Finding allies and other challenges in the daily life of a flourishing teacher

Written by Karen Szydlik

In the course of any one day, in the confines of my mind, I could have quit my job, recommitted to it full time, cut back on hours, added hours, taken on a new hobby, sold my house, moved interstate, or any combination of the above.

This kind of thinking happens every few years to me, when I am working in education. Years ago, as a waitress and as a dish washer I didn’t spend my private time scheming up alternative life plans. But when I am in education I do. I have been involved in education in a number of different ways; as a teacher in a traditional setting, as a director of a drama academy, as a lecturer in tertiary education, as a mentor and in post graduate support and teaching and learning.

These dreamt up escape plans don’t seem to occur when I am a student however. I am now in my 9th year as a post graduate student. I love being a student. I love learning. I can probably even say I love teaching- some aspects of it anyway.

The media is full of conversation at the moment about the high attrition rate in teaching. 50% of teachers are leaving the field in the first 5 years. We might surmise, these people chose the wrong field, that they were ill suited to teaching or that Tertiary sites need to become better at selecting potential pre-service teachers. What about though the high percentage of teachers who are leaving the field just a couple of years short of their retirement. The ones who have had enough, who say teaching isn’t what I used to be?

The ‘holiday’ narrative is one we all know well…teachers get so many holidays we hear. I could not be involved in education without the breaks. I was lying in bed this morning, my first sleep in, till 9 am in the middle weekend of the school holidays and I thought now I feel rested. The first week I rested, now I feel ready to engage in my life outside of work and then prepare to go back in for more thinking, planning, engaging.

I know I am not alone in this. I know many feel the same. But why?

Recently I was involved in two situations where I took strength from my peers. In one situation we were asked to write a report and fill in a table. Tables are not my most natural way of reporting, but I looked at it and thought “Oh well, I’ll just do it.” Another of us however, contested this form of reporting and said “I don’t think that way, I’ll write a narrative.” I noticed her courage and conviction.

Even more recently at a team event we were encouraged to use a template to support our work. Once again, I thought “OK I’ll find a way to make that work.” Another of the team responded with “We don’t have to use this do we? I would find it restrictive.” Again I noticed their commitment to working to their strengths and their agitating that there are other ways.

What is the link between these stories of agitation and my continual reassessing my life’s work?

Is there a link?

I think there a few. I think agitation, advocacy and walking to the beat of one’s own drum takes courage, energy and support. There are times when I have all these things lined up and I can take on ‘the man’, the authority figure, the department, the world. There are other times when I am depleted. I need to rest, regroup, refill, recommit. And sometimes I have nothing left. And here is the crunch, teaching requires inordinate amounts of giving. I cannot do it half-heartedly. I am either in or I am out. If I am engaged in education I am engaged in all ways, socially, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Sometimes it is just a report on the radio about education and it can tip me over the edge, sometimes it is a slight difference in opinion, sometimes it is a feeling that I am in this alone…all the same these can tip me over the edge if I am running on empty. I remember taking on a new job in the tertiary sector. I was enjoying it. The writing, preparation and teaching the face to face interactions, the reading and marking, the collegiality, but the emails from students tipped me over the edge. I hadn’t been prepared for the constant emails requiring emotional support…I wasn’t sure I had enough in the tank for that.

As a kindergarten teacher many years back, I was loving the teaching and learning, loving the interaction with staff, loving the new pedagogy that I was engaged with, but the final straw was a full staff meeting and another new framework to consider…

It is as though I am always walking this fine line. I consider myself a resilient person and yet reading this I see my vulnerability.

Sometimes it can be one simple thing that brings me back to the fold. A meet up with my teaching buddies, a meme on Facebook, a weekend away to relax and reflect and fill me up.

Giving. That is the word ringing loudly in my ear right now. Giving, constantly of oneself. At some point there needs to be something coming back our way. We need allies. Not people to just tell us we are doing a good job or patting us on the back, but allies to walk alongside.

When I was a kindergarten teacher, there was one family that every break would give me a small gift. Something really little but they never forgot. It might be chocolate, or a flower, a handmade card but it was something. They were my allies in teaching. We were in it together for their children, and I felt it. I felt their support. I was not alone and they kept my cup full.


I think sometimes we are alone in our workplace, sometimes we are the only one who hears the beat of a particular drum and it can be lonely and exhausting. Nowadays support can be found outside our physical space, on social media (though this too can have the opposite effect and deplete my energy when I read the comments and add further issues into my realm), it can be found through like-minded colleagues in other sites, through mentoring and through knowing what one needs outside our discipline.

Loris Malguzzi, the founder and first director of the educational project of Reggio Emilia, encouraged the teachers to take the children out into the world, beyond the classroom. He encouraged bringing people into the schools to share their skills with the children and he encouraged the teachers to learn new skills and be exposed to new ideas from other disciplines, thereby becoming teachers capable of teaching these very competent children he saw before them.

I have been thinking about this a lot. I love the idea and I see this willingness from teachers to learn from other disciplines…but I feel the pendulum has shifted, I feel education taking on the ways of other disciplines and losing sight of what was intrinsic to education, the children, the teachers and the relationship between them which created the conditions for learning. We as an industry have happily integrated business models, templates, quantitative measuring, but at what cost? Where now is the space for the teacher to bring herself into the relationship I wonder? Where do we find our own voice now when we are all trying to keep up by marching to the beat of someone else’s drum…step, step, run, run, run…where is the recognition of our knowledge and experience?

And I wonder also do other disciplines ever listen to us, what we know about teaching and learning and integrate our ways into their fields or is it an entirely one-sided affair?

The image of children and teachers marching in lines comes to mind…but who is playing the music? It used to be children and informed pedagogues, who is it now? And where are these lines of people marching to and for what? Why are we all going in the same direction? I said recently and I can’t think where, perhaps in our Mentormore webinar, that it seems ludicrous to think that a 6-year-old child in remote Western Australia, should need to know the exact same things as a child in inner city Sydney let alone a child in the Alps of Switzerland or the suburbs of Algeria and yet we continue to measure ourselves against others. Even in Naplan you are grouped with schools in similar contexts, but these global measures have taken on new weight.

Where are the teachers to advocate and agitate for a better way of teaching? Placing the child and learning in the centre of teaching, not international quantitative measures. You know for sure that if we are stressed, then so too are the children.

So we need allies, the children need us to be their allies. We need agitators, the children need us to be their agitators. But we can’t do it on an empty tank at least I can’t.

I keep leaving education, and then I return, in a slightly different capacity, but I keep coming back. I guess the bottom line is I care. I care about children, mine and other peoples and I care about the world we live in. I want my children to grow up in a world that is just and safe and innovative and sustainable and flourishing. I want us to look out for each other, but not all be the same and I think education is the way to achieve this.

And in case you need a little pick me up, let me share with you, the meme that got me over the line today

“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us, and make us kinder. We always have choice.”

Dalai Lama (Inside the dive pattern spiritual wisdom)

I guess I’m getting tired of being angry…perhaps with allies I will find a kinder, softer route and my own way to agitate.

Further reading

An ally in a parent

A story not for those whose cups are empty:

For further allies


Photo Credits of Lake Daylesford and surrounds to Victoria Szydlik.