Because we care

English teacher Joe O’Connor on why he went on strike (Bonus strike poster attached)

Second-year English teacher Joe O’Connor is passionate about teaching and his students. He shares his reasons for striking on May 29 with PPTA News.

Joe OConner web

Joe O'Connor

One of my students asked me yesterday “if the teachers want more money, why don’t they just do something else?” To which I replied “then who will teach you?”

I think a lot of people are aware that the teachers are striking today, and they believe pay is the sole reason. And it’s certainly a big part of it. But I think a lot of people would also concede that teachers aren’t in this profession because of the money, and that there are plenty of other jobs that we could do if we were set on making bank.

We choose this profession because we care

We choose this profession because we care. We choose to walk into a classroom of twenty-something teenagers because we believe we can make a positive difference. We choose to teach not just because we are passionate about our subject, but because we have the chance to help our students learn. Not just knowledge and content, but skills that they’ll take with them for life.

Do I think I have the most important or hardest job in the world? Definitely not. There are much harder and more important jobs out there, where people are working to save people’s lives on a daily basis, where people work incredibly long hours just to scrape by, where people can make developments in areas like genetic research, or make changes in politics that can affect how we treat others and ourselves. At the end of the day I COULD just chuck a movie on and keep the class quiet, and they wouldn’t complain.

We take our work with us

But I do think that we need to change how we think about our teachers, and how they’re valued. People will say “but you only work from 9-3 anyway”, which I’m sorry to say is completely untrue. If any teacher says they are working from 9-3 then they are either an excellent liar or not doing their job properly. Or hey maybe they’ve just discovered how to be super-efficient, and I need to take whatever they’re taking! Yes our kids go home at 3.15pm and yes sometimes we are able to go home then too.

But we take our work with us. The time we need to mark our classwork and assessments, and to plan four or five lessons is a lot more than the time we’re paid for, and so if we’re expected to spend those hours in the afternoon/evening/before school working, then being paid for that time would be a good step. Many of us are also involved in co-curricular activities such as sports teams, clubs and councils, and they can easily take up two or three afternoons a week. We do that because we care.

But what about all those holidays?

A classic line is “but you have 12 weeks holiday each year!” and yes, we are lucky enough to have that time out of the classroom. That’s a definite bonus, I count myself lucky to have that time, and I try to make the most of it! Just something to be aware of - by the end of term both the kids and the teachers are exhausted, and it feels like you’re trying to break down a brick wall with your bare hands. Our job is to motivate and engage our students, but after five classes every day for two and a half months, they’re pretty tired.

Our salaries are stretched out over the entire year, so yes we do continue to get paid over the holidays, but looking at the time spent working in one year compared to what we’re earning, it simply doesn’t add up. The first week of our ‘holidays’ are generally spent either dropping like flies from being sick now that we’ve finally ‘stopped’, or not doing much more than enjoying some quiet time. Most teachers will spend between a few days and a week planning for the upcoming term, or marking classwork. Having more time allocated to planning and marking at school would mean that we can give our kids the lessons they deserve and need, rather than constantly feeling like we’re on the back foot, and stressed.

Other countries treat teaching with more respect

As a young, second-year teacher with minimal living costs, a small commute, no growing family to take care of, and next to no chance of owning a house in Auckland in the next decade haha, I’m lucky enough to be able to use my holidays to travel sometimes; if I’ve managed to get all my marking done by the end of term, and all my planning done for the upcoming one.

I know that’s something not everyone can do, and I’m very thankful for the chance to do so! It’s become pretty apparent as I’ve travelled that there are plenty of countries out there that treat the teaching profession with more respect than here, and that’s what leads so many of our teachers to leave. More on that later, if you make it that far!

It’s not simply about knowledge

Then there’s the old “when was the last time you used quadratic equations in real life?” line. And look I hear ya-Maths wasn’t my strong suit, and I battled through polynomials and hypotenuses and non-linear and independent variables for five long years. And a lot of the content I learned in my subjects I don’t use day to day for sure. But it’s not simply about knowledge. As an English teacher, teaching my kids to know the difference between a high and low angle shot, alliteration and assonance, first-person and second-person narrative is all well and good, but there’s far more to it than that.

In all the core and optional subjects I took throughout school, Maths included (shoutout to my teachers who didn’t let me fall or give up), I was constantly honing the soft skills needed to navigate through life. Things like being able to work with others, think critically, argue and use reason, have a strong work ethic, develop good communication skills, be able to time manage, listen, problem-solve, give and receive feedback. But then also things like learning how to respect others, how to empathise, how to care for not only the environment around you but your own self too, how to develop self-confidence, initiative, perseverance, responsibility, compassion, leadership and plenty more.

