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March 7, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Those Who Can, Teach

It’s not the most glamorous of careers, but there are students at Victoria University who consider a career in education to be their calling. You’ll find them, far from the maddening BA crowd, at the College of Education in Karori. Salient explores their motivations to pursue teaching, as well as their thoughts on a profession that’s all too often under-appreciated and over-worked.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Or, at least, so goes the adage.

In these times of economic recession, those who ‘can’t’ aren’t looking so misguided. While new graduates are struggling to secure work of any kind, let alone that which relates to their areas of study, teachers have a great job outlook, an above-average annual salary, and the perfect combination of a personal challenge and regular holidays. On the face of it, education looks like an appealing and accessible career path.

But there are cons. Those long holidays are spent recovering from the previous term and preparing for the next one. You’ll have to kowtow to parents who think that their child should be your first priority. And even that above-average salary won’t compensate you for the hours you put into your job, as more often than not, work travels home with you.

And then, there are the people for whom these drawbacks don’t even register; those that refer to a career in education as a “calling” while keeping a straight face. For them, teaching is more than a job with advantages and disadvantages: it’s an earnest bid to do best by the next generation.

Teaching student Brent Amer put a different spin on the role with an anecdote.

“A father and son were walking down a beach where thousands of starfish were washed up and dying in the sun. Every so often, the boy’s father would bend down, pick one up and throw it back into the sea. The boy said, ‘Dad, what are you doing? You can’t save them all!’ As he tossed another into the water, the father replied, ‘Made a difference for that one’.”

Switching on the lightbulb

According to recent graduate Matthew Williams, going into teaching stems from a desire to “make a change, to make a difference”. He admits, however, that this isn’t a day-to-day goal.

“Making that difference isn’t gonna happen all the time. You’ll get the odd lightbulb moments, which are fantastic, but you may not get them for a couple of weeks; you may not get them for a term. But they are out there, and if you persevere, and apply yourself to be a good teacher—they will happen.”

For Williams, the chance of an “odd lightbulb moment” was incentive enough to make a career change. He completed his conjoint BA/BTeach in English Studies and History at the end of last year, and, while he is doing some relief work at the moment, he’s quick to point out that not even a teaching qualification guarantees one a job.

“I’ve applied for a few, but have yet to be successful,” he says. “So, while there might be lots of vacancies, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a job. You’ve got to apply and be picked.”

Nevertheless, he remains confident about his career choice.

“It was something that, I must admit, goes right back to my intermediate days, when I saw a teacher there and said, ‘I want to be like them’,” he remembers. “So there was an inspiration in what I saw as good teaching, and I felt that now was the time where I could do the same.”

Vaughan Smith, who has just commenced his Diploma of Teaching with view to teaching at an intermediate level, stumbled into the profession. He completed his LLB at Victoria University a couple of years ago, though he admits that he “never had that same passion for being a lawyer”. Teaching became a viable option about half-way through 2010, when he realised he valued flexibility in his working life.

“I’d just started travelling and wanted to do a bit more, and teaching allows you a lot more freedom in your travel options,” he says. “Things such as being flexible with the 40-hour week, 20-hour week… I see it as having a bit more of a control over [my life], and those options with teaching are great.”

Smith also felt teaching would act as a personal challenge to better himself.

“I came to realise the importance of teaching, and I think, most importantly, I came to figure out that it’s something I’m really passionate about… And I think any job that you go into, if you can find that thing that really drives you to do your best, it’s gonna help you to be the best at what you’re doing—and nothing else will.”

With great power, comes great responsibility

Both Williams and Smith give the impression of having given teaching and its importance a great deal of thought; in no way is it just a pay cheque to them. But, Smith argues, that’s to be expected, as teachers have a great deal of responsibility.

“Socialising society is the role of schools, and not so much parents anymore,” he says.

“All these issues in the paper, like mobile phone bullying, that sort of stuff, you don’t hear them going, ‘Oh, what’s wrong with the parents or the church they go to or the movies they watch’—it’s the school that takes the flak, and that’s because we think it’s now the school’s job to turn our kids into who we want them to be. And that’s why we spend all our money on education—it’s the best tool our government has in society.”

