I have taught for two and a half years This year has challenged me to work harder beyond what I had expected for myself, question my ideals more than ever, and struggled to find a balance in my life. It has been exhausting and a constant battle, and perhaps in time, I will be able to negotiate an outcome from all these.
There has been much ongoing dialogue about the workload of teachers and what our focus at work should be. This has obviously led to some disagreements, unpleasant exchange of opinions, and hopefully also helped to shed some light on the real situation on the ground in schools. Not just elite schools, or specific-tiered schools, but schools dealing with all range of student profiles.
The education system we work under is not perfect; but no system is perfect, and I don’t think we should blame the system. It is at most an inanimate set of structures, procedures, and guidelines, managed by people and applied across all schools. The problem, I believe, lies in the transference of a system (developed with an ideal, good purpose behind it) onto a group of teachers and students. Teaching is a laborious, painstakingly human job, and you can not apply a system without giving due consideration to the people it concerns. When you take away the heart of the matter behind education, commercialise it, and run it as a business, it tears the ideals and purpose of education apart. So easily your students and their parents become your clients, stakeholders become opportunities to profit (mostly in the form of raising the school’s reputation, or fulfilling some targets), and teachers and staff inevitably become units of labour.
There are many things that frustrates me as a teacher. As a disclaimer, no school is alike, and one teacher’s experience should not be generalised as others’. However, I believe most educators would be in agreement of this: that an outsider to the education system, should not assume knowledge of the challenges of a teacher. Let us not even go into the issue of our pay and how deserving we are of it. One of the biggest personal peeves is when someone assumes that teaching is simple.
“Those who can’t, teach.”
“It’s the holidays now, right? So you should be freer?”
“Oh, so it’s the exam period now? So it’s like holidays for you? You just need to invigilate, right.”
It is easy to misunderstand the requirements of being a teacher when you have not stepped into the classroom or taught in a school. This is why I am in full agreement for the contract teacher schemes that are offered to interested applicants for the job. Some people are cut out for it, and others are simply not suitable.
For the past two weeks I have, together with my colleagues and teaching friends, marked till late at night just to clear our pre and post-examination marking. After 1:30pm (which is our official dismissal time), we strategically visit some local (very kind!) cafes and sit there with coffee and a quick lunch, and mark till late – often past 9 pm, before we pack up and head home. I had 9 classes of papers to mark in 10 days – a reasonable load, thankfully, but still a challenge when you have to mark for an average of 8 hours straight every day. We could work faster if we had the luxury of marking during school hours, but unfortunately, there is also the organisation of post-exam activities, keying in of marks for the summative assessment, writing student remarks, writing school reports that consume our time and concentration.
I have tried my reasonable best to work less (work smart) this year. I have become more selective about meeting deadlines (because there often more pressing things to do) and more strategic in directing my efforts to completing tasks (some require more work while others, minimal effort). There are afternoons when I make myself take some time off early to go watch a movie, shopping, or just hang out with good friends and colleagues at a cafe to chill out. I am really thankful that I have not yet driven myself to the ground with the support of people around me, especially my colleagues and friends. But on most other days, we find ourselves working till at least 5pm, and work does not end there – we take it home, work at night, and half the time this does not even involve preparing for lessons the next day. Much of my weekend is spent ensuring that I am ready for work responsibly when Monday comes – and often this means missing family appointments or other additional activities that may require my time and attention.
I know not every teacher spends his or her weekday or weekend this way, uptight about work, but for someone who is still struggling to manage my self, teaching is not giving me an easy time.
I can empathise very closely when people remark on how our attention on teaching is being diverted onto other things that “counts for something”. These include sending out emails (with your initial on it), organising programmes for students, preparing excel templates for marks analysis, writing reports for official school documents for recording or auditing purposes, writing remarks for students… and the list goes on. If you prove yourself able to these things that count towards something on your KPI, you are almost guaranteed to be on the right track when it comes to promotions and career advancement opportunities.
It is not that these tasks are unimportant and ridiculous. Targets are there to help make things better, or at least they should. But when we lose sight of the purpose behind the targets we work towards to achieve, when we forget that our purpose is to add value and teach our students to become educated, keen learners of good character… when we work towards these targets at the expense of the soul of teaching, then we need to take a step back and ask ourselves if there is a necessity to realign our priorities.