Schools Rad grads: the challenges and rewards of being a new teacher

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 7 months ago.
  • 4 Oct 2023

Those starting out as teachers are faced with many challenges but the rewards are almost beyond words.

Beth Cooney is now in her second year of teaching. Working at Princes Hill Secondary College, she is full of enthusiasm for her new profession, but there are challenges. “Managing the workload and stress has been exceptionally difficult,” she says.

Beth comes from a family of teachers, so she understood what the job would look like. “What I really underestimated was how much of yourself you are expected to give. There are the actual hours you put into your work, but then there are also the million tiny little cogs that keep turning well beyond that time.”

Beth’s passion is tied in with her school. “Forming positive working relationships with colleagues and students has absolutely been the best part of the job. I’m lucky to have incredible, inspirational colleagues who I love working with every day. I also really love getting to watch students have big, world-defining shifts in their thinking in real time.”

Beth has been fortunate to have had many professional mentors, including her mother, a teacher and principal. At work, her colleagues are her most important mentors.

“I’m in a small office, surrounded by some of the most funny, intelligent and hard-working people I know. They have helped me solve problems, listened to my grievances, taught me how to prioritise, and encouraged me to find more space for myself. Some are best for technological advice when Compass decides to play tricks on me, others give brilliant advice about lesson structuring and planning. Some are great at behaviour management, some are great at crisis talks and know when to advise and when to be a shoulder to cry on. All are stand-up comedians!”

Beth Cooney. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“In previous jobs where my workplaces weren’t unionised, I never questioned decisions and the impact they might have on me.”

Beth Cooney

Beth explains that being in the union has helped her think actively about her employment. “In previous jobs where my workplaces were not unionised, I never questioned any decisions made by management or considered what impact they might have on me until I was in the thick of it all. Being a union member has allowed me to think about all that much more, and to stand up for myself more actively.”

When asked more about what she expected in her first years of teaching, Beth reinforces the importance of support. “I think I expected that there would be much more formalised, standard support available for graduate teachers across the system. I have been very lucky to have a very supportive group of colleagues in my office, but schools do not always provide a formal or ongoing program for graduate teacher support.”

The role has been more intense – in good ways and bad – than she had anticipated. “I knew I would be busy, I knew I would be tired, I knew I would have moments of joy and inspiration – I did not realise how keenly I would feel these things.”

Beth has shrewd advice for grad teachers. “Get help when you need it, whether it is collaborative assistance with lesson planning or access to mental health services.”

Fiona Wright. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

“We need more teachers, but Austudy doesn’t cover rent, and pre-service teachers are expected to do the work of a teacher for free.”

Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright teaches English, Humanities and Philosophy at Albert Park College, where she has been teaching since 2021 after retraining as a teacher. “I had been working in the not-for-profit sector in youth media broadcasting. I got made redundant at the age of 33 and decided to go into teaching,” Fiona says.

“Initially, the challenges were similar to other grads’ – though, for me, I think it was easier in that I was a bit older. I’m now 38, and sound more confident. So, while I have had difficult behavioural challenges, I’ve been a bit lucky because kids might be more respectful. I’m an outspoken person who is pretty clear about boundaries.”

Fiona’s school leadership team is very supportive. In her first week, when some students were being disrespectful, leadership responded immediately, and the students were ultimately suspended. “I feel like I can knock on a door any time and they will drop everything and listen intently and have my back.”

Fiona, too, has many mentors. “We rotate offices every year. In every office there is someone senior, so there will be someone there at some point who can give you guidance and support. Earlier today, I was at another campus and the Head of English was in the office and I spoke to her about a problem, even though it had nothing to do with English.”

Fiona talks about the hours spent on admin, marking, and documentation, and the extra time she has given to helping VCE students, meeting at 8am to run through practice questions.

“I didn’t go into teaching idealistically. I had the knowledge. I was aware of the work and expectations,” Fiona says pragmatically. “But I don’t think I was aware of the marking!”

The AEU is currently calling for paid placements for pre-service teachers as part of its Ten-Year Plan for Staffing in Public Education. In her first placement, Fiona worked 28 days without a day off. “All day at school, then in the evening preparing for the next class, then all weekend at a retail job to pay my rent,” she explains. “We need more teachers, but Austudy doesn’t cover rent, and pre-service teachers are expected to take the work of a teacher and do it for free.”

Fiona deliberately chose not to attend the University of Melbourne as friends had warned her that they were unable to work while studying there as the course load was too intense. “I didn’t have the luxury of not working, so I picked a less prestigious university in order to pay my bills,” she says.

“But that was still too hard, and I ended up moving back in with my mum. She supported me considerably while I studied. I am still paying her back now and will be paying her back for at least another four years. I was lucky that I had that support.”

Fiona has also sought practical support from graduate teachers who are a year or two ahead of her in their career. Among these is Heather Glennie, now in her fourth year of teaching, who recommends seeking advice from colleagues. “Reach out and ask for help; develop collegiate support.”

Those who have been in the job for a while can help you differentiate between what really needs to be done and what is not worth stressing about, Heather adds. “It’s so important to work out what to spend time and attention on, and the things that are less important. Your peers can offer so much advice, from the smallest interaction to the biggest problems, so ask for help and receive help.”

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