More like this

A black and white illustration from the 1930s of a young woman with dark hair and glasses holding a pair of books and a bell, out of which a stylised word "school" is emerging. She is framed by a green circle

Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, January 30, 1930. Image: State Library of Queensland, Flickr (PD)

Since I finished high school thirteen years ago, my parents have encouraged me, sometimes gently, at other times strenuously, to get a teaching degree. For years, they have watched on anxiously as I jumped between the kind of low paid, often casual jobs that characterise my generation, occasionally checking in to make sure I have a superannuation fund. Both former teachers themselves, teaching has always seemed, in their eyes, like a sensible backup—a career where there would always be work, a stable income and all the benefits of being a public servant.

For as many years I have vacillated, even agonised over the decision. The thing is, I love to teach—I have worked on and off as a tutor and adult ESL teacher—and (if I may say so myself) I’m actually quite good at it. I know the delight of seeing someone grasp a new concept, or hearing someone express themselves in a new language, using words and phrases that I have just taught them. Seeing students lose themselves and their inhibitions in an activity you’ve devised—be it writing gory horror stories, debating solutions to climate change or role-playing their own parents warning them against bad decisions—is a joy that few office jobs offer.

Teaching has always seemed like a sensible backup—a career where there would always be work, a stable income and all the benefits of being a public servant.

And like so many other people who write for a living or for pleasure, I clearly remember those teachers I had at school who enthusiastically encouraged my love of writing, regardless of whether they thought it was a practical or lucrative pursuit. (Shout out to Ms Barbaresco, who gifted me a Roald Dahl collection in Year 2 because she liked my story about encountering a grizzly bear in the Blue Mountains.)

I have also known more than a few of these teachers in my adult life; friends and loved ones who have been passionate about and committed to their work, and care deeply about their students and subjects—the kind of teachers who, at the end of each year, would receive colourful letters of thanks from their students, and even the occasional portrait of them as a sparkly-eyed manga-style cartoon. Some days I can see myself as one of them; inspiring my students to discover their strengths, or to share my own fascinations with history or theatre.

But I’ve also watched many of those friends, slowly but surely, buckle under the weight of their work. I’ve watched the late-night report-writing and frantic early mornings, and the accumulation of sleep debt only made up for when the much-vaunted school holidays come along. I once lived with a teacher who would often come home after work and fall straight to sleep most days, before getting up to prepare for the next day’s class. Another friend I hadn’t seen for months recently texted: ‘teaching has fried my mind’. None of them are over forty, and when I’ve expressed interest in studying teaching, most of them have said, ‘don’t do it’.


Things have changed since my parents were teachers in the 1980s and 90s, the tail-end of what you might call the ‘glory days’ of teaching. Before the 1960s, teaching was considered a thoroughly middle-class profession; well paid, well respected, and still largely the domain of men (until 1966 women had to resign from full-time public service roles when they married). The beginning of neoliberalism in the late 70s brought cuts to school budgets and increasing class sizes, as well as the emergence of more militant teachers’ unions—with more women than ever in their ranks—to fight them. It was thanks to this militancy that teaching remained relatively well paid and retained decent conditions throughout the 90s.

My mother in particular was active in the NSW Teachers Federation early on, her radical politics combining with a deep care for her students, her co-workers and her science teaching practice as she fought for smaller class sizes and more time for preparation. I remember faking sickness once or twice as a kid so that I could go to Mum’s school in Fairfield and take part in the local water-quality testing program she’d established for her Year 10 class, who would go down to the river to get water samples and bring them back to the lab to see what was lurking in them. She was particularly concerned with making sure her female students enjoyed and pursued science—her personal corrective to a persistent gender imbalance in STEM. Mum may not have managed to get me on the science front, but she did instil in me an appreciation of both teaching and unionism that’s never gone away.

In a recent conversation, my mum conceded that, yes, things had changed, even by the end of her teaching career. After moving into other work for over a decade, Mum came back to teaching in the 2000s to find the profession transformed. She was overladen with administrative tasks and her colleagues were stressed and exhausted. The teachers’ strikes that had punctuated my primary school years in the 90s had also all but dried up. Mum’s retirement from teaching the second time was bittersweet.

And things have only become worse since then. Recent reports have revealed crushing workloads and chronic under-staffing in schools. Teachers’ salaries in NSW have been falling relative to comparable professions for thirty years. Counting preparation and marking time, teachers often work between 50 to 60 hours a week and teach classes of over 30 students. And the long-held notion of teaching as a stable profession that guarantees a permanent job is no longer a reality—one in five teachers in NSW are on temporary contracts, meaning they get no holiday pay and no certainty that they’ll have work the next year.

Like parents, exhausted teachers are also more likely to have less patience and shorter fuses.

In 2016, 90 per cent of Victorian teachers said that excessive workloads negatively affected the quality of their teaching and two-thirds didn’t have time to plan their classes properly. Inevitably, having less time will mean leaning more heavily on repetitive, formulaic lessons. Like parents, exhausted teachers are also more likely to have less patience and shorter fuses.

