5:30pm, February 2014. A backyard in the Wimmera region, VIC.
The long, spiky grass crackled like fireworks under my bare feet as I danced around the oven-hot concrete pathway to the Hills Hoist. I usually avoided doing anything at all after school, but I needed undies for work tomorrow and it was hot enough for galahs to drop out of the sky, so I’d put my dirty clothes on a quick cycle.
As I hung up my recently purchased ‘teacher outfits’ (nothing sheer, short, holey, overly lacy or tight. I was surprised by how much of my wardrobe had not fitted into this category) I re-lived some of the day: going blank mid-explanation of ‘solute’ vs. ‘solvent’ to my year 7s, forgetting to write up learning intentions for the year 12s and taking 15 minutes to get my year 8s to sit quietly and. Just. Bloody. Listen. I cringed and my insides shrank and twisted like a vacuum-packed meat product. It’s OK, Kat, I thought to myself as I pegged up a particularly saggy pair of beige-and-unidentified-stain undies, it’s only term 1.
‘Hey Miss Gentry!’ A voice sailed into my backyard. I looked up to see Tess, year 11, and Colby, year 8, waving at me from the other side of the corrugated iron fence.
‘Hey guys!’ I eked out a smile, while casually trying to block my underwear from view with my head. It didn’t work. Are you going tell everyone at school about my undies? Then I had a worse thought – what if they’re filming?! You’re probably snapchatting videos of this as we speak, you scoundrels. My eyes scanned their hands accusingly.
‘Can you chuck us the footy?’ Colby called.
They’d kicked it into my backyard. I breathed a sigh of relief.
At the start of Teach For Australia (TFA)  I found it uncomfortable and nerve-wracking to interact with students outside of school. This was probably because I found teaching really hard. I was hurt by things students said, offended when homework wasn’t handed in, frustrated by hopelessness and lack of motivation, deeply saddened by horrific stories of students in poverty and generally emotionally exhausted from feeling so goddamn much. But, in a small country town, students were omnipresent. They were my neighbours, served me beer at the pub, scanned my tampons and condoms at chemist checkouts and ran the beep test with me at netball training. If it wasn’t a student I bumped into around town, then it was their parent or cousin or their uncle’s pet goat (often seen tied up outside the pub). There was no escape.
It seemed I had two problems that fed off each other. 1) The demands of school were draining me and 2) I could not escape school. Upon reflection, the catalyst that made me begin to embrace teaching with all its facets and feel more relaxed was finding my teacher identity. In the same way I wore professional clothes for work each day, I needed to put on my teacher ‘hat’.
The person you are in front of a class is bound to be at least a little different from the person you are at home. Initially, I thought I could just be myself – after all, studies show that teacher authenticity improves student participation and perceived teacher trustworthiness (Goldstein & Benassi 1994, Mazer et al 2009). I loved the idea of just chilling out with students in a great Dead Poets Society-esque carnival of deep learning and rousing debate. Unfortunately, the reality of ‘home-Kat’ teaching a classroom was poor behaviour management, a bundle of nervous vulnerability and abstract lessons that did not address the learning needs of my students.
The best thing is that I haven’t had to become a different person to be a better teacher. Rather than lose authenticity, I’ve discovered that ‘teacher-Kat’ is actually the same person as ‘home-Kat’, just with a few personality traits dialled up or down. For me, as I walk to school, I consciously understand it like this:
Leadership. This is most important for me to amp up in the first few weeks of term to establish a safe, calm environment. Equality is great in classrooms, but I always remember a mentor telling me ‘If you’re not in control of your classroom Kat, then who is? Some bully in the back row?’ Once kids realise you’re in charge, a decent human being and worth respecting, bossiness can be dialled down. You won’t need it, as students will (ideally) be leading their learning.
Ability to be coherent. Sometimes my head is in the clouds. In a classroom I owe it to my students to explain concepts clearly, in a way that makes sense to them and matches their ZPDs. I deliberately brainstorm ways to explain concepts and consciously think about what I’m going to say during the lesson planning stage to make sure I’m dialling this up. I’m still working at this.
