Semester has started and with the arrival of the new semester, the halls and classrooms have been filled with excited, new students ready to undertake their journey to be teachers. I’m teaching in a number of our teaching programs this year and at the end of last week I was waxing lyrical about how much I had loved the beginning of semester and working with our new students. Whether in our MTeach, Joint Degree, or PE program, my students have been enthused and excited about the start of classes.
On Wednesday I had a panel of teachers come in to talk to my first year Joint Degree students about teaching. It was a diverse panel, consisting of a teacher who finished her degree last year to teachers who have worked for a number of years in a range of contexts. We began with the question ‘why did you become a teacher?’ – a question that is deceptively simple and, yet, complex and challenging to answer. At the end of the session, one teacher said to me ‘I feel so exposed when I answer that question, teaching is so much a part of me that it involves opening myself up in ways I hadn’t thought about’. I asked him if it made him feel uncomfortable to have done it and he replied, no, just that it was something that gets lost in the hustle and bustle of teaching, and reconnecting with that question causes contemplation of the journey of becoming and being a teacher, a journey that is both an emotional and cognitive endeavor.
In hearing the stories of how these people came to be teachers my students began to see an insight into the richness and diversity of the teaching profession. We heard stories of people who had flirted with the idea of being teachers early in their lives, but through circumstance, chance, and life intervening, it may have been time before they found the path that led them to teaching. Some of them would have easily gained entrance to teaching courses, being what some would describe as the ‘best and brightest’. Others experienced challenges with their high school education, or their initial forays into tertiary education. One started uni in a science degree, only to leave and take up an apprenticeship, qualifying and working as a mechanic before turning to teaching when the need for an intellectual challenge called. If we apply stringent rules about ATAR scores as the only thing that matters in teacher entrance requirements it is possible a couple of these people would not have become teachers, and yet, these are teachers who have impacted on hundreds or thousands of students in positive ways. They are teachers who have helped students to grow, to learn more about themselves, to open up their eyes to learning. While I’m not really into measuring ‘impact’ in numbers, some of these people are teachers, who, when we look at VCE data have ‘value-added’ to their students, guiding students to scores over 40 in VCE subjects.
In each story of the journey to being a teacher, there was the thread of learning. Some of the teachers are still studying, others have taken time out of teaching to do more study and then returned back to it, they study in formal and informal ways, and what was pervasive is that these teachers are learners. One spoke of teaching as a lifestyle, but not in the simplest form that suggests it’s a job with holidays, but in a way that evoked the notion of a vocation, a lifestyle that involves a constant learning, relearning, shifting, shaping, thinking, reflecting and interacting with others.
The notion of relationships permeated what teachers spoke about and the things that they found rewarding in their work. The care that they have for students, for providing learning opportunities that enable students to learn more about themselves and the world around them was obvious. They did not gloss over the challenges of the work, did not shy away from the fact that teaching can be tiring, demanding, and that as teachers, it can be rare to receive acknowledgment and validation of the work they do. So why do it? One spoke of the ways their own life had been enriched by the many students and colleagues that they had come into contact with, a criss-crossing of lives, experiences and ideas. Another spoke of meeting students years later and trading shared memories of the moments spent in classes, the things students recall, remember and file away.
My first-years were engaged in these powerful stories of teaching and learning. They took notes of things the teachers said, jotting down and recording the things that these teachers described as central to their work. They asked questions that showed, that, only 2 weeks into their course, they are thinking of what it means to be a teacher and to be a learner. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to hear friends and colleagues I have known for years, talk about the passion they have for teaching and for their work with young people.
I walked away convinced and reminded that there is no job like teaching. As some policy makers and bureaucrats may try to confine the work of teachers to a list of competencies, they cannot capture the complex and multi-dimensional work that teachers do, the relationships they establish, the way they focus on knowing and growing the students in their care.
Yesterday I met a group of Masters of Teaching students at the school where I returned to work 0.5 last year. They were there for a day of observation, and I was meeting with the principal. In coming back to the school, I fell back into the ‘family’ of teachers I had worked with, I ran into students who I taught last year and we shared stories of what we were doing. I sat with the DP at lunch and we joked about school and teaching as the Hotel California ‘you can checkout any time, but you can never leave’. He returned later, sat down and said ‘We really miss you, you know’. A year 8 girl came up to me at the office and said ‘I really miss you Miss- you made learning French so much fun’. Strings spun out, connecting me back to all of these people, to who I am as a teacher, to who I want to be as a teacher educator, to my pre-service teachers. Depending on where I am, the strings twist, they slacken, they become taut, but they do not break. Teaching, school, teacher education. All of these are the Hotel California for me. I can checkout, but I can never leave.
My first year Joint Degree students stand on the shore, ready to plunge into the sea of teaching. One of my Masters of Teaching students said yesterday that he hasn’t even got beyond the breakers yet. I’m lucky to swim out with them, sharing stories of our passion for teaching and learning.