Yesterday I had lunch with a long-time friend.
I’ve known Maria for over 25 years. We first met at university and shared many Biology 101 lectures and pracs but our paths separated when she chose to study the geological sciences. In that time however, we kept contact, we shared meals at the uni cafe and sat on the lawns of Monash University between lectures.
Over the years, Maria chose a path different to mine. While I joined the Navy and some years after that, entered the corporate learning and development world for a life between a cubicle and a classroom, Maria became a secondary school teacher after university, travelled the world and taught in schools in lower socio-economic regions in Australia and remote Pacific Islands. She has lived her life to the full, teaching in remote communities, having a true connection with her students, their parents and the local community.
Passionate about her profession as an educator, creative in how she teaches her students and always learning, Maria revelled in perfecting her craft and giving her students the best education possible.
If I had kids, I would want them to have a teacher like Maria.
Once a year, we meet up for lunch when she happens to be in Melbourne to see her family. It’s an opportunity to catch up and hear her stories and adventures in outback Australia; the people she meets; the students she teaches and the life she leads.
Through Maria, I hear the personal stories that people in the cities only hear and read about on television or magazines: the lack of support in the public education system in regional Australia; the lack of basic services; the challenges that face the youth in remote regions; the trials and tribulations of the folk living in these small towns and lands as well as the positive, inspiring and uplifting stories of entire communities rallying together to face odds. However, despite the challenges, Maria has always got a smile on her face. She truly loves what she does.
To me, Maria has lived the real Australia. She puts my sedate corporate and suburban life into harsh perspective of how easy I’ve had it.
Throughout the years I have known her, we have shared many experiences but she has had her fair share of personal challenges and health scares that she has overcome. I would say that she is the most resilient person I know.
Yesterday’s meeting was an eye-opener. After we spoke about our families and friends, our conversation turned to work where she explained that 2012 was a major learning year for her where she realised that she couldn’t stay in the public education system any longer but she was torn because she loved her students and her community.
Circumstances beyond her control simply made the school that she worked unrecognisable and foreign to her. “The good old days are gone; the education system as I knew it is completely different,” she said.
She explained that the school had undergone many changes through the years, but recently she was demoted without her knowledge (she was away on convalescent leave at the time recovering from a major operation). When she returned, she had a new role, her pay was cut and many teachers she had worked with for many years had left the school.
In their place were young teachers straight out of university who had little or no experience of lesson planning or content. I pressed her to explain.
“In our school, you can see the extreme ages of teachers. On the one hand, the majority are all under 30, straight out of university – they completed science degrees majoring in environmental sciences and not the harder physical sciences. They come to the school and within 6 months leave. All our teachers are on short term contracts because really, no one wants to stay in the country towns any longer than that. I have also noticed that these teachers have no concept of how to prepare lessons; they don’t have the foundation of science knowledge to create content and make it come alive for the students.”
I asked her to explain.
“When asked a question by a student, they cannot explain the answer without making it into some classroom activity using Google and a smart board,” she said.
“For example and there are many like this, one day I was in a classroom and a student asked one of our new teachers, “what is respiration?”, rather than her explaining this basic function that is core to our scientific knowledge, she asked them to get on their computers and Google the answer and together, come up with a definition.”
“I was dumbfounded,” she said. “Had all my years of learning science and education come to this? Is this how we should be educating our kids? All our classrooms have smart boards, iPads, computers and yet, when asked a basic question, we have lost the ability to teach and resort to technology and tools to do our job for us?”
Let’s not go into what she had to say about Edmodo.
The other challenges in the public education system are the lack of resources and she lamented that over the years, she used her own money to buy stationery and resources for the classroom and lab and her students. Also, the lack of funding for professional development for teachers to be accredited annually with critical skills in first aid and chemical safety.
“We can give iPads to our students but really, that money could have been better spent on improving their lives within the community. I fail to see how these tools can make these students into effective future citizens of society.”
She went on to say, “I have seen another side of teachers too. The people who have spent years in one profession or career and then one day decide to do a Diploma of Education and become a teacher. What drives someone to realise after 20 or so years of being in a workforce that they wake up one day thinking, ‘I want to teach’? The majority of these people are older men who when faced with an unruly class of 15 and 16 year olds take an aggressive stance and in so doing, alienate the students even further.”
She summarised her frustration with the public education system as a deterioration of standards; an observation that many younger teachers don’t create content (by way of writing up effective lesson plans that don’t rely on technology to do the teaching for them); the lack of effective teacher role models; and how disconnected she felt as someone who has been in the profession for over 23 years to be unacknowledged for passion and contribution in education.
“No one wants to hear a 40+ woman, we don’t have a voice,” she concluded.
This comment took me by surprise.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she added. “Many times I have attempted to explain the reason why I do the things that I do and the benefit to the students but they don’t want to hear me. I’m seen as complaining or not being a team player. But I have been through it before and they ask for my opinion. But if I say anything to the contrary of what they want to do or believe, I’m seen as an obstructionist. They want the younger people because they don’t talk back. So now, I don’t say anything anymore. What’s the point? I do my job, nothing more, nothing less and I go home.”
I thought about our conversation all day yesterday and last night.
Maria was expressing thoughts that many people my age are experiencing in their work lives today. She was feeling the “Gen X Discontent”. Those who feel they’ve done the “hard yards” of a profession or a career, studied all the right courses, undertook all the roles, did all they had to do (I should know, I’m one of them) – but the reward and recognition wasn’t forthcoming.
Or when it did, it wasn’t what they were expecting.
In the meantime, while the baby boomers were holding onto the senior jobs, the Gen Xers held the fort but something happened that no one expected: the environment had changed; technology obliterated the systems and processes we knew so well; our knowledge experience within an organisation was discounted or seen as ‘old fashioned or outdated’ and the focus moved to Gen Y’s as the future.
No wonder Gen X feels hard done by.
So what is Maria doing like many others in her position who choose not to ‘do their job, nothing more or nothing less and go home”?
She is moving out of education and choosing a new career in health services to work in remote regions of Australia providing this crucial service to the communities. Maybe there she’ll have a voice.