Everyone told me that the first year of teaching was the hardest. It would get easier, they said.
They were right… and wrong.
I was 36 when I began teaching. It was the first time in my life that I had a career, not just a job. The first year was definitely the hardest; I barely scraped through to December. But the subsequent years were scarcely better. While in some ways teaching got easier, the day-to-day grind led to constant fatigue, a shattered immune system and lurgies that lurked for weeks because I couldn’t stop working to recover. A growing, numbing despair threatened to consume me.
After four years, I started looking for another job. I was resigned to being one of the 50% of teachers who don’t make it to the fifth year. And yet, the truth was, I still loved teaching – even if it was killing me.
Something had to give. The job wasn’t going to change – it was always going to be demanding, exhausting, unending. So, the only thing that could change was me. I knew I had to establish boundaries between my professional and personal life.
There are many other students who touched my heart, each one with their own battles and their own successes.
How did I do this? I stopped taking my work computer home and instead stayed back after work; I streamlined corrections by minimising comments and instead used checklists; I set up an Excel spreadsheet to add up grades and Mail Merge reports; I focused on whole-class feedback by displaying exemplars of strong and weak responses, with individualised feedback for improvement and success; and I prioritised three things I would actually be able to achieve in a single work day.
I also had to change my mindset. I had to stop thinking about teaching in terms of all the things that had to be done and instead focus on the students. They were the reason I was in the classroom. They had to become my yardstick for measuring success.
Take, for example, Ben – a student in my Year 9 EAL class. For his first writing assignment, his handwriting was too small to read. He struggled with spelling basic words and his handwriting was a strategy to conceal this. He attempted every trick in the book to escape writing – including not having a pen or a notebook – and would only manage to write two lines in a whole double period.
There were detentions, hallway conversations and threats of phone calls home. During one memorable conversation I told Ben that if he came to class again without a pen or a notebook, he would be sent to a senior classroom. He arrived the next day and asked to borrow a pen. “Seriously?” I said, exasperated, reaching for an out-of-class pass. “But I brought a notebook,” he said, holding it up. It was the one-liner of the year.
I started bringing in spare pens and kept Ben’s notebook with me. Some battles were not worth fighting. By the end of the year, his handwriting was legible, and he was writing about a page per double period. He passed with an E, which doesn’t seem like much of a success – but, considering he failed other classes, was a huge achievement.
I have learnt not to measure my success by the number of students who achieve top grades, or how well behaved they are in the classroom.
There are many other students who touched my heart, each one with their own battles and their own successes. There was the student with Severe Behaviour Disorder who was transferred into my class and told me that when I got to know him, I wouldn’t like him, but who went on to complete all assessments and a modified curriculum outcome.
Or the reserved, quiet achiever who completed all work tasks and homework but tried to be invisible in the classroom. Her success was learning to confidently raise her hand to answer questions or share her work.
Or the student on the Autism Spectrum who told me that I was his meanest teacher, but also confessed that he was the most productive in my class because I allowed him to do his work with headphones on and this helped him concentrate.
Or the above-standard student who completed extension activities and shared resources that helped me support the rest of the class.
In other words, I have learnt not to measure my success by the number of students who achieve top grades, or how well behaved they are in the classroom. Instead, I measure my success by how many students I manage to engage and motivate, regardless of their ability. It’s not a goal I can list on my PDP, but it’s the only goal that matters – and it’s the one that keeps me in the classroom year after year.
I’m now in my seventh year of teaching and counting down to being eligible for long service leave, and it is because of my students that I have made it this far. They are the ones who inspire me and make me the best teacher I can be.