How are you? Long time no speak. What’s been going in your life this past…er…four months? Is that how long it’s been since we spoke? I think it’s about that.
It’s been a tumultuous time for me, if I’m honest. In fact, the last one and a half years since getting back from Nanjing have been a bit strange. Life is not necessarily a continuous uphill passage of achievements, constantly improving, constantly gaining new heights. I’m sure you probably know that, but I think for the longest while I thought it was.
Last we saw each other, I was embarking on a teaching course, having come to the reasonably-late-but-not-too-late-in-life realisation that teaching was my true calling, despite pushing it away all these years. Not that the other things I’d been doing were wrong, but that here was the perfect profession for me, something that would use all my skills, that would be rewarding, useful, helpful, and hopefully, fun. Oh yeah, and that would pay me properly, no overseas travel, I would get holidays, and proper maternity leave if Steve and I were to have a baby in the not too distant future.
I had this epiphany in about June last year. I tried to treat it with caution. I’m a fairly passionate, some might say impulsive, person, and when I get an idea that I’m excited by I want to charge forward, sometimes without thinking it through sufficiently. So I examined this epiphany from all angles. I asked myself, is this really what you want? Why? I wrote to former teachers from school. I met up with former teachers from school. I emailed people I knew who had been teachers, to ask them what they thought of the job and whether it might suit me. I talked to my friends, my family.
The people who know me best cautiously expressed their misgivings. “I’m worried for you Izy…I’m not sure why, but I am,” said one. “I think there might be aspects of your personality that aren’t perfectly suited to high school teaching,” said another. A friend who also teaches, despite thinking that I’d make the world’s greatest language teacher, also worried that the reasons she was frustrated by teaching might also apply to me. But these people love me. They told me what they thought, but I was still positive and excited, so they supported me. It’s my life after all. I get to decide what I do with it.
When you really want to do something, and you feel in your guts that it’s right, there’s not a whole lot other people can say to dissuade you. At least that’s how I am. “Get out of my way!” I cried, riding on my white charger towards a future as the world’s greatest language teacher. “I’m coming, kids!”
I was lucky enough to get into the number one teaching course on my list, Melbourne Uni’s Master of Secondary Teaching (Internship) program. After an intense selection process (online application, personality test, interview, teaching demonstration), I found out sometime around my 32nd birthday that I was in! I would have a job at a school in Melbourne’s southeast, four days a week, teaching Chinese and Humanities, and would study at the same time. The next three years of my life were planned out. Excellent. I love a good plan, and this one looked perfect. I spent December 2016 at uni, learning how to be a teacher, and then it was the Christmas holidays and straight into the classroom for the start of term one, 2017.
We went camping over the break, and as those long sunny days in the bush drew to a close, I remember feeling a sense of dread. Maybe it’s the feeling all working people have, going from somewhere peaceful where they’ve been reading by a river every day and waking up with the birds, to returning to the city and certain obligations. I don’t know. But, along with the dread, there was excitement too. I was going to be a teacher! Of course it would be hard, but it would also be wonderful, a chance to influence the lives of young people for the better, a chance to share my passions with the world, to inspire the next generation.
In the week before term one started, I tried to prepare myself for the coming storm. I went to Officeworks and spent a zillion dollars on glue, pencils, coloured markers, cardboard, scissors, exercise books. I wanted to be the fun crafty teacher. I tried to formulate plans for the first few lessons. I hadn’t received much information from the school in terms of what to actually teach, or how much Chinese the students would know (I had Year 7 and Year 9 – the Year 7s presumably not much, but surely the Year 9s would know a bit?), but I was keeping my panic about that at bay. Day one and two of term were ‘staff days’. All will be revealed then, I thought.
It’d be easy to go on a rant and start blaming other people for the stress of school, but I don’t want to do that. All I will say is: the languages department was disorganised, and there wasn’t a lot of support. I had a mentor teacher, a guy of about my own age who had been teaching for eight years, who did his best to help me. When we both had Year 9 class at the same time, we would combine and try to do something innovative. It didn’t really work, but we tried, and he did what he could for me in the little amount of spare time he had.
The other teachers in my staffroom were nice, too. One young woman, a maths and science teacher, offered to come and sit in on my Year 9 class, knowing I was nervous about it. She was a gentle, calm presence in the room, and I was so grateful. One of my subjects, Investigate, was ‘team teaching’ with three other teachers, all with many years of experience. That subject was my lifeline – I found I was spending so much time and energy planning my Chinese classes that I just rocked up to Investigate and took my lead from the others.
The kids! The kids. They weaselled into my heart, even the naughty ones. Sam who could not seem to shut up. Daniel Chee who really didn’t get it. Mia, desperate to do the right thing, very worried about her report and what it would say. Riley with his neat writing. Katrina who did six posters for her assignment instead of one. Funny Thada. Smiling Song, prowling around the classroom. Sweet Kin who tried to get his classmates to be quiet when I spoke. Their calls in the hallway: ‘Hi Miss!’ ‘Miss, I forgot my poster!’ ‘Miss, are you Chinese?’ Kelvin. Casey. Alfonzo. Rosie. If I start thinking of all their sweet faces, I feel like crying, so I won’t open up that particular can of worms.
