Parents, stop blaming teachers. They deserve better

by Angela Mollard

I was 14 and thought Shakespeare was a jerk.

“Why hadn’t Romeo properly checked that Juliet was actually dead before he swallowed a vial of poison,” I asked my fourth form teacher, Ms Wilson. “Clearly Shakespeare thought his audiences were daft if he expected us to believe his hero would be so stupid.”

My teacher grinned and attempted to explain the concept of suspension of disbelief. I was having none of it.

“Then write me an essay,” she smiled wryly, “arguing what you think.”

So I did. Days later as she handed my essay back Ms Wilson said something that would determine the course of my life: “You know, you’d make a great journalist.”

This week I tracked her down. I’d been wanting to tell her for years what a difference she’d made, how her belief in me had ignited a belief in myself.

A quick Google search revealed she was still teaching so I sent her an email thanking her and telling her I hoped she sometimes reflected on how many students had benefited from her insight, commitment, and evident love of teaching.

An hour later an email pinged back. She’d been sitting in a “Professional Learning Group” meeting, she wrote, and my note had made her day. “I still love teaching,” she said, going on to explain that she was now passionate about teaching social studies to Year 12 girls. “I love being around that sort of learning, makes me happy that they care.”

Good teachers don’t just teach well they set you up for life.

But who wants to be a teacher anymore?

Department of Education figures show that the share of university students starting education degrees has dropped to its lowest level in 27 years. Of all fields of study, education has seen the greatest drop off, drawing just 8.3 per cent of starting students in 2015 compared with a high of 17.5 per cent in 1989.

As parents we need to campaign against the endless and pointless testing that puts teachers under strain. (Pic: iStock)

As parents we need to campaign against the endless and pointless testing that puts teachers under strain. (Pic: iStock)

As the Turnbull government reheats the Gonski reforms, attracting and retaining good teachers has to be front and centre of policy. But it’ll take more than just money and platitudes.

The most affecting article I read last year was a piece by former teacher Gabbie Stroud writing in the Griffith Review about why she had given up teaching. She told of how she was burnt out “from relentlessly keeping account when I should have been teaching, reporting when I should have been listening, making standard when I should have been making a difference.”

Stroud had begun her piece by introducing us to some of her students: Trudy, a six-year-old dancer whose confidence was slipping in the wake of her parents’ separation; Taylah, who was always hungry and whose parents could never be contacted; Selina who’d made a troubling disclosure; and Ray who didn’t want to be Koori anymore.

You couldn’t read Stroud’s piece and not despair for a generation of children who will now miss out on her brilliance.

“We cannot forget the art of teaching,” she wrote. “Without it schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.”

Along with two other judges I short-listed Stroud for a Walkley Award. Her article, I concluded, “was so affecting, insightful and important that as well as winning awards, it should be a blueprint for change.”

But we need more than words; we need understanding and action.

As parents we need to campaign against the endless and pointless testing that puts teachers under strain. We need to stop the nasty quips about their “long holidays” and recognise that they work their guts out; that they care deeply and worry endlessly about the children in their charge.

We need to send emails thanking them for their particular skills, effort or insight rather than complaining about small issues.

We need to support them as they discipline our children rather than undermine them.

Crucially, we need to augment their efforts by supporting our children at home and fostering a respect among them for all teachers. Yes, some educators will be better than others but that’s the case in every profession.

What’s more, we need to raise a generation who see honour and meaning in advancing others, not just themselves. “Teaching isn’t very Instagrammable,” a family friend who is intending to teach told me this week. Violet is 21, received an ATAR in the high 90s and is doing her honours year in science. I’ve watched her tutor and she’s extraordinary, guiding children to a place of understanding with enthusiasm and encouragement. As she told me: “I love the feeling when someone finally gets it. It’s the best feeling helping someone achieve something they didn’t think they could.”

She’s right. My mum has taught for 45 years. Recently I was with her when she bumped into a former pupil, an autistic boy, who now works at the local swimming pool. Now 21, here he was smiling, employed, and chatting with his colleagues. My mum had taught this boy for seven years, instilling in him skills and self-belief. As we walked past him, he high-fived her. These small, unseen hard-won glories are the crumbs on which our teachers exist. They deserve more.