Being a teacher by Cathy Ferguson

Image by Yannis H on Unsplash

When I was young I would play at being a teacher, pretending to tell off my classroom of imaginary students and teach them all the things i knew. My grandma was a teacher and my grandpa would pick me up from primary school and I would go and sit in her office – in her chair – and give all of my imagined students pieces of paper and proceed to ‘help’ them. When a primary school friend got a whiteboard I thought it was the most magical thing IN THE WORLD and I was mystified as to why it wasn’t an object of wonderment to her.

But it never occurred to me to actually become a teacher. I was intimidated by young people because I always felt so old and lame in comparison. I was an ‘old soul’; bullied for reading the dictionary and being ‘posh’. Even when my stock went up in high school I still never considered it as a career.  

I thought about being a lawyer, a politician, even a scientist which is pretty crazy if you know me. In a Year 9 mock election I was the person voted most likely to be the first female prime minister.

But then in Year 12 I had an epiphany. I’m so bloody grateful I did.

I wanted to teach. I wanted to teach cool stuff. I wanted to study history and literature at uni and I wanted to teach kids about it. I wanted to inspire the leaders of tomorrow. To show kids how to challenge and criticise and fight. To tell kids they could do anything. To show them examples of people screwing up and people getting it right, and people prepared to work hard. I wanted to teach them the beauty of words and the power of language. I wanted them to know that no matter where they went to school they didn’t have to stay in that place. I wanted to work with kids and show them that they were worthy and cared for, that they were capable of brilliance. Also I wanted to buy highlighters. 

I was terrified, but I realised that being afraid is a good thing. I had a policy back then of trying to scare myself a little each day. Which turned out well, because teaching rounds are scary. I remember wondering if I had made a mistake, thinking that I had built up a HECS debt for nothing and that I wasn’t cut out for teaching. It was hard and I was tired, but I would go to bed and get up and do it again anyway. And before I knew it, I was having fun. 

My time at university was filled with linguistics, sociology and people who I felt were much cooler and smarter than me. In the interest of continuing to scare myself, I signed up to do a placement in Thailand, with a bunch of other pre-service teachers I had never met. But after an introductory dinner at Poppy’s Thai, I made for myself a great friend and roommate. 

If there’s something that decides me on something, it’s when I’ve paid money for it. And I’d paid a bunch of money to teach at a school in Thailand. So I did.

This experience really inspired me to work with students from places other than Melbourne in the future.

***

At the end of university, I had a very odd interview and halfway through was asked if I wanted the job, I didn’t even realise I was being offered it. I said yes, and to this day I cannot tell you why. I rang the other school to let them know and they were really kind and said that they were offering me a position too. Again, I have no idea why I turned this job down, but I did. 

It was a good call.

So during a semester of stress and struggle teaching was amazing. I loved it. It was hard, kids were always surprising, but it was something that I was excited to do every day.

In my second year of teaching I took on a role as a wellbeing coordinator. I learned so much during that time; it was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was not prepared. I was not trained. I did burn out. I learnt that often the skills that make you good at a job also make you vulnerable to burn out within that job. I didn’t realise this until my empathy and compassion and desire to make people okay dragged me into a really tough time. Don’t get me wrong, I loved this work. But it took something. It cost something. And I didn’t have older and wiser mentors saving me from myself. I did this role for two years. It involved applying for funding for kids with disabilities, referring kids to services, coordinating the psych and the social worker when we could get one, organising the chaplain, advocating for kids with staff, talking kids through their day to day issues, reporting assaults to police, following up on kids who went missing or whose parents weren’t doing the right thing, trying to upskill staff who didn’t understand trauma-informed practice. And of course, there was never enough time. I ended up leaving this role for my own wellbeing. 

*** 

As of 2020, I’ve started a new role at a government school in Melbourne’s east. It has a very different vibe to my first school and is huge in comparison. It doesn’t feel like an education machine though – it feels warm and friendly.

But this year I’m aware that I need to ensure I don’t burn out, or, in my enthusiasm, say yes to things which in reality I don’t have the capacity for. I have a few tips for teachers to try to hold onto themselves during the teaching year. It’s not always easy and I think I definitely have weeks when I work a lot more or a lot less, it’s definitely about trying to keep the pendulum close to the middle, rather than trying to stop it swinging altogether. So here’s some ideas:

  •         Plan fun things for the middle of the week. Don’t work like a drudge and feel like you just work, sleep and repeat. Ensure you have fun doing your own thing every week.
  •         Make time to talk to your teacher pals about things other than work.
  •         On that note, maintain your hobbies. Don’t ditch your fun or creative outlets because you pour so much of yourself into teaching. Save something for you too. Perhaps have a weekly ritual when you have time to paint or run or go hiking.
  •         Plan a holiday during the holidays. Don’t just moulder around at home; ensure you do something fun and relaxing where you don’t take any work or marking!
  • Have at least one day of the weekend when you do no work at all. Occasionally you might break this rule for your own peace of mind, but try not to. Having space that’s just for you to recharge is so helpful. I have a whole day where everything I do is just to make me feel on top of things and relaxed. I know not everyone’s lives accommodate this, but definitely carve out non-work time.

Teaching, for me, has been a calling. But throughout my career I have learnt the importance of self care if the work of teaching is to be sustained.