So why did I leave? Why did I leave if I loved the kids?
The truth is…I couldn’t hack it. I found the relentless social contact with 60+ young human beings every day exhausting. I found the lesson planning every night, all of my day off, and half of my weekend, exhausting, and I couldn’t see where it ended. If I didn’t prepare enough, my classes were a disaster. If I put in the work, they were OK, but I had to put in the work. I found the lack of organisation from within the school frustrating. There was no guidance, no structure to follow. I felt overwhelmed. People kept telling me to relax, to stop putting so much pressure on myself, to spend less time planning. But I couldn’t go into a classroom without a clear plan: that would make me far more anxious. This is who I am, I tried to say. I need to be prepared in order to feel relaxed. Telling me to relax doesn’t make me relaxed!
After a slew of days in which I woke up and thought ‘I don’t want to go to school’, I went to see the school counsellor. I started crying, describing how anxious I felt and how most days I didn’t want to come in and teach. I knew that if I took a day off, it could be the beginning of the end, but I didn’t know what to do. She suggested I use a mindfulness app and sent me the number for a free psychological service the school provided. I made an appointment for the term one holidays.
I got butterflies before every Year 9 class, imagining what new issue would be on the cards today. What mood would Matthew be in? Would Yasar be there today, throwing pens around the room? I hoped not. I tried not to be, but I was a bit afraid of the Year 9 boys. I envied other teachers, how they seemed so relaxed and in control. I didn’t have that yet. Maybe I would develop it, but it would take work. I also couldn’t see how this job could coincide with having a balanced life. I had no time to do anything other than think about school. I felt like a terrible partner, friend, sister, daughter. I had no time to give to anyone else but the kids, with just a tiny bit left for me, trying to maintain my own sanity by eating well, sleeping enough, exercising occasionally.
During the last week of term, I sat at a table at the parent-teacher interviews. During a break from discussing someone’s child, I looked around the room. I saw a teacher, probably in her late 40s, telling a parent some hard truths about their child. She seemed so good at her job. Patient, firm, knowledgeable. I looked at her and thought ‘You are meant to be a teacher. I am not.’
I could see the next three years stretching before me. Three years before I would even be a qualified teacher. And after those three years, what? More of the same? Lesson planning, marking, disciplining, parent teacher interviews? No. There’s a feeling you get, when you see someone who’s well into a path or career that you want for yourself. You look at them and think ‘I’m willing to work hard to get where you are now.’ I felt the opposite. For me, it was ‘Yes. We need people like you to be teachers. I don’t want to be one.’
On the last day of term, I picked up my husband and a friend from the train station. We had booked a week at a beach house in Venus Bay, on the Gippsland coast, giving me something to look forward to, some time to chill out together, a break from the city and routine. For me, I knew it was decision time. Tidying my desk after the last class of the term, I found myself carrying more things than I needed to the car. “I don’t think you’re coming back” said my brain. “Let’s make it extra tidy just in case.”
I felt proud that I had completed a term. On the morning of my first day as a teacher, I had cried with nerves as I got ready to leave, hugging my husband. “I don’t want to go,” I’d said. And now here I was, at the end of term, having turned up every day, having taught those kids something, at least. I gave myself a pat on the back.
But the question was: did I want to go back? Did I want to be a teacher? Did I want to spend the next three years working hard and studying hard too (I had an assignment due on the last day of term for which I’d gotten an extension, citing ‘anxiety and general school-related stress’ as the reason), so that I could get a degree in teaching, and then be a teacher? Did I want that?
My heart said no.
I didn’t want to be a failure, a quitter. But I also didn’t want to be a tightly wound ball of anxiety. This wasn’t the way I wanted to live my life. I cared about those kids, of course I did, but it wasn’t fair for me to be their teacher if I wanted to be somewhere else. If I wanted to write, but I had no time for that anymore because I was too busy trying to plan lessons and mark essays. If I resented being there, teaching them, when I could be doing other things. They had to go to school, at least for the next few years, but I didn’t. I was an adult. I was free to do as I chose. Did I choose to go to school? Did I choose to be a teacher?
Towards the end of our week in Venus Bay, I made a list of reasons to stay and reasons to leave. It was more of a formality – in my heart I think I’d decided not to go back. All the reasons to stay – I’d already spent money on the course, I’d invested my summer holidays in training, I was just starting to build relationships with the kids – could not compete with the reasons to leave. I don’t want to be a teacher. I don’t want to do it. It’s hard to argue with that.
