Persisting through the stresses of a teacher’s working life

I am visiting my sister and brother-in-law’s farm. 2018 was a tough year. The drought in New South Wales has been extensive and continues in many areas. The feed is low, or non-existent, and the dust storms sweep through the district with sickening regularity. Sickening, because this is precious top soil, blowing away. Blowing to the coast, into the ocean. Away from the land, an indication of the desperateness of the farmers. Who stare in silent despair at the orange-red clouds that roll in, around and out.

My sister calls out, “Rammy, Big Boy, yummy yums”. We are hand-feeding the sheep, they come slowly. She is wearing her Sunday dress and shoes, as we walk across the paddock to where the ewes are kept. They are getting some hay and sheep nuts today. This is what remains of their flock. Two rams and 13 ewes. There aren’t that many. She knows them all by name.

We talk about the drought, and some of the tough decisions that are being made. Decisions on what to feed the sheep, where to get feed from, how to keep their few sheep healthy. Whether to just sell them all, or keep a few, and hope, hope for the rains to come. All the while, I am conscious of the dust storm that is gathering, just beyond the horizon, the low hills that border the district. All the while, her thoughts and those of her husband are with the immediate future, considering, reflecting, reviewing and revising. Each day anew. Making adaptations, discovering what can and should be done, always with an eye on the market.

As I walk, I think about this farming working life style, and realize it is not that dissimilar to the working life of a teacher. I don’t want to belittle the very serious drought facing farmers in rural communities in Australia. But teachers also regularly face difficult problems and decisions. A perfect storm of changing societal pressures, new government policies and directives, technological upheavals, school closures and amalgamations. And that is not even dealing with the ever-increasing demands within the classroom. The pressures on the working life of teachers are real. In the concerning Teachers Report Card released by the Australian College of Educators, one in five teachers surveyed, stated they had thought about leaving teaching most of the time or fairly often in the previous 3 months!

Reflections from the farm facebook post

Where do we go from here?

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know that anyone does. It is one of the “wicked problems” confronting education systems. But, at the chalkface, I have become more and more aware of the increasing number of problems facing teachers. In recent times in schools, as teacher and PD consultant, I find myself face-to-face with teachers who ask me, what would you do? How would you approach this? Especially, when confronted with the growing number of students with additional needs in their classrooms. I find myself reaching out a helping hand to them, to find out what can be done, reviewing, reflecting, and revising.

I begin by reviewing the research. In my present circumstance, I find I have some time, and I enjoy reading research and reports. Working diligently to discover what the latest ideas are, I find out what is new, new ways of seeing, knowing, understanding, for an ever-changing world. I enjoy conducting my own primary research studies and have completed (or been part of) many over time. But I also enjoy reading another person’s research. What have they discovered, how did they discover it? What does it mean? But most importantly, how can it be implemented?

Implementation – the heart of the matter!

Implementation of relevant research, though vital to success, is a key problem. For several reasons. Mostly because teachers are too busy with their teaching, the struggles of day-to-day, to effectively reflect on and contend with what the latest research tells them to do, no matter how helpful it is! I also find that there is from time to time a considerable disconnect between what is researched, and what can be implemented. There has always been an assumption that teachers are passive adopters of research when confronted with brilliant findings! My own experience in schools tells me that is just not the case. Moreover, it has never been the case! A very old study, the Rand Study in the USA (1978), of the implementation of over 300 federally funded innovations, found there was very little fidelity in the adoption of research and innovation by teachers in the classroom.

Action research, co-design

If it is so difficult to get teachers to adopt new practices, or revise old ones, something I have witnessed with my own eyes, many times, how do we get teachers to engage? What does work is for teachers to initiate the implementation of the proposed solution. This can be done through engaging in action research for themselves. Action research is something that is taught at many Universities as part of their pre-service teacher programs. And is also something recommended by AITSL in their guided professional learning toolbox.

But this still leaves the teacher engaging with additional workload pressures. Co-design is gaining momentum as a way of helping teachers engage with the research and its implementation in the classroom. It is a tool I enjoy using when designing new curricula, helping teachers to think about their classroom practice for inclusion. Or when helping educators adopt new technologies. It is an approach successfully used by Harvard in their Education Redesign Lab, working with communities in developing and implementing their own success plans, personalized plans for inclusive education.

Integration – business as usual

Co-design is also successful for moving practice and innovation from implementation to integration. It empowers the teachers, educators, implementors to take ownership of the project and make it part of their business as usual approach to working in the classroom. It encourages educators to engage with new technologies, or consider different ways of presenting information to students, or engage with an in-depth rethink of their teaching and assessment practices, to review, reflect, revise. And over time, the innovation or new practice becomes part of the ‘business as usual’ way of doing things.

On the farm, my sister and brother-in-law have diversified their income. Operating a small business as home handyman (and woman!). This has been going on for some time, and so the needs for the sheep are perhaps no longer as urgent for them. Though their business brings in a good additional food supply for the sheep, from cropping trees and pruning hedges.  Not many farmers have this as an option though. And as teachers, we can’t do this either, other than leaving altogether, we cannot turn away from our students and look for a respite elsewhere. But there are available a range of strategies for exploring and facing down some of the stressors in the classrooms. Whilst, as a society, individually and collectively, we must offer them our support.

Farmers and teachers are two essential occupations. They play valuable roles in how we operate our society. I love visiting the farm. Even in times of drought, there are moments of personal renewal. And I love working with educators, at the chalkface, in the Universities, helping them achieve moments of fulfillment. But, it is essential that all stakeholders listen to their views, and that they are looked after by the decision makers at all levels. Most of all it is time for everyone in our community to support these occupations so necessary to our way of life!

Reflections from the farm

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