Banter. Nothing like a good laugh, eh? Jokes with your class create a sense of community. It also helps relations outside of school. You don’t have to say much, you just need to have a catchphrase or a face you pull when someone’s phone isn’t on silent and the kids will do the rest. Additionally, let any kookiness within shine through, as kids will either totally relate or find it hilarious.
Nerves. Nerves can be great for performances or sporting games, and in those cases I’ll embrace my nervous energy. Unfortunately, I’ve never found it useful to be nervous in a classroom. Easier said than done right? I guess the thing is that kids need to trust teachers to be on top of everything. So I take a deep breath and just pretend that I’m brimming with confidence, and that tends to do the job.
Perfectionism. For me, this means forgiving myself when a lesson hasn’t panned out as intended. The number of uncontrolled factors (home life, hormones, what happened at lunch, the weather…) in a classroom means a surprise will inevitably arise. Being able to go with the flow and adapt to the situation gives your students a great model of how they can be flexible when things don’t go to plan in their lives. And if I’ve made a mistake that has derailed the lesson? There is no point feeling guilty, that’s a waste of time and energy. Fix it as best you can and get on with it.
Each individual and teacher is unique, so we’ll all have to dial up or down different parts of our personalities (enthusiasm, discipline, control, politeness, patience, empathy, creativity, organisation, anal-retentiveness…) during our job. Research into different teaching methodologies may shine light on what teaching styles work for you. For instance, drama-based methodologies may not suit more introverted personalities, while others will flourish through it. Moreover, observing other teachers at work can help us understand what might be missing in our own classrooms. Indeed, even as a beginning teacher you may able to show an old-hand a trick or two about engagement or showing care simply by doing what comes naturally to you.
I wish I’d known, or at least put some thought into, my teacher identity before walking into school. Discovering who I am in the classroom has been the first step to enjoying teaching, giving me a home base to ground me in the classroom. It stops me feeling like an imposter. I can approach the complexities of Dewey (e.g. ‘Experience and Education’ 1938) and Hattie (2009) alongside the nitty gritty of paperwork and curriculum with patience and confidence now. Dare I say it, finding my teacher identity has brought me a hell of a lot closer to the Dead Poet Society dream. More than that, feeling comfortable with my teacher identity made life in a small town so much easier. Sure, students saw my undies on the line and witnessed me sink beers. But ‘teacher-Kat’ let that stuff go, and instead decided to notice that her students also left extra veggies from their garden on her doorstep, cheered her on at netball games and looked after her guinea pig during the holidays.
I encourage you to make a list of 5 strengths and 5 weaknesses. Then, think about what an effective classroom looks like (interestingly, most effective classrooms look very similar: see http://www.middleweb.com/16325/effective-teachers-classroom-looks-like/). Return to your strengths and weaknesses, and identify which you may need to dial up or down to make your classroom look like that. You will adjust and learn as you spend more time in schools.
Sense of self: embracing your teacher identity. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2009/sense-of-self-embracing-your-teacher-identity/
Dewey, John (1938). Experience & Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi. ISBN 0-684-83828-1
Goldstein, G. & Benassi, V. (1994). The relation between teacher self-disclosure and student classroom participation. Teaching of Psychology, 21(4): 212-217.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Mazer, J., Murphy, R., & Simonds, C. (2009). The effects of teacher self-disclosure via facebook on teacher credibility. Learning, Media and Technology, 34(2): 175-183.
 TFA is an internship-style teaching degree that recruits high achieving graduates from fields other than education, teaches them how to teach and places them in disadvantaged schools around Australia. It is part of an international program called Teach for All. For more information see http://teachforaustralia.org/
About the author
A New Zealand-born Australian, Kat began her career in education at the age of 6 when she created a library for her friends to borrow books. In 2014, she started the Teach for Australia teaching degree through the University of Melbourne. During her time as a TFA Associate, Kat was a Science and Biology teacher at a secondary college in rural Victoria. Recently, Kat has been broadening her understanding of the Australian education system by undertaking CRT work in a variety of schools throughout Melbourne. She passionately believes that every child deserves an excellent education, and wants to learn more about the power of theatre and outdoor experiences to enhance and complement learning.