I swore I would never become a teacher, and now I wonder why I continue
By Yumna Kassab
Yumna Kassab: The truth is there is also a hidden toll that is not calculated that is inherent to the profession.Credit:Nhung Le
I never meant to be a teacher. I categorically, 100 per cent, in no absolute way, wanted to teach. My prejudice was the result of an adult once telling me I should go into teaching because it is a good profession for a girl after having stated I wanted to study science more than anything else.
I declared I would never ever be a teacher. Over my dead body. Not if it’s the last job on Earth!
Fast forward a few years and I was at a career crossroads. A friend nudged me towards teaching but I bristled at the idea of entering the profession because of those words from the past.
I finally decided to study education because it would give me the flexibility to write and I wanted to travel more which was difficult to do with the job I was stuck in and completely sick of.
So much is made about the benefits of the holidays. Teachers are said to have a sweet position in the world because they get so many holidays, and it is difficult explaining to non-teachers the workload, the burnout, and the sheer demand of energy each day in every single classroom. And it is a demanding job. I wonder at the people who manage to find the energy for it for the 30 or 40 years of a career. My trick has been to take breaks, to travel, to teach casually, to avoid the burnout we all know about but no one is entirely sure how to address.
The time I changed my mind…
- Read Maxine Beneba Clarke on the time she changed her mind about having her books on school reading lists.
- Read Johann Hari on how our culture of screaming at each other is making us dumber, crueller and more depressed.
- Read Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut on the time he changed his mind about writing this piece.
- Read Claire G. Coleman on the trip that changed her life.
The question is: why do people become teachers in the first place? There is flexibility, but we also want a degree of job satisfaction. We want the feeling of making a positive impact on young people’s lives, and most of us had teachers who were important to us across our schooling years. I believe we become teachers because we wish to teach more than anything and what drains us are the commitments within the profession that divert attention away from teaching and the class.
We do make an impact on the lives of the students that pass through our classrooms. I know this because later, down the track, I run into students from the past. Often I have forgotten their names and I always apologise for this but at the end of each school year, the brain resets preparing for learning hundreds of new names for the year ahead. These former students are always grateful and their memories of the classroom often differ wildly from my sense within the class. There is nothing in their recollections of the doubts that one grapples with every day, the internal questions about relevance. Have I taught them anything that will help them, will this lesson do anything for the lives of these students, have I said anything that has registered and that a single student will remember in a year’s time?
Author and teacher Yumna Kasssab.
The truth is they do remember, and they also remember my name even if I have forgotten theirs, and they remember tiny details that have long been removed from my memory as if those students and that classroom never existed at all.
I never pretend this is an easy job and anyone reading this will recognise the difficulties involved in trying to teach. They do not need to be mentioned here because they are discussed whenever teachers meet, but sometimes I wish that in all the professional development we need to complete, we could have a conversation about why we teach, what helps and what does not in a very relaxed way. I don’t mean this as an additional item to be done that is then typed up in the meeting notes but space and time to reflect, to converse, to have a view of the forest again when often it feels like we’re lost among the trees. Perhaps it can recall to us the joy of the best moments of what it is like to teach. We need these reminders, so we don’t forget why we became the teachers amidst the challenges and difficulties, especially during these pandemic years.
The truth is there is also a hidden toll that is not calculated that is inherent to the profession. A close friend of mine mentions how much our work veers into counselling, which is not spoken to by our obsession with measuring literacy and numeracy. Perhaps these two markers are chosen because they are quantifiable while the emotional world is vague, and we want simple answers to complex problems.
Imagine trying to teach science when a student has not had enough to eat or is cold because their winter uniform no longer fits. There are times I speak to students about their mental health every single lesson of every single day. I wish I was exaggerating but I am not. I am talking about two student suicides in the same year.
I once had a student say to me: my mother has only three dollars in her bank account, what do you expect me to do about that? And it is a question I broadly wish to ask other people. This is what I routinely deal with as a teacher. What do you expect me to do about that, what do you expect me to do about any of this? Meanwhile, there will be another training session about punctuation and calculating percentages, but the real question is not why I first chose this profession but given the emotional toll, why do I continue to teach?
Yumna Kassab is the author of the novel Australiana and the short story collection The House of Youssef.
She is a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, whose theme this year is Change My Mind. The event runs from May 16 to 22.
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