Classrooms bursting at the seams

We try every day in our classrooms, to connect with and inspire and help over 130 students. That’s what you call the absurdity of teaching. That we’re expected, in 60 minutes of class time, to be able to give each of our twenty-something students the time and attention and energy they deserve.

Classrooms are bursting at the seams right now, and you wouldn’t believe the difference three or four kids makes to a room. How do we reduce class size so that we can achieve this? Make teaching a respected and attractive career option, so that students aren’t being crammed into already full classes due to the teacher shortage.

Why are our new teachers quitting?

Half of our incoming teachers are leaving the profession within the first five years. For those of you good at maths (thank someone for that), that’s 50%. They leave because they know they can find another career path that pays better and values them more. Or they head overseas to teach. If this is such a well-paid and easy job, why are half of our new teachers quitting?

But it’s not just the pay. It’s burnout. They come in full of passion and energy and vibrance, ready to play their part in helping the next generation grow and mature, and they quickly find that that same energy is drained faster than they can refill it. By the lack of time for planning, registration, and marking, the lack of support for the kids who need it, the lack of funding for resources, and the lack of respect from those who believe that “those who can...do, and those who can’t...teach”. That’s a cliche people, and it’s a pretty nasty fall-back comment to make about those who are more concerned with helping our young ones learn and succeed, than their own interests or bank balance.

Teenagers and a rapidly changing world

But twenty-something kids isn’t that many right? It was like that in my day? What’s going on? Teachers should be able to manage to get to most of their students in one hour, surely? Well if you aren’t too old to remember what it was like to be a teenager, you’ll remember that it was actually a pretty stressful time for a lot of us!

Teenagers are literally growing up before our eyes, and they are now faced with a world that has changed so rapidly in the last decade; to the point where they get their news from scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, their health advice from trendy ‘influencers’, and their role models for how to be a decent human being from a world of media that glorifies violence, sex, alcohol and drug abuse. That’s where they are learning how to behave and act and think. While social media can be a positive thing it can also be incredibly damaging to a young mind or body, and we see the effects of this every day.

Help us help them

As a result, lots of our students are dealing with issues and problems that they shouldn’t have to face at their age, and the pressures on them to act or behave a certain way mean that this comes out in the classroom. We aren’t trained as counsellors, but we’re expected to be able to help our kids who desperately need help beyond our qualifications. Increasing funding for support staff like guidance, counselling, and teacher aides would be massive for our teenagers.

In that class of twenty-something, we’re facing lower literacy levels than ever before, decreased engagement and motivation, behaviour management issues relating to family, drug and relationship problems, and a wide range of both competence and willingness to learn. We also have students in our classes who may need more help and attention than others: those who have ASD, ADHD, Asperger’s, dyslexia, dyspraxia, slow processing, anxiety, depression and a whole lot more. And we need help. We need more funding to get support staff into our classroom who are trained to help these students cope and learn, and we need more professional training opportunities to help us help them. This means we can give them the best chance to succeed, and also make sure that we get to all our kids during that precious hour, without anyone getting left behind.

Our kids deserve better, and so do we.

So to make a very long story long, no it’s not just about the money. But increasing pay for teachers, and increasing funding for support staff and professional development in key areas, making more time for marking and planning, as well as showing that we value and respect this profession, means that our kids won’t be left to figure it out on their own.

They won’t be left to sink under an ocean of troubles, because we’ll be there to pull them up. That’s a metaphor for those of you can’t remember doing high school English. They won’t be left to feel alone or misunderstood, because we’ll be there to encourage and comfort them. They won’t be stuck with no way of progressing, because we’ll be there to push them, to challenge them, to make sure they believe they can achieve. And we’ll be there regardless of whether anything changes. Because we care. We care enough to take a day off work, out of the classroom, causing inconvenience to parents across the country, because their kids deserve better. And so do we. We don’t want to strike, and I’d much rather have been teaching my classes today. But teachers have a tendency to just deal with it, and we need to speak out.

The student who I was talking to is doing exactly what we hope our kids can- he is challenging, asking questions, trying to understand, making us think. So we’re getting somewhere! He responded to my question about who will teach our students, by saying “maybe people who are actually passionate about their job”. Well we’re right here.

Apples are great but we need more

Apples are great. I ate two yesterday! Remember your 5+ guys and girls! They’re delicious, healthy, and a few generations ago they made a great present for any teacher. And they still do. But we need more.

If a kid gives me an apple, I’ll gratefully accept it. It shows that they understand and appreciate what some adults don’t - that we’re doing our best day in and day out, that we’re staying up late marking, that we’re learning how to better use digital technology, that we’re cheering them on in their productions, sports teams and performances, that we’re happy to see them when they walk in the door, that we try cater to the different learning styles, abilities, strengths, and interests that they bring, because we’re here...for them.

Last modified on Thursday, 27 June 2019 11:02