Add to this the pressures of the pandemic. For the last eighteen months, teachers have had to manage the mammoth task of making real-life content accessible online, sometimes switching between delivery modes within days as lockdowns are reintroduced. One teacher in Sydney explained to me that the most difficult part of online classes is the unspoken aspects of learning, where teachers rely on reading their students’ expressions and body language to determine their level of comprehension and engagement, something made almost impossible through flat, pixelated images and broken audio. In south-west Sydney, where schools were already disadvantaged and students are less likely to have decent internet and devices than in wealthier parts of the city, teachers are reporting that they’ve not heard from some of their students for weeks.

But as American writer Anne Helen Petersen notes, even before COVID-19, ‘the [teaching] profession has been at a breaking point for some time—and has remained intact on the strength of teacher dedication. But no amount of passion can withstand chronic devaluation and exploitation.’

Here, as in the US, the slow erosion of funding for public schools has been accompanied by a longer-term ideological assault on teachers and pressure on them to individually make up for changes made by bureaucrats and politicians. The inevitable decline of educational outcomes resulting from overcrowded classes and underfunding is often blamed on teachers themselves, who have borne the brunt of political scorn and shock-jock vitriol in the last decade. Even after having obtained a master’s degree (a far cry from the six-month ‘Dip. Ed’ that used to be tacked on to the end of a bachelor’s degree) they are now forced to continually prove their ability to teach through arduous processes of reporting and box-ticking.

The idea that ‘quality teaching’ is the determining factor in educational outcomes has led to a proliferation of special scholarships and programs like Teach for Australia that aim to attract high-achieving students to the profession, instead of state governments implementing what teachers and their unions have spent years calling for: smaller class sizes, more staff, more preparation time, more funding and better pay.

Even after having obtained a master’s degree, teachers are forced to continually prove their ability to teach through arduous processes of reporting and box-ticking.

Despite the lack of official trust afforded to them, teachers continue to be one of the most trusted professions by the general public. Even so, while the main contact with parents was once confined to parent-teacher meeting times, teachers are now expected to be directly contactable by email, leaving them at the mercy of helicopter parents who have a lot of advice to offer on how best to do their jobs.

Governments’ unwillingness to adequately fund public schools, combined with the quintessentially neoliberal ideal of ‘consumer choice’, is hardwired into the MySchool system, which allows parents (AKA consumers) to shop around for the highest performing schools according to their results. Ostensibly, MySchool provides ‘accountability’ and ensures that schools strive for the best possible outcomes. But in reality, the system has led to a widening of inequality between schools and less socioeconomic diversity within them, as higher-earning parents move mountains—or suburbs—to place their children among the very best.

MySchool ratings are based on the deeply flawed results of the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a standardised testing system that has become the bête noire of teachers across the country, who are forced to abandon their other activities and ‘teach to the test’ in the weeks leading up to it. To bring up their ratings, schools will sometimes encourage low-performing students to stay home during the exams and hire number-crunching consultants to calculate whether teachers are ‘adding value’ to test scores.

The obsession with standardised testing and quantifying the bejesus out of student learning has arguably wound back some of the progress that was made in pedagogy in the middle of last century, when rote learning and authoritarian modes of teaching were replaced with the more humanist, imaginative approaches that are still the stuff of teaching degrees today.

As ex-teacher Gabbie Stroud explains in an essay for Griffith Review, this endless, counterproductive assessment, combined with the other growing pressures of teaching, led her to abandon the job she once loved. In the essay she warns, ‘We cannot forget the art of teaching—without it, schools become factories, students become products and teachers: nothing more than machinery.’

There’s no point pretending that all teachers are kind, caring, imaginative people. We’ve all experienced humiliation and unfair discipline at school, maybe even been scarred by it. And there are problems with our education system that run deeper than teachers’ working conditions—problems that go beyond the scope of this essay. But there’s also no doubt that many people go into teaching because they believe they can make a difference and are passionate about their subjects and student learning. For these people, teaching is not simply a ‘backup’ job, nor a low-skilled or cruisy one. Teaching is work, but it is also—in Stroud’s words—an art.


Schools in New South Wales, particularly those in the regions and with high-needs students, are scrambling to fill positions that have been vacant for months. Under the circumstances, it’s little wonder why. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has, for now, turned their back on a teaching career for fear of being swallowed up by it and spat back out.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has, for now, turned their back on a teaching career for fear of being swallowed up by it and spat back out.

But, as is often the case, people pushed to the brink eventually push back. This was the case earlier this year in NSW, when teachers forced to absorb the workload of unfilled positions at places like Concord High and Walgett Community College took industrial action to demand that the Berejiklian government guarantee proper staffing. Teachers have also been fighting the pay freeze that was imposed on all public servants at the height of the pandemic last year, which (with the help of striking nurses and paramedics) was overturned in the last budget.

This flourishing of resistance comes on the heels of massive teacher strikes across the US in recent years, where the workforce, mostly women of colour, have made enormous gains for themselves and their students­—from winning higher salaries and more counsellors to keeping police out of schools.

Surely this is the kind of care and passion we want teachers to carry with them into their classrooms, instead of exhaustion, paperwork and endless exams.

As for my own decision whether to pursue teaching, the plight of the teachers I know (and those I don’t) has been enough to make me kick the proverbial can down the road for a while longer. I find it hard to imagine myself being the kind of teacher I would want to be in the current environment. The thought of this makes me sad—but those who are fighting for better conditions and better schools, and for their students to be taught in the way that is best for them, give me hope that my decision might not be final.