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Teachers earn and deserve their holidays



It's that time again, when exhausted Australasian teachers are wondering whether they'll make the distance and finish the school year with their sanity more or less intact. It's also the time when they have to endure snide remarks about a really cushy job and all those holidays.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows time lapse of a teacher being worn down by various responsibilities.But it's not a cushy job, and teachers get the holidays only because the children get them: in any case, teachers often stay on after their students have left, and also return to school days before those same students are due back, while part of the summer break is usually spent on preparation for the next year.

My mother, a teacher given to gnomic utterances, was occasionally heard to remark that teaching 'runs in the family like wooden legs'. This was her way of pointing out that my brother and I were third-generation teachers, having followed in our parents' and grandfather's footsteps. A great-uncle, an uncle and two aunts were also teachers, and so was a cousin.

In earlier times, of course, teaching ensured upward social mobility (some of our pioneering ancestors had been illiterate) and a means of getting a free education.

Teaching has never enjoyed much status. Generations have been haunted by George Bernard Shaw's scathing judgment that those who can, do, those who can't, teach. It is also often thought that anybody can teach, but experts are not necessarily guaranteed to be effective communicators.

And how many people could cope with teaching, say, in the old one-teacher rural schools? My parents and grandfather started their careers in such isolated schools, where a lone teacher might have ten or 12 pupils in the whole establishment, with those pupils usually spread over five or six classes. Classes were taught in rotation, with some working from the blackboard while others received direct instruction from the teacher. Organisational skills were of the essence.

Stamina and resourcefulness were also of prime importance, for the teachers, who were often very young, were responsible for every aspect of school life. In the 1970s, in two extremely bizarre and testing incidents involving the same miscreant, children and teachers were kidnapped from their schools in country Victoria. Both teachers were only 20 years old. In the Faraday school case, teacher Mary Gibbs managed to kick out a panel of the van in which she and her six charges were trapped: she then led the children through the bush to safety.


"Teachers never know where their influence ends."


In my long-ago Australian career, my smallest class numbered 18, the largest 42. I worked hard, but not as hard as my mother did: she once had a combined grades one and two class of 52, many of whom were immigrant children living at the local caravan park. At home, chores and dinner over, she would invariably fall asleep in her armchair at about 8.30pm. My father, a secondary school teacher, would be at school at half-past seven in the morning, and spent long hours preparing and correcting work at home.

Teachers then were overworked and underpaid, and they still are. In the meantime the job has become harder; for one thing, students can email their teachers: I remember my brother tackling strings of emails at the end of the day. Students can also rate their teachers online: my old mind boggles, although of course students have always made their own informal evaluations.

Then there are the meetings, the writing of reports, and always the unremitting pressure to be prepared, to be in control and ahead of things. Add in the yard duty, the endless keeping of records, and the knowledge that a lesson can so easily fall apart. Problem students, the breaches of discipline: a seemingly endless list. No wonder some teachers burn out.

What, then, are the rewards? There are the breakthroughs: when a student declares I really like that book or I see where I went wrong with that paragraph, the hush in the room when things are going well, the thanks at the end of the year, the little notes when exam results are unexpectedly good. Clive James remembered the English teacher who made a difference, the one who 'made the hard work satisfactory, which is the beginning of good teaching'. Teachers never know where their influence ends. They earn and deserve their holidays.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, teachers



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Existing comments

Couldn't agree more Gillian. You'll have to excuse me ,but at any talk of teachers I have to remember in gratitude those intrepid women , Brigidine Sisters who contributed so much to my life. The dear Claver who taught me piano , the agile Brigid who coached our netball team to grandfinals( after school of course) ,Enda who taught her preps to love the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Monica and Finbar and Bernard and the many others who encouraged a love of literature , history , maths. Then there was the teaching of choir where we learnt every conceivable hymn in our hymn book and sang with gusto at communal celebrations. We prayed , we worked , we sang and we laughed and loved and were loved. I pray today for one who has just died aged 95. My daily prayer for these women always is one of warmth and gratitude.

