The Other Side: What university doesn’t teach you about teaching

I remember mentally flicking through all of the training and study I had done throughout my degree, hoping desperately that there might be something, anything, on how to respond in the given situation. Alas, I came up with nothing.

Students work in small groups dynamics and use the massive white board in Ellis Hall room 319

When I started university, I expected that after my four years of study, I would emerge as an educator, armed with all the tools and skills I needed for a successful career. Like the chrysalis that transforms into a butterfly, I would transition from a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student into a wise teacher, ready to change the lives of all the students who passed through my classroom.  

Upon reflection, four years seems like a long time when you are in the middle of it. However, having been in the classroom for one term, I think that four years actually wasn’t long enough.

After starting my first full-time teaching position, I knew from the outset that I had my work cut out for me. But what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was the immense pressure and expectation placed on a teacher by families. I was quickly inundated with messages from concerned parents, asking for additional resources and meetings. Whilst I can understand the natural tendency of parents to worry and want the best for their children, what seems apparent to me is that education has become commodified. 

Rather than trusting the natural learning and development that schools facilitate, parents seem to assume that because they pay, we as teachers will bend over backwards to comply with their requests. Given the current teacher crisis that is plaguing NSW schools, I am left wondering why universities don’t spend more time teaching our future educators how to manage this delicate balance between care and subservience. There is no doubt that teachers are some of the most generous and selfless people you will meet — and I’m in no way suggesting that should change. However, I do think Education students would benefit from knowing their responsibilities and rights, before they get into a job and succumb to the pressure of needing to constantly please families.

In university, there is a tendency for everything to be over-intellectualised. Rather than learning the practicalities of handling a class ensuring they are listening to the teacher, we are taught the four types of pedagogical styles. Rather than learning how to de-escalate a child’s emotions, we are taught how to fill out paperwork. That’s not to say that these things aren’t beneficial, but now being in the classroom, I feel that this approach neglects the nature of teaching as an art form. We are told that our practicums are where we practise our classroom management skills. But how can we really be expected to refine the art of classroom management in these short 3-6 week placements? I think the answer is that we can’t. 

Throughout my degree, peer teaching was commonly utilised as a way of assessing our pedagogical skills. Whilst the practice of designing and implementing a lesson in front of others was invaluable, teaching a group of fourteen adults is definitely different from teaching a class of 35 seven-year-olds. Unlike the adults, seven-year-olds scream, shout, get confused and resist. They touch instruments when they are told not to and  complain when they’re bored. Going into this environment from the bliss of teaching adults is nothing short of a rude awakening. 

At my current school, I am lucky to have a class that is incredibly respectful, so classroom management is rarely an issue. But having taught at a number of other schools, I know this isn’t the same experience for all teachers. I still remember the shock of being faced with one such rowdy class on a casual day as an early career teacher. I remember mentally flicking through all the training and study I had done throughout my degree, hoping desperately that there might be something, anything, on how to respond in the given situation. Alas, I came up with nothing. 

No papers on authoritarian or democratic leadership proved to be particularly helpful to me at that moment, and it forced me to question whether a potential shift in focus from a theory-based system to a practical one might help us retain the precious few educators we have left. When we educate children, we do so with the hope that it will prepare them for the future. However, I find it ironic that we don’t do the same with how we prepare our teachers. If we don’t give them adequate opportunities to learn and apply the skills they need, we are setting them up for failure. And that’s not a profession anyone would want to stay in.

Ultimately, the reality is that university can never prepare us for everything. However, our hopes for the education of future generations rely on our ability to critically reflect on what our graduate teachers are underprepared for today. From my experience in the classroom, I have started to realise that a teacher is not just a teacher. We are the counsellor, the confidant, the nurse, the problem-solver, the event organiser, and the carer all in one. It undoubtedly takes time in the classroom to truly understand, practise and refine our art, but without the solid foundations provided by university training, I fear that the enormity of the task will continue to force teachers out of the profession. And if there’s one thing that I know for sure after my first term as a graduate teacher, it is that whilst I might be the teacher to my students, I will always be a student.