After I returned from Venus Bay, I emailed the school principal with my resignation and spent a few anxious days waiting for his response. When it came, it was unbelievably kind and gracious. “I totally understand your reasoning, Isabel. Please feel that the weight is lifted, and move on to bigger and better things. As far as I am concerned, you have no further obligation to us.” Relief washed over me. I was free.
I spent the second week of the school holidays marking, and putting together everything I had that belonged to the school. On the first day of term, the Tuesday after Easter, I left home at 6am and drove out there. There was mist on the road, and as I drove, I thought about how I’d felt the first time I’d done the drive, for my interview, travelling to a totally new area of my city. I had been nervous, excited, hopeful. It felt like a long time ago, and I felt different, too. A little wiser, knowing myself a little better. There were one or two other cars in the school car park, but the coast seemed clear. I walked quietly through the grounds, into the junior building, said good morning to the cleaner, unlocked the staff room and began clearing out my draws. I placed the students’ marked assignments on the desk in piles, each with a letter on top to their new teacher. I lined up my laptop, iPad, keys, name tag, photocopy card. Just as I thought I’d managed to sneak in without seeing anyone, the Year 7 coordinator let herself into her office and began setting up for the day. Should I skulk out, hope that she didn’t see me? Or go and explain that I was leaving?
I decided to be brave and talk to her. She was lovely – sad to see me go, but very understanding. ‘It takes courage to walk away’ she said, which I appreciated. And maybe it does. I felt like a coward, scuttling away from teaching with my tail between my legs, a failure. But what was the alternative? Push on, tough it out, suck it up? Wouldn’t that be more of a failure, and dishonest? I slipped my formal resignation letter under the principal’s office door as I left and got the hell out of there before the kids started to arrive. I didn’t know what would happen if they came bounding up, asking me what we’d be doing in Chinese that day.
But I did keep my appointment with the psychologist. All this stuff came pouring out – the anxiety of school, why I’d quit, how I felt like a loser when I compared myself to other people my age, my fears about becoming a parent. “It sounds like the teaching was more to do with having children than with teaching itself,” she said. In truth, I think she was right. Perhaps I had convinced myself that teaching was my calling, when in fact what I truly wanted was a job that would support us financially if we had a baby, and that I could go back to with relative ease. That was the 800 pound gorilla in the room, the one I had been pushing aside as a secondary reason.
“Do you have any career fantasies?” she asked me. I thought about it. “Well, I’d like to do something a few days a week, maybe work for myself, something not too stressful. And then have a few days a week to write.” Yes. That would be my ideal. “What’s stopping you from doing that?” she asked. I thought about that. “Well…nothing, I guess.” There it was. The truth. I wanted balance. I wanted a job, yes, but not something that consumed every fibre of my being. If I wanted to write, I needed to make time for it. I couldn’t expect myself to fit in these other aspirations around the edge of being a teacher. It just wasn’t realistic.
My mum once told me that when she was pregnant with me, she used to see this obstetrician in the city. He would talk half-heartedly about her pregnancy for a while, and then show her the paintings he had done, which hung around the room. This was his true passion, he said, as Mum sat there uncomfortably. My singing teacher, also a talented organist, pianist and conductor, who has inspired hundreds of people with his love of music, told me once that when he was young, he studied medicine for a few years. This seemed so strange – this guy lives and breathes music, and I couldn’t imagine him doing anything else. ‘Could you have been happy as a doctor that just did music on the side?’ I asked him. He thought about it. ‘No’.
The world doesn’t need doctors who secretly want to be musicians. It doesn’t need obstetricians that secretly want to be painters. It doesn’t need Chinese teachers who secretly want to be writers. I’m not saying that we all need to quit our jobs and give all of our time to our creative passions, of course not, we need to make money somehow. That’s just realistic. But pushing aside that nagging desire to create entirely in order to pursue a more ‘serious’ career, because that is the message you receive from the society in which we live, is not doing the world a service. If that desire burns inside you, it won’t go away. It will stay there, getting harder and more shrivelled with every attempt to push it down. Is that what you want? A dark nugget of unfulfilled creativity sitting in your soul?
It’s not what I want. I’ve decided that whatever I do from now on, I am a writer first. I need to write. Of course, I need to make money too: perhaps some type of teaching could work for me, tutoring perhaps, or teaching English to adults. I’ll work that out. But whatever it is, it needs to give me the time and brain space to write.
I’m thankful for my term of high school teaching. It was difficult and stressful, for sure, but looking at those kids every day, at all the creativity and possibility in their little souls, made me take a good hard look at myself, too. I couldn’t tell them to work hard and pursue their dreams if I wasn’t doing that. I couldn’t be a great teacher if I secretly wanted to be writer. I couldn’t be an example of honesty if I was a fraud.
So, thank you, high school teaching. Now I won’t ever need to say ‘I wish I’d tried you – maybe I would’ve loved you.’ I tried you. I learnt a lot from you. But ultimately you’re not for me.