Why I Left Teaching (And May Never Go Back)

School has been back for a few weeks now and every so often I feel momentary regret that I am also not back in the classroom, as well as no small amount of guilt for leaving the profession considering the difficulty many schools are having in finding quality teachers. The teacher crisis is very real, despite what some people out there claim, and is a serious problem.

Despite this, I still decided to leave. I taught full-time for two years, and part time for a third while studying. It was toward the end of the second year that I felt drained and realised my heart was no longer in it, a feeling shared by more than a few beginning teachers. For me, it wasn’t the money, although that could have been better, especially living in Auckland. It wasn’t the lack of work-life balance either, for while that was almost non-existent, I was happy to spend that time if it meant developing great lessons. It took time away from school to understand exactly why I felt compelled to leave, and I know now that while part of me left to find ways to make a difference for our communities and the environment, part of me can’t get over the fact that certain aspects of our education system make it too difficult for me to be the best teacher I know I can be.

We are failing our Māori and Pasifika students

Like many other teachers, I was inspired to join the profession by my personal experiences in school. Attending a predominantly Pākehā school, some people made more of a fuss than was necessary about the fact that I not only made it through to Year 13 and was going to university, one of only a handful of Māori students to do so, but that I did so fairly easily. While most people were positive and my friends thought it no big deal, other Māori students called me ‘white’ because I always followed the rules, did my work, and listened to ‘white’ music, that is, rock and metal rather than hip-hop. While they were only the sentiments of immature teenagers, those attitudes made me think that I wasn’t a ‘real’ Māori and discouraged me from wanting to connect with or even understand the culture.

Because of this, I embraced my ‘whiteness’ and decided my identity is solely defined by my own decisions and nothing else. However, the colour of my skin always made it clear that I was different. Sometimes it was the poorly disguised surprise when I opened my mouth and I didn’t speak like a stereotypical Māori. Other times it was comments like “You’re smart for a brown guy!” which while meant to compliment, only enforced the idea that when you are a successful Māori, you are an exception to the rule that your people, generally speaking, are not very successful.

As much as those experiences had an impact on my identity which took years to work past, they are still far less damaging than what other Māori must endure. This is why I vowed to only ever teach at low-decile schools, to show show those students that despite the obstacles they face and what they believe, they are more than capable of surpassing them. However, some things, like institutional racism and unconscious bias, are not so easily overcome. One might think we have passed that stage, but only this year the Children’s Commissioner reported on the racism that students still experience, from their teachers of all people, where students recalled being told they weren’t going to succeed or felt they were being ignored in class because they weren’t Pākehā.

Put yourself in the shoes of these students for a moment, and imagine how utterly demoralising must it be to have to endure stereotypes by the media and public (mainly by Pākehā) about the chances you have of succeeding in life, only to go to school and have predominantly Pākehā teachers telling you what you can and cannot do every hour of the day and to put you down. The degrading comments are just plain wrong, but even the commands, which are well-meaning as it is the teacher’s job to help students focus in order to achieve, exerts a level of controlling power that adversely affects Māori and Pasifika more than other students. Some would say that it is just school, everyone is treated the same and it is not about race, but when when you exist outside of the dominant culture, it is always about race.

Māori and Pasifika remain outsiders because they are forced into a system that tries to change them and often undervalues them. Conformity is coerced through methods such as enforcing uniform requirements which are often justified along the lines of affordability and tidiness. Pride in a uniform is often demanded rather than earned, just as rules are often enforced without the time being taken to explain the rationale behind them. Failure to comply to these expectations results in a student being labelled a troublemaker, given punitive punishments and being excluded from schools, all while the underlying issues that drive such behaviour, such as not understanding work, dealing with the trials of poverty and undesirable situations at home, remain unaddressed.

It is no surprise then that alternative education is comprised primarily of Pasifika and Māori students, and it shows that conventional schools are failing to truly engage with these students and are not providing them with the right motivation to continue in school. For example, educators know that Māori learn best in ways that differ from traditional teaching methods, preferring to work collaboratively, learn from communities and whanau rather than just teachers and would rather learn by doing, not just reading or listening. Sometimes it is simply innocent ignorance of these methods that explains why they are rarely used, and perhaps teacher training courses warrant some scrutiny in their role in this ignorance, and other times it is simply a lack of trying to understand other cultures.

Despite great improvements in recent years, there remains in education a lack of appreciation for other cultures, and in particular, for other cultural worldviews. Moves to target “priority learners” only reinforce the idea that the blame for poor educational outcomes are the fault of the students themselves, and that they need a helping hand to keep up with everyone else. This also assumes a homogenous view that the purpose of education is for all students to achieve academic success as defined by the dominant culture, but although colonisation has long impacted both Maori and Pasifika, it has yet to completely replace the values of community and sharing intrinsic to the former with the pursuit of individual wealth and success that has long been a Western virtue.

Now to be clear, I am not blaming teachers for any of this. Most of the teachers I have worked and trained with are fantastic, genuine, caring people that do everything they can for their students. I would not even say that many teachers are actually racist, although no doubt there are a few bad eggs out there. Rather, I place the blame on an educational system deeply entrenched in Western industrial-era values, a system that pays lip service to cultural responsiveness and equality in education but then places so many unnecessary burdens on teachers that they can’t actually practice what is preached.

