The moment teacher walked away from her job
THOUSANDS of Australian teachers are abandoning their careers every year, leaving our students much worse off.
Gabbie Stroud had high hopes walking into her career as a teacher. She was dedicated, and loved working with kids. But over a decade, she was worn down by the system. Below is an extract of her new book, Teacher, showing why it's more than the daily grind that's pushing our educators to the brink.
I HAD arrived at school earlier than usual, signing a form at daycare agreeing to pay the extra fifteen bucks for an early drop-off. I needed to prepare an activity for my class. We had been reading Where Is The Green Sheep? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek, and today we were going to search the school for a lost green sheep. It would be a chance for students to get familiar with the layout of the school as well as engaging them in a rich literacy task. Boxes ticked. One day closer to maternity leave.
On coloured paper I had drawn and laminated sheep - a blue sheep, a red sheep, a yellow sheep, an orange sheep - and I was dotting them around the school. One had been taped to the underside of the slippery dip. Another had been pinned to the tuckshop menu board. I would deliver a couple to classrooms as well. The green sheep himself, a plush soft toy,
would be waiting for us in the Principal's office. The Principal seemed bemused by the entire activity, but had agreed to play along.
I hustled into Gretel's class and explained the activity while she started up the bank of computers against the back wall of her classroom.
"Sounds great," she said, never looking up. "Sit it on my desk and when you bring your class down to find it. I'll do the whole shocked and surprised routine."
"Thanks." I dropped off the orange sheep and lumbered out the door. I glanced at my watch. Twenty minutes until show time. One sheep left to deposit.
"Hey, Lana." I knocked on her door, but didn't wait for her welcome. "Can I please leave this sheep in here with you? And then later this morning I'll come down with the Kindies?"
"I can't do this," Lana said, and for a moment I thought she was talking about my activity.
"Okay." I took a step backwards. "I can ask someone else." There was something about her face I didn't recognise, even though I'd been teaching with her for years. But then it clicked and I did recognise it and I was terrified. It was stress. And defeat. And possibly desperation. All brought to life on the pale, frowning face of my long-time colleague and friend.
"No," she said and slumped forward in her seat. "I can't do this. I can't do this anymore." She shoved at the paperwork in front of her. "None of it!" She shook her head.
I moved towards her, abandoning the red sheep and putting my arm around her shoulders. Outside a child shouted, Too bad, so sad! and there was the tattoo of school shoes across the concrete.
"I know, it's so exhausting," I said, rubbing my hand across her back. "Let's just take a minute and have a cry and then we'll get our s**t together, hey?"
"No," she said. Her stare was defiant. "I can't do it anymore." Tears started streaming and I felt panic grip me. I glanced at my watch. Fifteen minutes.
I've got to get her together. I need another teacher in here, but I don't want to leave her. S**t! She's got car keys in her hands. She is really sobbing. This isn't a brief breakdown, this is something else.
"Here's what we're going to do," I said with a voice that was warm and confident and reassuring. It was my teacher voice - Lana had one too - but she looked at me in the same way a little one does when they've spilled an entire tub of yoghurt down their front. "I'm going to call Pip because her class goes to the library this morning and she'll come and take your class. So we can stop worrying about that."
Lana looked at me, nodded, and asked for some tissues. I found the box and passed them to her.
"Then I'm going to ring the Principal. I'm going to tell him to get a relief teacher for your class for the rest of the day."
She nodded again.
"Thanks," she whispered.
"You're probably just really tired," I said and squeezed her arm.
"No!" Her voice was loud. Wild. "This isn't tired! This is something else. This is … This is … I can't do this anymore." New tears came and she leaned over her desk, over the books and the papers and the laptop and the awards and the stickers, and sobbed.
I made the phone calls and our teaching community rallied. Madge offered to take my class for a bit and I sat with Lana until she had stopped sobbing and shaking.
"I'm so sorry," she was saying. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
The Principal came to her room, sat beside her and found his teacher voice, too. He talked about stress leave and mental health and going home right now and not to worry - we would sort out the details later.
"I'm sorry," Lana said again.
"It's okay," he said. "And don't apologise. Happens to the best of us."
I found her bag and phone and I watched her go, bent over and frail like someone sick, very sick, about to die.
That's me, I thought. That's going to happen to me. And the baby rolled inside, uncomfortable under my skin.
"I can't believe it," I said.
We were in the library after school, waiting for the staff meeting to begin, debriefing about Lana and wondering how she was feeling now.
"I mean, Lana's so steady and calm and bombproof. She never seems stressed or frazzled. You never see her busting someone's arse at the photocopier because she's left things to the last minute and needs to jump the queue."
"Appearances can be deceiving," Jule said.
"We all wear stress in different ways," added Madge.
"She'll come good," the Principal said. "Eventually."
"You reckon?" I could still see her face - that was the face of a teacher having a breakdown.
"I've seen it before," he said. "Plenty of times."
Something about the way he said it, that nonchalant, casual manner, made me feel like exploding all over the room. I wanted to see my body fly against the walls in wet, red, meaty splatters. I closed my eyes for a moment, wondered at this anger that kept flaring inside me. Then, I took a breath and asked, "So what are we doing about it?"
He shrugged, opened his diary. "Nothing we can do. Okay - let's start this meeting. First up, funding cuts."
"Are you okay?"
I was lurching out of my car, willing my body to move faster to get to my friend, to hold her and hug her.
Lana nodded and watched me, framed in her doorway. She was in trackies and uggies, and her face was bare.
"I've never seen you in trackies," I said.
"Or without make-up, probably," she said. She tried to force a laugh, but it turned to a sob, and I stood there and hugged her as close as I could with the buffer of a baby between us.
"Thanks for coming around," she said, ushering me inside.
"I'm worried about you," I said. About me, I thought.
"It's stress," she said simply, flicking on the kettle and pulling mugs from the cupboard. "I've seen the doctor; even saw a psychologist today. I just can't seem to find a way to make my work and my life manageable."
I nodded, watching as she moved about her kitchen. There was a weariness to her, like she was just out of hospital and recovering from surgery.
"Let me," I said and took her place in the kitchen, making tea and finding biscuits.
"I mean, I've got some hormonal stuff that needs sorting out," she said. "At my age, that's pretty normal. But I just can't see how I'm meant to go on being a teacher for another 20 years. I think about those professional teaching standards coming in and I just think, When am I going to get those done?"
"I try not to think about them," I said. "Or the national curriculum."
"Oh, my God," Lana said. "That as well. I'm a teacher with over 25 years of experience, but these past few years none of that seems good enough. I've got to learn this new teaching technique and integrate new technology and promote the school at this thing on the weekend and help that student manage his emotions …" She sniffed. "I just wonder where it's all going to end?"
"Me too," I agreed.
"I bet you're getting excited about the baby."
"Yeah," I said, touching my belly. "Probably for all the wrong reasons though."
"Yep," I admitted.
"I get it," she said. "I get it."
I stayed until Lana's husband came home from work, watched as they embraced and she found fresh tears. Driving home, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd just had a glimpse of my future. This baby would buy me time away from the classroom, but then what? I would have to return and continue the battle, slogging it out day after day with big dark shadows of standardisation lurking over my head.
Part of me felt like sobbing, just like Lana.
This is an edited extract from Teacher by Gabbie Stroud published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now.