For the love of teaching

There’s a teacher shortage and more than half of current teachers are contemplating quitting. How have they hung on so long, asks Will Brodie.

Workers in other industries would have moved on long ago in the face of the extreme workload intensification faced by teachers.

Teachers have persisted despite exploding workloads and the endless demands of the pandemic for one reason only – they love their jobs.

For most teachers, helping children learn is not just an earner, it’s a vocation.

Michael Victory, Executive Officer of the Teacher Learning Network, recently wrote that people choose teaching “to make a difference in the lives of students”.

“That is what gets the best teachers out of bed in the morning. They look forward to engaging in the complex relationships of a classroom of children or adolescents and finishing each day knowing that ‘today I made a difference’,” Victory wrote.

In negotiations to alleviate workload intensification all around Australia, the message repeats: get rid of these extraneous duties which keep me from my primary function – to teach children, to grapple with the glorious challenge of helping them to grow. Give me time to prepare classes and give students my full attention. Save me from exhaustion by ‘administrivia’, lengthy and unnecessary meetings, and the other non-teaching tasks that have piled up for the past decade.

Survey after survey confirms that teachers are working well over 50 hours per week to keep their heads above water. They work after putting their own kids to bed at night and on weekends. They get to school early and leave late just to keep up. They never feel they have time to get ahead with the latest research.

So, what specifically do teachers love about their jobs?

Making a difference

The two most prominent reasons are that desire to make a difference, and the chance to share one’s love of learning.

Here are some quotes explaining the attractions of teaching from IEU members from all over Australia:

“I love working with kids and the feeling of helping a child learn something and be proud of themselves for it is incomparable to anything else.”

“I am so grateful to have been a teacher, striving in my career to understand how to honour children, to listen more and speak less, to understand and learn with them.”

“I was passionate about my subject area, and I wanted to influence the next generation to make the world a better place.”

“Teaching is truly a rewarding career. The bonds you build with staff and students are both special and rewarding.”

New IEU Reps in Victoria echoed these sentiments.

Mark Almond from St Brendan’s Shepparton said he got into teaching “to try to make a difference in the engagement of learning for all students”.

“I’ve always enjoyed seeing kids learn and grow. It’s awesome to spark a child’s interest and see them get excited and curious about learning,” said Georgina Bennett from St Joseph’s Boronia.

Dean Haydock from Eltham College loves working collaboratively with young adults “to assist them achieve their life goals”.

Helping is hardwired

“Through fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex. Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain — and it’s pleasurable,” writes Jenny Santi for Time.

Whether teaching is altruistic or not can be debated, but many teachers get a huge kick out of seeing their students develop.

Psychologists posit that giving and helping release endorphins, so teachers experience a ‘helper’s high’, similar to the exultation of runner’s high felt by many exercisers.

Supporting others activates a neural pathway in the brain that boosts our wellbeing, state researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the US.

“Helping others directly activates a brain region that has previously been linked to parental care behaviours. At the same time, activity in the amygdala — a brain structure associated with fear and stress responses — is lowered.”

No matter what brain chemistry is going on, there’s no doubting the excitement a teacher feels when a student who has been struggling with a concept “gets it”.

Meindert Smid from Trinity Grammar, Kew, calls that a student’s “light bulb moment”.

Teacher Georgina Bennett loves “the joy that comes from seeing a child learn and grow. From a student who can’t read to loving reading or the mute student who grows in confidence to be telling jokes in front of the whole class”.

Mel Whittle also finds joy in, “seeing a student find self-confidence and success and the joy it gave them because of the classroom I set up.”

The satisfaction of the moment it all “clicks” for a student is unique to teaching.

But there is also reward for those, like Ballarat Grammar’s Danni Armstrong, who got into teaching because of “a love of learning”.

Teaching is learning

“While we teach, we learn,” is a saying attributed to Roman philosopher Seneca. Modern author Annie Murphy Paul says “For thousands of years, people have known that the best way to understand a concept is to explain it to someone else.

“In what scientists have dubbed ‘the protégé effect’, student teachers score higher on tests than pupils who are learning only for their own sake.”

I am so grateful to have been a teacher, striving in my career to understand how to honour children, to listen more and speak less, to understand and learn with them.

Students enlisted to tutor others work harder to understand the material, recall it more accurately and apply it more effectively. These “student teachers” score higher on tests than pupils who are learning only for themselves.

Paul says it is the emotions elicited by teaching that make it such a powerful vehicle for learning. Student tutors feel chagrin when their pupils fail; when their proteges succeed, they feel nachas, a Yiddish term that means ‘pride and satisfaction that is derived from someone else’s accomplishment’.

Numbers, good and bad

The 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey also concluded that teachers are in love with nachas. It concluded that “contributing to society or young people’s development” motivated 93 per cent of Australians who want to become teachers.

Karen Bailey, teacher and wellbeing officer, says there are many great things about being a teacher – the fact that no two days are the same; the colleagues who become like family; and making activities memorable to foster learning.

But the greatest satisfaction comes from helping students.

“Ultimately, we’re responsible for shaping the future generation, helping young people become inquisitive and seek out truths to form their own opinion,” Karen said.

“We see them develop into their own personalities, see them enquire and question and sometimes challenge.

“Seeing kids achieve, when they know they’ve done their best – that’s when you see them flourish. It’s always something that makes you stand back and think ‘all of the work was worth it’.”

Teaching remains an attractive prospect, but half of new teachers leave education within five years of graduation. And there is a national downturn of 20 per cent in new enrolments as fewer school-leavers enter teaching degrees.

Until society and school systems value teaching as much as teachers, the numbers will get worse. We all must realise what a motivated, passionate cohort we have at our disposal, and get them back to doing what they do best, and love most – teaching.