on conversations not had
In 2005, in my third week of teaching, I had a student join my classroom. This student had a range of high needs and unique characteristics. One of these was that they enjoyed discreetly masturbating during silent reading time, particularly when looking through National Geographic magazines.
I must admit to being a little concerned about how to manage this behaviour appropriately, considering the mana of the student and with a desire to maintain a safe and inclusive classroom culture.
I can say that now, because it sounds appropriate for a teaching professional. But let's be honest, at the time I plain freaked out.
However as part of my beginning teacher training, I could attend courses put together by appropriately professional support people. At the first session available to me I was joined in a room by about 25 other bright and buzzing first year teachers, ready to learn how to be better.
The facilitator asked, "Let's go around and hear what problems you're facing in the classroom."
As we went around the circle, the facilitator recorded the ideas on the board, for further discussion.
"I have students that never bring their pens and pencils."
"I'm struggling with keeping track of all the planning."
"I don't know how to manage all the paperwork."
"I have a child who jumps up and down on their desk when I ask them to do something."
At this last, there was a fair bit of shaking of heads and concerned nodding.
All of these were dutifully recorded on the board.
I was the last person to share, and I said clearly and calmly,
"I have a student who masturbates in class."
There was a slow intake of breath around the room.
No-one quite knew where to look.
Time slowed awkwardly.
Then the facilitator cleared their throat, said "Well, thank you for sharing for all those issues" and proceeded to continue the planned behaviour management presentation.
My reality was never recorded on the board. And never discussed.
I remember thinking, "Hey hold up, that's my reality. A little help here. Anyone?"
I've felt that again this week as I read the reports of the mega strike involving primary and secondary teachers. I've felt it again as I've read the comments from the Minister.
I left the teaching profession in July 2018, after 14 years in the classroom and in school leadership.
I left the profession for a number of reasons and did so with a belief that if I had stayed in I would have become a useful leader in a school. But ultimately I left because I became aware of what staying in the profession would cost.
In terms of my relationship with my partner.
In terms of time not available for my daughters.
In a terms of the ongoing physical and cognitive load that the role places on you.
A cost that would not be reduced by being in another school.
A cost that would not be reduced by being paid more.
Because that cost is defined and shaped by what society demands from those they call teachers, and the organisations they call schools. That cost is unavoidable and never fully discussed by the same society that demands it.
That cost is constantly rising because society continues to use schools and those that are in them as the proxy by which to fix all of societies realities.
We're not having the conversation that matters.
About what it is to be a society that cares enough to contribute enough in a shared way to address these realities.
Because this is the story from a colleague of mine, who's still in the profession, that describe current realities.
"Over the past two weeks alongside all the 'regular' teacher/school stuff, here are all the 'extra'ordinary events we have been managing at our school.
a student who has attempted suicide
a student who has disclosed sexual assault
a student who has been self harming to manage their anxiety
a student who is not sleeping - to the extent that their mental health is suffering
a notification to OT about students drinking and drug taking
a student who is not safe in their own home and has nowhere else to live
two cases of disclosed domestic violence - where my students are informing us about the details of the abuse, but are not ready to take the next steps
and I wonder why I am feeling so tired? and drinking so much?"
This is the reality that society brings through the front doors of schools all across the country.
That reality will be barely addressed by the collective contract which the unions are about to go on strike over.
Because we're not having the right conversation.
No-one wants to have the conversation about whats allowed a teacher in a school to be the last line in managing this reality.
That reality is not on teachers.
That reality is not on the government of the day.
That's on us.
As a society.
As a community.
To face the shame of this reality.
To cry out against the injustice of this reality.
To hold each other to account for this reality.
But instead of having a shared conversation about how we all share this burden, the media narrative in this country reduces this reality to a simple conflict.
Teachers are good.
Government and Ministry of Education are bad.
This reduction might help us make sense of the complexity of delivering public education, and depending on our bias, we'll pick a side.
But this framing ultimately fails because, regardless of which side "wins" this round of negotiations, it's not going to change the reality that's described in the stories above.
This reality is the one within which public education, schools and teachers sit.
Until we start having an honest conversation about how no-one individual or profession can or should carry or be responsible for this reality.
Until we as a society recognise our collective responsibilities to each other.
Until we as a society make room to work together differently, to do better together.
We'll keep having the conversations that make us feel good about caring.
We'll keep conveniently ignoring the realities that we can't handle.
We'll keep paying the cost.
Related: Quite a Long Way from Cairo