The upshot of this, Smith remarks, is that teaching is perceived to be the answer to “‘that ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ cliché that they throw around.

“[With education] you want to try and do the early intervention stuff, so you’re not only dealing with the courts system and putting people in jail,” he says. “By that stage, [there’s] a really big struggle to get them out of that mindset. A lot of legal work was going through the motions and being part of a system which has some really big flaws.”

For Amer, on the other hand, teaching impacts on an individual basis.

“I don’t know about shaping future generations, but every child and family I have a chance to interact with, I hope I can make a difference in their lives.”

Williams, too, notes that teachers’ responsibilities don’t begin and end with learning: “It’s no different from being a parent sometimes, and in fact… you can be considered the ‘third parent’.

“To some degree, the teacher can be that ear to listen to. And it can be helpful to have a teacher you know you can trust, [especially] when you as a student get older. Your ego has landed, as it were; you’re more independent, but you still may need guidance. It may be [about] something that you can’t talk about at home, or you may need to be able to talk about it because it’s related to school. So a teacher, I think, should be seen as someone who is approachable in that way, and not everybody is.”

So, schools owe it to their students, their students’ parents, their wider society, and the government to make a positive contribution. Surely this must place a great deal of pressure on teachers?

Williams points out that the introduction of NCEA and National Standards—both of which have been maligned by many within the education sector—has in fact alleviated some of the burden by acting as “a safety net for the pupils, as well as the teachers, as well as the parents, as well as society.

“There’s always been a cry from society to know what our children know… ultimately, society needs to know what people are capable of,” he says. “Not every employer, or prospective employer, is going to look and see what NCEA passes or achievements a student has, but some will. National Standards are a benchmark that people can point to… You know what you want your students to be able to do, and society knows what they expect people to be able to do… [but] beyond that, it’s up to the teacher, and how well they facilitate the learning.”

Perception versus reality

Williams is certain that most people don’t understand the reality of teachers’ workloads.

“A lot of people will see teachers as people that work from 9.00am ‘til 3.00pm, get those six weeks off here and those two weeks off here, but the reality is quickly borne by when you start at [teachers’ college at] university,” he points out.

“You’re in there by 8.00am to have things ready for that day, and you’re then there ‘til maybe five, and then you maybe take stuff home. It doesn’t really stop.”

Smith agrees.

“It is a really tough profession, and it is an all-consuming profession. I did some teaching at a polytech in Gisborne and I was really struck by how I couldn’t leave it at the desk. You always carry these ideas about your education, and if you’re really passionate about being the best teacher you can be, then you’re always going to be thinking about that.

“And there’s always more you can do to be better—things like turning up to a kid’s soccer game on Saturday morning. If you’re trying to be the best, your weekends aren’t really yours.”

Williams says a certain level of selflessness is required to enter the profession.

“I don’t think teachers are out there to get the kudos, to get the glory, they’re out there to teach—and teaching as a profession is not one that calls for the limelight, because if anyone’s to go in the limelight, it’s the students.”

It seems clear that those who pursue teaching for the holidays and the salary are in for a shock. In any case, though, Williams is confident that those who go into education for the wrong reasons “will be found out.

“That’s the way teaching works. They’ll soon realise I can’t do this, or the kids will say—pfft, yeah. You can’t teach.”

Tovah Rachelle Reed, a student delegate at the Karori campus studying towards a graduate diploma in Performing Arts and English, sums it up.

“If it was only a job, we wouldn’t be in it for long,” she says. “If it was only a job, we wouldn’t bust our guts making lesson plans that work, and building trust and relationships with the students. And if was only a job, we would probably choose a better paying one for the amount of effort and energy we put into it.

“Teaching will always be more than my job—it’s a never-ending learning opportunity. Not all teachers can shape a student’s future, but I hope I definitely nudge a lot of them along their way.”

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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