Pushing back against the squeeze on teachers

Tim Blackman

Early career teachers are struggling and too often the system is failing them and their students. Whilst this article may not be the most uplifting one, it is a conversation we all need to have. To say the last two years as a teacher have had their ups and downs is an understatement. The ups in this rollercoaster ride were the actual teaching and the downs a result of the schooling system.

As I reflect on my own journey in education, four different challenges make me consider whether I should continue teaching: workload, neoliberalism, psychological stress, and pedagogical challenges. Talking about these issues is difficult, especially when I bring up the great societal taboo of mental health. 


Challenge 1: Workload

Entering my third year of teaching, I’ll no longer get the additional time release awarded in NSW to beginning teachers. This already makes me nervous. You may have seen the reports that show teacher workload is increasing at an alarming rate and likely experienced this yourself. On top of time spent in the classroom and planning for time in the classroom, I’m forever doing negative referrals, positive referrals, incident reporting, learning adjustment logging, mandatory online training, attending meetings, registrations, audit paperwork, checking checklist boxes, and the list goes on. Sometimes it feels like I see more of school management software like sentral at home than I do of students at school. On top of this, the needs of students are ever increasing and pedagogical practices are changing at a rapid pace.

So much of what we as educators now do is concerned with student wellbeing, and so it should be. However, in the allocations of teaching loads no consideration has been given to this new reality. I am often in awe of my colleagues in primary schools who receive such a dismal amount of release from face-to-face teaching. The allocation of teaching loads assumes all we do is teach content. It’s outdated.

If the demands on our time and what it means to be a teacher are to change, then so too must the formulas that work out the numbers of students we teach and the time spent teaching them. Often something has to give and all too often it’s our health and work/life balance. In the end our students miss out the most because we burn out or leave. This point must be made vigorously in our schools, communities, to our employer and to our members of parliament: if teachers are to change, we must be allocated the time to create and implement change.


Challenge 2: Neoliberalism

Much of our workload pressures can be attributed to neoliberalism, which dictates education policy and bastardises teaching pedagogy, whilst not advancing the educational needs of students, especially those from disadvantaged or diverse backgrounds.

Neoliberalism is the quantification and privatisation of social responsibility and society in general. It has introduced into the education system business concepts such as audit, accountability, business managers, choice, My School, school marketing, standardised testing, and dangerous ideas like “class sizes don’t matter”. Education becomes a commodity with quality to be based on instruments such as NAPLAN or PISA.

A 2016 report based on MySchool data makes clear that “the socio-educational gaps between schools are getting wider and deeper”, and we are beginning to see a “serious school equity problem” emerge (Bonner & Shepherd, 2016, p.3). Further to this, a 2016 Grattan Institute report based on NAPLAN data found that “students in disadvantaged schools make around two years less progress between year 3 and year 9 than similarly capable students in high advantage schools” (Goss, Sonnemann et al, 2016, p.2). 

So why do governments and right-wing academics continue to praise the neoliberal agenda if it clearly isn’t closing the gap of educational success? Because neoliberalism isn’t supposed to be a social equalizer. The sign of neoliberalism working isn’t equality of wealth, it’s increasing amenity for the already well-off and a wide gap between the haves and have-nots.


Challenge 3: Managing stress

This brutal agenda makes it increasingly difficult for teachers committed to philosophies of social justice, radical teaching or critical pedagogy. The daily choice between struggling against the neoliberal system or succumbing to it places a huge emotional burden on teachers. Without many of us even realising it, we are losing our passion for teaching. Most of us became teachers because we are passionate about education. It is not 'work' for those of us who love doing it. When that passion is squeezed out of us, the psychological toll is great.

While the causes of emotional and psychological stress for teachers can vary greatly, one binding factor is the failure of the system and wider society to understand and respond to them. Whilst stress is a normal part of any profession, the challenges faced by teachers are eroding our professionalism and our passion for education. Just as society continues to struggle to talk about mental health, so does policy and legislation aimed at protecting teacher mental health or psychological wellbeing. So we generally manage it alone. There are many ways we can look after ourselves and one another as a community of professionals. Removing the taboo to talk about our psychological wellbeing is the first place to start.

Knowing I’m not alone has been powerful in managing my own mental health. We must overcome the taboo that exists against going deeper than simply venting about stress, and actually have conversations about looking after our mental health as teachers. This is not just the right conversation to have but also a professional one. Our psychological wellbeing is protected by work health and safety legislation and it is the responsibility of school leadership to ensure legislation leads to action. Workplace health and safety is not just about physical injuries at work: it is there to also protect your wellbeing. You have the legislated right to be psychologically well in your workplace. The erosion of our passion to be quality educators is an occupational health and safety issue and should be treated as such.


Challenge 4: Being the teacher I’d hoped to be

The result of all these factors is that I’m struggling to be the teacher I’d hoped to be and that’s sad. Under the neoliberal system, rote learning, direct instruction, and ‘preparing for the tests’ invades classrooms to the point where we lose our pedagogical autonomy. When your professional agency is removed do you feel like a professional? I don’t.

Just when my passion is all but dead, a breakthrough with a student occurs. As the mountain of paperwork seems impossible to climb (digital of course), I witness a student engage in the project of social justice, or understand empathy. On occasion I may even get a thank you. And whilst anecdotally these moments keep many of us in teaching, they alone are not sustaining.

Good teachers and teachers with the desire to influence individual lives and contribute to the broader project of quality public education will continue to leave the profession because they feel isolated and disenfranchised. While we continue to forcefully seek changes in the system, solidarity and support between us is needed more than ever.

To manage my own stresses and challenges I use some of these resources:

  • Regular psychologist or counselling sessions – I find this great for venting and picking up strategies to manage work stresses and ones mental wellbeing.
  • Mindfulness activities, including through the use of apps.
  • Check-in regularly with your work/life balance.
  • Explore academic research or publications which may provide strategies for being the teacher you want to be in difficult circumstances.
  • Engage with your union. Seek camaraderie with those who share your struggles or who are passionate about quality public education. It is also a way to engage with your profession and re-ignite that passion away from your school context.

I urge all early career comrades to not abandon hope and the profession, to seek support when needed, and to pay attention to your mental wellbeing. I plead with school executives to understand the challenges faced by early career teachers and not adopt a sink-or-swim approach. I ask parents and students to become aware of the systemic challenges faced by teachers and to advocate with us for change. I encourage colleagues to know and protect your rights and take the time to breathe and relax this year. On top of that, continue providing what is the greatest endeavour of them all: public education.

About the Author(s): 

Tim Blackman is a proud Aboriginal HSIE teacher working in western Sydney. He is completing a PhD through Western Sydney University exploring radical teaching praxis in poverty education. Tim is a councillor on the NSW Teachers Federation Council and the Vice-President of the St Mary’s/Mt Druitt Teachers Association.

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