By Natalie Howard
When I signed up for a rural teacher scholarship eight years ago I had the romantic notion that I would move to ‘the country’ and be at the forefront of social change and justice, empowering individuals with education.
My views of teaching and ‘country life’ were the result of a risky cocktail of narratives ranging from the triumphant idealism of Dead Poets Society and Freedom Writers, the quaint idiosyncrasies of Seachange, and the grittier, but still packaged, realities of Australian Rules and The Turning.
This is part of our problem; that we position ourselves at the centre of our narratives with everyone we come across as a supporting cast, with definite settings (‘city’, ‘country’, ‘public’, ‘private’). Teaching does not follow this narrative. Schools do not fit into predictable categories. Students do not fit into ‘types’. But we continue to talk, write and think in these terms.
Teaching is hard. Moving is hard. I knew this when I signed up. What I didn’t know was that teaching, and moving, fluctuates along the scale of hard from “healthy and inspiring challenge” to “soul crushing defeat.” Constantly. There are endless anecdotes which recount the daily struggles of teaching- the hours, the bureaucracy, the exponentially increasing responsibilities, the illness, the changing curriculum, and the unbelievable challenge of managing the personal, social, and academic development of up to 150 young people. Simultaneously. Four schools later, in four towns, and I am still learning.
I was asked if I would like to tell my story. But my story is the same as thousands of other teachers, in all types of schools. And it seems that we just keep telling it. It doesn’t work with me as the centre of the story, because everyone is the centre of their own lives. As a teacher, my life intersects with and absorbs the centres of hundreds of people. I cease to be a finite shape and transform into an amorphous blob, desperately trying to spread myself between the hundreds of individuals I work with. It can be hard to determine where ‘I’ end and someone else begins.
Things need to change. It’s not just about pay, hours, class size, support, or conditions, although improving those would be a good start. It’s about being valued and respected for what we do. If the system, as I experienced, can punt teachers between schools, or close down schools years after it has left it lingering in limbo, or place teachers using codes in any random situation, is it any wonder that we are punted around by the media or criticised by our communities? We are the scapegoats not doing enough to change society, (or doing too much and ‘indoctrinating’ young minds), or just a neatly packaged character.
Having been in a school does not make you an expert on schooling just like consuming a narrative about teaching or ‘country life’ does not make you an expert on either. Because neither label in any way covers the diversity of each. It is only after experiencing a diversity of towns and a diversity of schools that I am learning to understand this. And I wonder if our narrow labels and narratives, which I am guilty of first ascribing to, are too limiting and disempowering.
SO… we need to change the narrative about teaching. It needs to reflect the genuine spectrum of what we experience. Our stories shape our society. If our stories honestly respect and value the dynamics of teaching, our society will come to also.