Stacey Anyan returned to teaching after 14 years – right in the middle of a pay dispute with teachers’ morale in the doldrums. So how bad – or good – could it be?
The principal eyed me up across her desk and I suddenly thought, Actually, when you put it like that…
My head was busy nodding, though. Teaching at my kids’ school would be the next best thing to home-schooling them. (The latter was vetoed by my husband: it doesn’t pay the mortgage.) Not only that, I really wanted to teach at this particular primary. Right from when my oldest started there, I enjoyed the “village” feeling of the school community – no mean feat when the roll boasts nearly 800 students.
Returning to teaching after 14 years, smack-bang at a time when teacher salaries and industry morale are not merely in the doldrums, but in crisis? I blame Playcentre: halcyon days playing with my own and others’ preschoolers, experiencing first-hand the child development theory I’d swotted up on as an 18-year-old psych student. Being mother hen at Playcentre was a lark, smooshing cornflour-and-water “goop” all over dolls and ourselves, baking bikkies, constructing baking soda and vinegar volcanoes in the sandpit… all done with several tots simultaneously under my wing, their parents safely within clucking distance.
As someone whose inner child has never been far from the surface, it occurred to me I could keep sharing in kids’ wonder about our world – and keep in step with my own sons’ school holidays – if I got back into teaching.
I nearly didn’t. As I’d been out of the profession so long, the Education Council deemed I had to do an eight-week Teacher Education Refresher (TER) course – at a cost of $4500. Four and a half grand! I refused to pay that on principle, let alone because I’m still paying off my original student loan from 20 years ago. But the month my youngest turned five, the Government apparently awakened to this stonking great barrier to reversing the teacher shortage and waived the course fees. Serendipity!
I also didn’t decide to become a teacher again because of… well, you know, the pay. It’s been well broadcast how the very top primary school teachers’ income had slipped to just 46% of that paid to the lowest-ranked MPs; how teacher pay barely keeps up with the median wage; how hundreds of teachers have been paid below minimum wage. They even make jokes on Seven Days about how it would be unfair to stop importing second-hand Japanese cars, because then how would teachers get to school?
The only reason I figured I could afford to go back into teaching is because having a master’s degree gives me a small boost on the pay scale. Otherwise, if I wanted to earn more than the base salary, I’d have to take on extra responsibilities, which I have no inclination to do. The “base” job is work enough.
Drawing on your experience and knowledge to make a decision about a student isn’t merely using your judgment… why, it’s your OTJ: your Overall Teacher Judgment. And imagine someone’s completed a task, and you’re about to tell them what they did well and what they could improve on next time – what would you call that? “Feedback”, right? Apparently the ghastly “feedforward” is necessary to convey the sense that you’re giving advice that moves your student to a better place. It’s all positive-positive-positive aboard the little train that could… (Speaking of which, kudos to wily Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, whose rebranding of “glass half-full” mentality as “growth mindset” has been embraced wholeheartedly by educators worldwide – undoubtedly ensuring a growth mindset for Dweck’s retirement fund.)
In June 2018, with provisional registration granted, I touted my CV to local schools for relief teaching.
Being a relief teacher requires a Militant Mindset. Turns out mine is more Marshmallow. The best thing about relief teaching is finishing early: no meetings, planning, displays, resource gathering, etc. The worst bit is... everything else. Not knowing the kids. Kids playing up because you’re the relief teacher. Always having to do playtime duty because you’re the relief teacher. Cracking the cliques in the staffroom.
My worst day as a reliever started with a Year 5 class. I’d not taught Year 5 before. I’m more comfortable in the juniors, where a stash of scratch ’n’ sniff stickers ensures a Pavlovian response every time. Older kids are more jaded by the system, more likely to backchat. So I asked the teacher for tips. She assured me they’d be fine, and if it came to it, to send misbehaving students to the deputy… which would have worked if the kid was compliant. Instead I had to ask another kid to go fetch the DP to relieve us of the disruptor. With my credibility shot, the rest of the class proceeded to do as little work as possible.
I couldn’t wait to transfer to Year 2 that afternoon. There, I was confronted by a kid sitting at the very front of the mat on a “Star of the Day” chair. When I suggested he move his chair to the back or the side so others could see, he began screaming. While I calmly tended to the tantrum, several other kids starting running round the classroom. Eventually I clawed back some semblance of order, but it was the longest two hours of my life.
