We chat to Gabbie Stroud about her memoir Teacher

Gabbie Stroud is a former teacher. Her memoir Teacher: One woman's struggle to keep the heart in teaching was released recently and has been heralded "as important as anything I've ever read about education" by social commentator Jane Caro. We spoke to Gabbie about her memoir, and tried to find out what she felt took the heart from teaching. 

Gabbie, you wrote your memoir after being a teacher for 16 years. Was your heart there when you started?

"Absolutely! I loved teaching when I first began. I had wanted to be a teacher all my life and finally my dreams were being realised. I loved the experience of teaching and I loved that beautiful magic moment of learning – I loved watching children’s eyes light up, I loved their expressions of wonder when you taught them something new, I loved the questions they asked and the jokes they told and the way they grew and changed and developed before my very eyes. I loved the feeling that I was contributing to something bigger than myself and that my work with each child would contribute to a larger legacy – their lifetime of learning. 

"It’s an unfortunate thing, but sometimes loving your job just isn’t enough. Over time so many things kept crowding out all the things I loved about teaching.

"I think my heart was in it, right until the very end – it’s just my heart was broken."

What took the heart out of your teaching?

"It seems to have been eroded over time with the advent of various, seemingly harmless, new initiatives and policies. In 2008 all of Australia's education ministers created the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which lead to the My School website and NAPLAN – I firmly believe these are sadly misguided initiatives and they have forced us into a warped way of looking at education for three key reasons.

"Firstly, we are framing education with a business model. Schools are not businesses, schools are schools. And yet today, they are being run under a business model, which is damaging and dangerous.

"Secondly, we have tried to standardise education. There’s nothing standard about the journey of learning because every child is different (and so is every teacher and every school) and yet we have a standard curriculum, standardised (high stakes) testing and professional teaching standards. There’s no room for the individual.

"Thirdly, we have lost the art of education. I believe that good teaching is both a science and an art, yet today teaching is being reduced to something scientific, as though it’s a series of formulaic steps to be mixed up like a chemical concoction and poured over our students’ heads. We have lost the art of teaching which is all about relationships, student engagement, learner needs and valuing the teacher’s role."

What about the teachers? How do you believe the education system takes the heart out of them?

"Teaching has always been a hard and demanding job. Today though, teachers are working harder than ever before. They face unrealistic work loads and endless unnecessary paperwork. Teachers are repeatedly being told how to do their job - they’re dictated to by the media, by falling NAPLAN results, Gonski reports, latest research that’s not been tested and by policy makers and politicians who have never taught a day in a classroom. 

"For a teacher, being constantly told to work in a way that you know is not effective or productive for your students causes you to feel demoralised. It’s a depressing kind of professional fog where you begin to doubt and question yourself. You notice your students aren’t thriving in the way they should be and you feel like you’re a failure. Many teachers claim they’re feeling burnt out as a result of teaching – but that implies that they aren’t managing their work load efficiently and that the problem lies with them. It does not! Burn out is a symptom of demoralisation."

Teacher attrition rates are at an all-time high in Australia at the moment. What do you think government and policy makers could do to better support them?

"I believe we need a politician with vision to make the boldest decision ever – to make education bipartisan and step out of the educational arena. It would be great to see education existing in a healthy state of consistency for a few years without being constantly bombarded with changes (particularly when politicians feel the need to flex their muscles). I also believe it would be a wise choice to populate the positions in education departments with teachers. I believe teachers and people with lived, recent teaching experience are best placed to inform policy and decision making.

"Given that these things may not happen immediately, I think the best thing government and policy makers would do for teachers would be to listen to them and then consider what teachers tell them and respond accordingly and meaningfully."

What about schools and parents - is there anything they can do to support teachers?

"I am hopeful that parents will eventually come around to understanding the need for change within our education system. At the moment I feel like many parents have “bought into” the story that the politicians and policy makers have sold to the media which is that NAPLAN is ‘just a snapshot’ and – more recently – this idea that teachers just need to manage their well-being. 

"I remain hopeful that if more teachers continue to share their story and parents take the time to listen, a more accurate picture can be portrayed and parents will come to understand the unhealthy state education finds itself in today. Once parents realise this, I believe they will lobby for change on behalf of teachers and their kids. I don’t think change in education will come from the top-down – I believe it will be more of an organic, grassroots movement lead by teachers and parents who find their voice and use it whenever and wherever they can."

Gabbie Stroud is a freelance writer, novelist and recovering teacher. Her critical commentary of Australia’s education system was published in Griffith Review’s Edition 51 Fixing The System. Links to the essay went viral on social media and the essay was viewed 24,000 times within the first two weeks of publication. Teacher: One woman's struggle to keep the heart in teaching is Gabbie’s memoir, expanding on that essay and bringing readers into today’s challenging classrooms. She is a passionate advocate for change in Australia’s education system and has been a guest on The Drum, Conversations with Richard Fidler, Studio 10, Sunrise, 60 Minutes and Q&A.

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