What It’s Really Like To Work As A High School English Teacher
"Being a teacher is awesome but you have to do it for the right reasons. If you’re in it for the holidays, you won’t last long."
A few things come to mind when you say high school English teacher: books, holidays, standing on top of desks and yelling at impressionable teens about the value of the written word. Like a lot of other professions, the hard work of being a teacher is overlooked in favour of the perks. Unlike other professions, teachers are consistently reminded of them.
Christine Lancett is a high school English teacher, and while she does love the books and the holidays, the reality of her position isn’t as forgiving as it sounds. As part of Uni Junkee’s ‘Work Experience’ series, we asked Christine about the day-to-day life of a high school teacher, how she got to where she is, and why she loves what she does.
Uni Junkee: What did you study?
Christine Lancett: I studied a Bachelor of Communication Studies with a major in Journalism and a minor in English, Text and Writing, followed by a Master of Teaching (Secondary). I graduated mid-2009.
How did you find work after uni?
I always knew I wanted to teach in the public system so as soon as I was able I sent out packages to about 20 high schools within reasonable commuting distance from my house containing a letter introducing myself, copies of my prac reports and my academic transcripts. Looking back I think this was an unusual approach but it worked. One of the schools called to offer me a week of casual work (which I didn’t realise at the time was obviously a trial) and once they realised I was competent they offered me casual work for the remainder of the year. In that time I provided casual cover but also taught a few classes on a permanent basis (ie. as their “regular” teacher). I remained there for a little over six months before gaining permanent employment at another school through merit selection. This is a shorter road to permanency than most people would typically experience.
6.30am – Wake up.
8am – Arrive at work. Check emails and intranet for any developments that may affect the running of my day.
8.30am – 3pm – Timetabled classes. My school timetable operates on six periods of approximately 50 minutes in length and a full-time teaching load is 45 periods per two week cycle. A typical day involves four or five periods of teaching, but depending on the timetable this can be anywhere from one to six periods. Any “free” periods are used for planning lessons and other administration. Recess and lunch breaks are usually occupied by playground duties, meetings and assisting students with miscellaneous issues.
3pm – Check emails, intranet and phone messages and contact parents as required. Complete any additional planning to make sure I am completely ready for the next day’s lessons.
4.30pm – Arrive home. Marking, reporting, reading or any other onerous administrative task starts now.
What do you think you’ve learned on the job they didn’t teach you at uni?
EVERYTHING. The best aspect of my university-based teaching training was the part that wasn’t university-based, i.e. my prac placements. On the job I have learned all the crucial things such as how to manage my time, interact positively with students, manage my classroom and plan and prepare resources with a clear focus. I find that most of being a good teacher are instinctual, the rest you learn by doing.
What’s something you didn’t expect about working full-time?
When I first started I was exhausted all the time, physically and emotionally. I had been juggling university, part time work and a social life for years but I was still completely unprepared for how demanding the first year or so would be. Leaving the teaching profession due to burn out in the first few years is incredibly common and I do understand why. The longer you do it, the easier it is (but only because you get better).
I really do feel that teaching allows me to make a meaningful contribution to my community
What’s the best part of your job? And the worst?
The best part of my job is forming meaningful relationships with students and watching them learn and grow. It sounds trite but I really do feel that teaching allows me to make a meaningful contribution to my community and provides me with a clear sense of purpose in my life.
The worst part is that decisions are increasingly being made which burden teachers with previously unnecessary tasks that detract from our core purpose of providing meaningful learning experiences to our students. New responsibilities are constantly being added to our role but nothing is ever taken away.
And marking. Marking sucks.
Any advice for graduates looking to get a job in your field?
As with most professions, getting a job is easier if you have connections. Maintain links to your old high school and work hard to impress your prac supervisors. Most teachers start out working casually through the links they already have. Once you’re working casually, get involved in everything – committees, extracurricular activities, etc. Permanent positions are desirable and hotly contested so new grads have to have something additional to offer. Remember that everyone knows everyone in teaching so never burn your bridges.
Being a teacher is awesome but you have to do it for the right reasons. If you’re in it for the holidays, you won’t last long!