For everyone Ghost teachers

Schools are haunted. I wrote those words a little over two years ago, not quite sure where the next paragraph would lead – or the next, or the one after that. I knew I wanted to write a book about teaching; I knew there was a strange weight in my heart that I found difficult to articulate; I knew that most teachers carried that same weight; and I knew, too, that many of the students I had taught over the previous decade (indeed, many of the ones I was still teaching) were ghosts: distant, half-heard, in some cases tragic.

It was a metaphor intended to express the silent desperation of a workforce. By far, that metaphor has resonated with readers more than any other element of my book, The School. Many people (most of them teachers) have reached out to discuss it with me or to share stories of their own ‘ghost children’. These conversations have been enlightening, gratifying and unexpected.

However, were I to start writing the same book today, I would not begin with ghost children. Instead, I would focus on ghost teachers.

Whatever you call it – drought, shortage, crisis – there is no denying that countless excellent teachers have drifted into the land of ghosts. Where have they all gone? Someone recently asked me this, in a kind of puzzled desperation, and I could only answer by conceding that I really don’t know. Other industries, retirement, perhaps more time at home with their own children. For one reason or another, they have decided that an alternative is better – for themselves, maybe for the students they were teaching.

But where they have gone isn’t the important question. Why they have gone is the mystery governments need to solve.

A month or two back, a well-meaning politician from another state advertised a panel he had assembled to explore these very problems. Others were quick to point out that the panel did not consist of a single teacher who has left the profession. Of course, most of us know what those ghost teachers would say: their phantom fingers would slide the ouija glass across the board to spell out messages such as WE NEED MORE TIME. These are uncomfortable words for politicians, not least of all because (as the cliché goes) time equals money.

Whatever you call it – drought, shortage, crisis – countless excellent teachers have drifted into the land of ghosts.

The Grattan Institute has released a new report looking at ways of cutting down the time burden on teachers. In an interview with two of its authors (a young former teacher and a pre-service teacher), the focus was on offering banks of high-quality curriculum documents that include lesson-by-lesson detail. Planning, these young educators rightly pointed out, takes up significant amounts of teacher time.

I commend these efforts to grapple with the issue of overwhelming teacher workloads. However, given that lesson planning is central to the job of teaching – and should, ideally, be one of its main joys – ‘solutions’ like this only highlight the key problem: teachers do not have the time or freedom to satisfactorily undertake what should be core aspects of their profession.

Furthermore, as a teacher of senior English, the time I spend on correction and assessment exceeds my planning time by at least a factor of five, and perhaps much more than that.

My feeling is that the best thing any concerned government could do right now would be to assemble all the non-retired teachers who have left the profession in the last five years and ask them what would have made them stay.

These time pressures are part of the reason that, after 12 years at a wonderful school (the very one I attended as a student), I will be moving to a new workplace next year. I know I will never get the time I need at work, so I have to create it elsewhere, and that means reducing my commute. In 2023, my 35-minute drive will become a seven-minute one. That extra hour a day will inevitably be spent on assessment. I hope, too, it will mean more time with my toddler, and preparing for our second child, due in March.

So, I have become a half-ghost, I suppose – still in the profession I love, but soon to be a memory to my current students. I’m not arrogant enough to think my departure will make any great waves, but my Year 11 Literature students wanted me to be with them until their graduation. I would have liked that, too.

The problem with ghosts is that their messages can be hard to interpret. Sometimes they don’t carry messages at all, let alone solutions that might be applied by the living. Still, my feeling is that the best thing any concerned government could do right now would be to assemble all the non-retired teachers who have left the profession in the last five years and ask them what would have made them stay.

That’s another thing about ghosts: they can be frightening. But if those politicians are brave enough to ask, they should be brave enough to listen.

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