Celia | 11 December 2019  

Challenging, exhausting, difficult: all those things plus evaluation of personal characteristics. It could be enough to send one screaming from the room! There must be something about engaging, laughing with and disciplining that makes life joyful. And, as you say Gillian, there are the breakthroughs. I speak of both teacher and student in that regard.

Pam | 11 December 2019  

Celia's beautiful comments bring to mind so accurately the wonderful abilities of Enda, Bernardine, Claver etc. and the wonderful teaching and care of Gabriel ..I suspect Celia went to school in the Wimmera. Mother Gabriel was essentially a mother image to me , our mother having died some years earlier. This group of Brigidines , were teachers and exemplars of faith & charity to us as pupils, to our families ,at times in dire straits. One hopes, suspects, that in our lives we have been graced by these women.

Bill Holligan | 11 December 2019  

Once again stellar writing. My opinion is that “ticking boxes” practices have over nearly every sector & teaching has really copped the raw end of the deal

Stathis T | 11 December 2019  

Just this morning I was listening to Helen Garner being interviewed on “conversations with”.. Sarah Konowsky (ABC Radio) and she specifically mentioned a teacher - Mrs Dunkley - to whom she owes her fastidious regard for punctuation! I know that my love of Australian writing began with Mr Shanahan - who declaimed with dramatic spirit Mulga Bill’s Bicycle - shocking us at the line: ‘“Murder! Bloody murder!” cried the man from Ironbark.’ Teachers in my primary school dats and in high school - and again during my tertiary studies at Sydney and in other institutions. Challenging and knowledgeable and interested in us as students. And like Gillian - a lineage of teachers to make such a professional pathway seem already familiar. Though 10 years beyond my retirement from formal teaching - the final nearly two decades in Japan - I remain a teacher though on Passport control documentation I might add “retired”! I subscribe to a couple of education blogs and engage in dialogue with posts and also on The Conversation or with John Menadue’s ”Pearls and Irritations”! In my earliest teaching years my wife and I travelled almost the entire country - by car - before branching out into overseas travel and living. Within a decade of commencing teaching (from 1971) i was using vacations to attend state or national conferences - or being part of the organising committee and delivering addresses or work-shop seminars - along with dozens or hundreds of others from my own teaching domain. I’ve never had much respect for those who demean teaching and teachers - retorting that ”Actually, those can can - teach - no matter what GBS migh5 hav3 been credited as saying. My heroes are mostly teachers - Roger Ascham - teach with kindness and praise, he said in the mid-16th century. And the great Japanese teacher and revolutionary YOSHIDA Shoin (1830-1859) who advocated diligence and sincerity - and pride in one’s hometown. Teaching is indeed THE great profession and I am proud that it is mine!

Jim Kable | 11 December 2019  

Only those who have done this work know what it is like. It can be exhausting but at its best exhilarating and immensely satisfying. Spare a thought for those teachers battling against the odds with classes peppered with disadvantaged students or students whose first language is not English. These teachers are often working miracles far more impressive than those wrought by their colleagues at other more prestigious schools, yet they go unrecognised and their schools are often labelled as substandard. Thanks Gillian for reminding of us of some of the most important people in our society.

Stephen | 13 December 2019  

I agree that teachers deserve their holidays and a higher salary but I doubt that the general impression of their professionalism and commitment will improve. I think that many people have a negative impression of their schooling and pass it on to their kids which makes it difficult to engage them. In the uk standards have dropped and teaching is much more proscriptive. We only need look at the political ignorance to see that something needs improvement and teachers are our hope.

Maggie | 14 December 2019  

Those who think teaching is a "cushy job" show little appreciation of the complexity of childhood and adolescence in today's society. From my experience of good teachers, I'd say enjoyment in working with the young, love of and competence in the subjects one teaches, patience (at times of Job!) and a sense of humour are never lost on students.

John RD | 14 December 2019  

I couldn’t agree more. My mother was a teacher, later teacher/librarian and she brought work home every evening and spent a full week of the summer holidays cataloguing the new books so that they’d be ready when classes resumed. Her reward? Several students who remembered her with gratitude and two who put anonymous death threats in her letterbox.

Juliet | 14 December 2019