editor and teacher who draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write own voices stories for young people, who like her, are searching to mediate their identity and take pride in their diverse culture. She writes memoir, young adult and romance under the pen name Mae Archer.
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