When I left teaching, each class had a boxy stand-alone computer, and maybe an ICT “suite”. Now I was having to teach barely-literate kids how to discriminate between what was factual and relevant from the vast amount of guff available on the internet. The Year 5s who walked all over me were researching their favourite dance moves on Google. One ended up writing, “The Floss was invented in New Orleans in 1815”, mistaking dental hygiene history for the ubiquitous dance craze from the contemporary video game Fortnite.
Once, I relieved in a class where the kids were supposed to be making a slideshow about their chosen animal. But the vast majority barely typed a single letter because of all the mucking around, as devices were borrowed from other classrooms in order for every child to be working simultaneously. More time was wasted with kids unable to log on because they hadn’t realised they’d misspelled their email address. Honestly, I could have given them each a sheet of A3, some pencils and felts, and they’d have all produced a poster within an hour – job done.
One of the main reasons I left teaching was that I didn’t want to be in a profession that seemed so at the mercy of trends – not to mention whoever happened to be in government at the time. Here’s what my mum – a new entrant teacher of 40 years – says about Modern Learning Environments (MLEs): “They tried it in the 70s, and it didn’t work.”
A few times, I relieved in an MLE class in Year 2 of nearly 50 kids. (Surely it takes a special teacher to intimately know and cater to the learning needs of fifty kids?!) In this class, the co-teachers wear a slim rectangular box around their necks, which is a microphone linked to speakers spaced around the oversized, open-plan room. A Militant Mindset was required to dispel the sensation that the box’s weight was making my neck strain and my throat constrict. I also had to remember to turn the bloody thing off when I was working in small groups – or, as it happened, consulting with the co-teacher about a disruptive little so-and-so – lest our tête-à-tête be broadcast to the entire class.
Some say children benefit from MLEs because they emulate modern adult work environments. To which I say, show me a hot-desker who doesn’t secretly miss having their own space: somewhere to put a cat calendar on their wall and mark out their territory with standard-issue stationery and dirty coffee cups. MLEs also deny today’s kids a Kiwi rite of passage: carving your name with the sharp end of a compass under the flip-top of your wooden desk.
Those jelly-bean tables and comfy loungers don’t come cheap – a single item can cost thousands. The expense doesn’t translate to quality, either. My school has had to ditch several of these trendy furnishings, only a few years old, due to rips and tears that would cost more to repair than replace.
But the biggest difference between teaching then and now is personal. In my mid-20s, when I got into teaching partly to extend my London OE, I was child-free. Now, I’m a parent. This means my entire day is spent with kids: scrapes and scuffles, messes and meltdowns. Encouraging “good choices”, enduring the bad. Forget fostering their emotional regulation development; I’ve had to relearn to master my own. At my school, seven teacher-parents work four-day weeks in order to cope with their career and home-life.
Thankfully for all involved, my stint of relief teaching was short-lived: in August, I got the new entrant job at my children’s school. On the first day, it was me and five five-year-olds. It felt like Playcentre, albeit a more regimented and teacher-led version. I even chucked in the sandpit volcano trick, thanks to the favourable adult-child ratio.
But within three weeks, all promised 22 five-year-olds had arrived. Soon my brain was so fried that during an evening out, when I was asked by various people about my new job, I kept telling them I taught five 22-year-olds. Seventeen of the 22 were boys. The gender disparity itself wasn’t the issue; rather, it was that three of the 17 were intent on running the show. Those spirited, high-energy kids personified the reason I think the Finnish have got it right by waiting until children turn seven before they’re despatched to formal education.
The most important job for a new entrant teacher is to ease the potentially brutal transition from free-flow, child-led preschools. This is when to eat... this is when to go the toilet... this is when to play. Put your hand up to talk. We walk around school in a quiet line. Such structure is necessary if you want to achieve any kind of order with a 1:22 ratio.
Despite the relentless intensity, the time-wasting, box-ticking exercises required by the Ministry, the inches-thick dust shrouding our house, and missing the time once spent hanging out with my own children (who’ve found it hard-going staying at school until 5pm each day), I’m happy to be back. In what other job can you turn up dressed as Mrs Wishy-Washy, nip outside in the sun to read a story to an adoring audience, indulge your arts and craft bent on a daily basis, and feel like you’re continually intellectually stimulated?
If you’re a People Person who wants to make a difference, give it a crack.