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Who cares about students

Last week, graduate teachers faced their first group of students. In all likelihood, they'll soon discover that everything they've been told about teaching is true.

It's tough. It can be heartbreaking — if you care. Then again, if you're interested in becoming a good teacher, you would care.

This is a quality that doesn't get spoken about much when governments and unions talk about teacher performance and student achievement. It's certainly not part of Teacher Training 101.

Yet caring is not only embedded in teaching; it also distinguishes educators from technicians. After all, it is not simply an assembly-line job, where you churn and spit out graduates into the workforce and hope for the best. When you're dealing with young people on the threshold of the next stage of their lives, you're also dealing with fragile aspirations, unmet needs, broken connections. The appropriate, imperative response to all that is to care.

This is not airy-fairy stuff. Studies on education consistently tell us that low teacher expectation of students tends to be the killer, not socioeconomic status. So there's something to be said for movies about real-life teachers who turn their recalcitrant class into miracle achievers. It does happen, and it happens when the emotional investment made by a teacher intersects with their students' own desires.

Unfortunately, caring means foregoing immunity from hurt. The movies do not entirely capture the injuries that are inflicted when students reject carefully prepared lessons, or perpetually wag your class, or verbally abuse you when you're trying to reach the heart of their inattention.

There are few other jobs where you get instant, unmediated, personal feedback from your clients. All day, every day. No wonder that, at least in Britain, they have found that stress levels of teachers are similar to those of ambulance workers and police officers.

How else would you explain the numbers? Over the 2004–2005 period, nearly 1500 Victorian teachers and principals left the job. Last year's survey by the Australian Education Union found that 47 per cent of beginning teachers do not see themselves teaching in ten years' time. In fact, based on current trends, many will leave within just five years of starting their career.

But there is another side of this equation. The paradox in caring, especially in professions like teaching, is that the very thing that makes you vulnerable can be a source of strength. Most students respect empathetic teachers even when the relationship is adversarial. In challenging schools, where respect can only be bestowed, not earned, this is no small matter. It makes or breaks discipline policies.

Caring also means that you are willing to learn as much from what doesn't work as what works. It's easy enough to replicate successful strategies, but the impetus for improvement comes initially from the desire to learn. Although caring can leave you vulnerable, over time it does make you a better teacher.

Teaching is usually regarded as an autocratic role. But the things that impact on your efficacy are precisely the things that you don't have much control over — the quality of a child's homelife, the level of community support, the funding that is made available to your school, the politicisation of your curriculum. Sometimes, even the weather conspires to undermine your best intentions.

Thus, in an environment where little power is actually left to you, one of the things you do still have control over is how much you care.

For graduate teachers, this may bring little comfort in the months ahead. They will feel it impossible to care once they hit survival mode this week.

But they should know that people are right when they say that teaching is a rewarding job. The rewards may be far between, but they are genuine and cannot be devalued. Graduate teachers, too, will recognise them at the moments when they whisper to themselves, 'This is why I'm here'.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria.

Topic tags: fatima measham, graduate teachers, caring, students, curriculum, new school year



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Existing comments

Congratulaions, Fatima, on a wonderful, timely article. I've been involved with teaching for 53 years and currently work with student-teachers at a Brisbane university. I'm always so saddened when I hear of teachers 'leaving' while still in their early years of service. My whole-hearted admiration goes to all who approach the teaching profession as a 'work of heart'.

Christa McAuliffe - a teacher killed in the space launch of the 'Challenger' said when asked to wear a shirt with 'Touch the moon' on it said 'I have a shirt from my school. This one said: "I teach, I touch the future".' She certainly did and still does. Best wishes.

Noela Blackmore | 10 February 2009  

As someone who up until 12 years ago had been a teacher for 18 years, and who is now in educational assessment nationally - you are absolutely right.

Peter Adams | 10 February 2009  

Well put, Fatima. I presume that by graduate teachers, you mean beginners, since all teachers are now graduates.

What often surprises new teachers is the physical and emotional drain of the job. That doesn't change and when it does, a teacher should examine whether they are doing their job properly.

Young teachers have the advantage of speaking the same language as their pupils; moreover, they remember what it is to not understand something, and the satisfaction of learning some new skill.

A final word of advice to the new ones: avoid like you would a snake, the seasoned teacher who has lost his enthusiasm for the job, who has a staffroom quip for every occasion, a put down for every worthy but unsuccessful attempt, a know-it-all.

Good luck to all new teachers.

Frank O'Shea | 10 February 2009  

Thanks for the article Fatima. The best teachers I had were those that cared and could teach effectively, with passion, while caring. They had an authority that came from their authenticity. They were courageously authentic.

Andrew McAlister | 10 February 2009  

Thank you Fatima, when you care about what you are doing, you improve your delivery, your performance and your self-respect.

As a teacher (in schools) for over seventeen years, than a 'Teacher Educator' for the next 25, I still cringe when I hear persons say 'I teach'. I am from a family of 'Teacher' ( in schools, pre-school, primary, secondary). My great grandfather began teaching in 1876, I retired in 1996.

Fortunately my children have not followed the 'teaching path'! They have followed to health care line, but all of them still CARE.

John McQualter | 10 February 2009  

Some things are beyond the influence of teachers and government financial help. Dysfunctional students often come from dysfunctional domestic environments. These are the product of a society that treats marriage, family life and human sexuality with disdain.

When challenged this social unit denies the nexus between academic success and the home environment despite the universal, documented, statistical evidence that supports it. While we tolerate this denial teachers in all types of schools will continue to live out their vocations with difficulty.

Terry Oberg | 11 February 2009  

Really it's a great article Fatima. I think the ideal teachers are those who don't make difference in their students and their main motive is to grow the students with caring. I think teachers come in this profession to earn the respect not the money.

Steven | 19 February 2009  

As a person who was taught by Noela Blackmore in high school I would like to say what a wonderful teacher she is. Please pass this on to her if you are able! A wonderful article by Fatima.
Ann Doherty

Ann Morgan | 27 October 2009  

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