Nevermind the paperwork… I just wanted to teach!

In my view, an empowered student is one that thinks critically and logically questions what they are told and the world around them. My personal experience of school was that it didn’t seem to foster critical thinking at all, it was merely rote learning and doing what the teacher said. As stated earlier, I became a teacher to do better than how I was taught and to empower students, but unfortunately, critical thinking is a difficult thing to teach when there isn’t enough time to do so.

A good lesson takes time to prepare. You have one hour in which to teach a limited number of concepts, so activities have to be sequenced appropriately and run according to schedule as much as possible. There are around thirty students, all of whom are at different levels and learn best in different ways, so tasks need to be differentiated to accommodate this diversity. Not all of them will be paying attention, and some will be outright disruptive, so timings have to change to put out these small fires.

There are between three and five lessons most days, with a couple of non-contact periods mind you, but those hours of what should be respite are taken up by things like meetings, giving feedback, moderation, reports, mentoring and appraisal documentation. This often means lesson planning has to happen late in the afternoon or at home, where it tends to be rushed. Such lessons are usually not developed enough to encourage critical thinking because they need to be made with the individuals in the class in mind, not taken out of a textbook or an online plan. Personally, I felt unhappy with many of my lessons as I knew if I had the time, my lessons would have been great.

Teachers are expected to constantly deliver fantastic lessons that raise student achievement while increasingly being expected to demonstrate accountability for their students’ performance. I have heard few policy-makers seriously suggest reducing teacher workload, particularly the expected contact hours and class sizes, both of which must be cut for teachers to deliver those effective lessons. In fact, most of the discourse about education is superficial and focuses mainly on statistics, such as how many people are gaining qualifications across schools, demographics and nationally, and how many credits they are gaining while doing so.

This obsession, which grew worse under National, means the success of a school and a government’s education policies are determined by the number and nature of credits gained by students. This in turn compels students and the schools themselves to panic about getting those numbers up by setting percentage goals for the amount of students that gain each qualification. One problem with such goals is that they lead to “teaching to assessment”, where each course simply moves from one internal to another and the emphasis from both students and staff is placed on the credits those internals offer, rather than the skills that must be demonstrated to do so. This is where exemplars and assessment workbooks, although structured to scaffold students, may do them a disservice by dissuading them from appreciating the true value of the work they are asked to do.

A student’s future is determined by the number of credits they have when they leave school, so NCEA becomes a numbers game. Once the number has been reached a student can kick back and relax, which is exactly what I did at school. There was no drive, no intrinsic appreciation for learning being developed, and personally, I didn’t care that much about Excellence credits when I was in school. I wasn’t after any scholarship or anything special and even now, endorsements seem geared towards gaining scholarships or making CVs look good.

A friend of mine said that schools had essentially become “credit factories”, concerned with pumping out qualifications in order to meet achievement goals, which in part affects funding. To do this, schools offer extra assessments that students can complete later in the year or students go to different institutions to get them. Again, teachers and schools cannot be blamed for this, they are simply doing what is right by students to ensure they can progress to whatever future endeavours they have in mind after school. Unfortunately, this means that for all its good intentions, NCEA is still just another way to define the value of a young person as easily-processable numbers and terms, handy for employers and universities to easily make judgments about their worth.

Education cannot continue to be merely a mechanism that molds young people into ideal employees to exported to the workforce. The previous government’s narrow focus on STEM subjects reflects the industrial-era attitudes that still fundamentally underpins our education system, such as the idea that the skills a student learns in school should be directly related to their future employment. These values are often at odds with the values of other cultures, like how the education system promotes individual excellence over manaakitanga and looking out for one’s own interests over working to help others. Schools, like the wider society they reflect, equates one’s identity with their work, and ideally that shouldn’t happen at all. People, after all, are more than the job they do, and we should start talking to students like this is the case.

Schools should focus on providing students with the ability to navigate the many complexities of adult life, things ranging from financial literacy to civics to even just understanding and appreciating their cultures. They should leave school confident enough to meaningfully interact with people from all walks of life, able to take on any challenge they face with a curiosity to continue learning and improving (the idea of creating life-long learners is discussed in the NZ Curriculum) and be empathetic, active citizens. If they have all these attributes, they will likely succeed in whatever they pursuit they choose.

I may not go back, but I hope it gets better

I knew many of these problems existed before I started teaching, but I underestimated not only how difficult it would be to make the change I wanted to, but also how much I disagreed with the fundamental ideologies that drive our education system. The frustration got the better of me and I felt like I was accomplishing little. That said, the issues highlighted in this piece do not mean that it is all doom and gloom. There are plenty of positive discussions occurring and ideas being put forward about how to make our education system better, such as recent announcements of major reforms provides cause for cautious optimism. There is talk of removing the Tomorrow’s Schools that fostered competition between schools, a review of NCEA and the need to address Māori issues in education. I hope that the changes are sufficiently radical and not the tinkering at the edges we have come to expect from Labour, but even then, I will likely not return to teaching any time soon. The issues, particularly those that face Māori and Pasifika, may be exacerbated at school but they start beyond the gates, and it is that change out in the community and with society that I intend to make. For all those still teaching, I have the utmost respect. Sometimes I wish I had persevered, but students are better served by those whose hearts are still in it.