Shrinking days, early frost… the late autumn chill didn’t help Mick’s icy mood. But it was the job that currently left him cold. His teaching work - ordinarily his great joy - was an impossibility, a fiction, a farce. Three weeks into term two, and his bright-eyed Year Five students were falling into darkness.
“Aw - Mr Moran - what do we need to know this for?”
“Yeah - When are we going to use this stuff?”
Just into the third year of his career - his vocation - and Mick already had a thousand answers to these familiar drones. In fact, he had lately learned to let the kids answer for each other… using his finest resource, what he felt was his competitive advantage - the joyous diversity of his western Sydney school. It was invariably one of the several recent arrivals from distant lands who would put some fine focus on the role education played in a happy life.
“You don’t need to know it, mate… “, was Ahmed’s memorable response, “but I’m pretty happy to be somewhere where I CAN know it. Give it a go… ya mug!”, and Mr Moran had covered a quiet laugh. Ordinarily there were almost limitless enjoyable ways to face down the “What’s this for” challenges. But this time of year, was very hard for everyone… This was NAPLAN test preparation, and neither he, nor his sparky kids, had answers.
He had left preservice teacher training with several well practiced ideas on the importance of standardised testing. He’d been taught to toe the NAPLAN line. Now the grim reality set in… And this year, after the big transfer, his frustrations grew to despair. He had moved to Williams Public with every ambition to take on the kids with English as a second, third - or in Li-An’s case - fifth language, and while the challenges had been substantial, so had the rewards. Now he was watching the priceless teaching hours slip away, day after testing day.
Despair is not too strong a word. He had a started feeling unwell most mornings before school, “I’m really crook… I don’t feel like I can make it in today“, he’d wake with a groan, before remembering… His long-term partner Shaun had calmly left the flat a week ago - after another of Mick’s nightly tirades, “I love you. I followed you to Sydney, and I’m not gone forever. Call me when the tests are done.” Mick pointed no fingers, but he wasn’t yet sure about calling him back. And now, his dreams had turned physically violent… He actually pictured himself hitting out at the kids, and he wasn’t even surprised. “Well, I bludgeon them with blunt testing every day”… day after testing day.
“Why do we need to know this?”
“I don’t think I have an answer”, and the thought shocked him. NAPLAN. When the cheekier kids asked him about the life-skills offered by learning to “best-guess” a multiple-choice test, he stared angrily. When they easily saw through junk food learning to future knowledge malnutrition, he turned away. When a tearful parent took time off work to ask if there was anything he could do to ease their child’s sleepless anxiety, he was too honest, and was called in to answer to the boss. When he saw the cultural biases of the tests repeatedly disadvantage children like Ahmed and Li-An - the very kids he sought to reach, and the kids who most needed the teaching time he was losing - he cried. When Li-An herself asked if he thought NAPLAN would help in her ambitions to be a teacher like him, he stopped his hidden tears, and finally found an answer, “Don’t be a teacher!”, then quickly qualified with a hollow, “I mean - all jobs have their challenges.”
“Don’t be a teacher.” Not good. The regretted words spiralled and echoed through the day. He’d been told he’d make a good teacher since he was Li-An’s age. On his first school day as prac teacher, when the challenges had almost beaten him, his supervisor had told him that in time, he would be a great teacher… That great teachers were born to the job. He had tirelessly worked his way through university, making coffee fifteen hours a week to pay his way, and then graduated at the very top of a talented cohort. After accreditation, he took to the game as a duck to water, as everyone knew he would. He cruised through endless ten-hour work days, overcoming exhaustion with the great teacher’s creed, “I’m making a difference.” He’d faced every challenge that rising managerialism, and the growing relentless drive for reporting, had thrown his way with a shrug of “whatever it takes.” He wore the bore of forever commuting - from the kind of rented flat he could afford on a teacher’s salary, to the school that needed his teaching skills. He politely tolerated the endless line of tradesmen, bank tellers and shop assistants, dinner-party companions, strangers at the pub - it seemed like every second person - who felt inclined to generously voice their advice as self-styled experts on his profession… One that he knew he wouldn’t master in a lifetime. And now… shaken to his core in the terrible NAPLAN wastelands, the best he can find is an angry “Don’t be a teacher” to a bright little ten-year-old girl. “Yeah… fine pastoral care, there Mick”. He’s been teaching for two and a half years.
“Don’t be a teacher? Ouch!” He tried every trick he knew driving home through Sydney peak hour pressures, and while he distracted himself, the angry reply to Li-An still smarted. At home… he didn’t eat. He finished his fast-found fancy Shiraz in two gulps, and fell into bed exhausted. He woke early - surprisingly refreshed. “Too tired to dream I suppose. That’s good.” He left for work early for the first time in weeks, happy - he thought - because he had time to treat himself to a Flat White from his favourite little hole in the wall, before facing the morning traffic crawl into school.
“Morning Sal… You look rushed.”
“Usual Mick?”, puffing, running to the coffee machine with her silver milk jug. Mick was getting to know Sally - well enough to know that she herself was in teacher training, and he thought darkly of that as he nodded. Sally answered, “Yeah, I’m on me own… Bloody Gian let us down - again. Last time. You don’t know anyone who can make a good coffee do ya?”
Before he knew what he was saying, “Yes Sally. I think I do”.
He composed two speeches on the way to work. The first was an apology and explanation for a ten-year-old future teacher. The second was a resignation.