When I was in my final year of secondary study, I was instructed, along with countless other year twelve candidates, to elect the university course for which I wanted to apply for the following year. A typical seventeen year old, I had next to no idea what I hoped to do with my life. That said, regardless of my bewilderment regarding the future, on one point I was certain; I was aching to escape the mundane reality that was high school.
I attended what could be considered a standard public high school. In fact, hindsight suggests mine was probably more reputable when compared to the average secondary institution; its culture was established and respected and the students wore the motto Pride and Loyalty well. But never the less, with the exception of English and the Visual Arts, I found school utterly boring. Due to a restrictive state syllabus undermined by archaic educational philosophies, I was expected to take science and math based subjects, despite my disinterest and obvious inability in those fields. Further, timetabling made it impossible to select more than one creative elective; an obstacle constructed to point students toward academic subjects with stronger university admission scores and traditional employment opportunities.
At my high school, it was virtually obligatory to take classes you did not enjoy, making enduring the tedium of school an absolute slog. In truth, there was more than one occasion during those final years that I decided my best option was to drop out of school and work full time at the local fast food joint. In the end, all that stopped me doing this was my unconquerable fear of quitting. So I endured, denying my interests and relenting to the constraints enforced by marginalised opportunities. After all, what choice did I have?
When the inevitable moment of tertiary study selection arrived, I was a cluster bomb of confusion. With nothing to guide me but a humble university admission guide, which was more reminiscent of a telephone directory than an oracle, I went about compiling a list of careers into which I could see myself entering four years down the track. Months later, after driving myself sick from the stress of exams they’d said would singularly make or break our futures, I was accepted into an education/arts degree. For better or worse, after waiting thirteen years to escape school, I was to become an English teacher.
Despite the way in which I’d seemed to fall into the decision, as the course progressed I grew increasingly excited by the prospect of sharing my love for words and literature with generations of young people. University gave me the impression that my job would be important; that teaching was one of the most gratifying and vital professions into which I could possibly hope to enter. As the four years neared their conclusion I began to buzz; I was about to start changing lives! The optimistic, utopian attitudes of our instructors implied that my own school experience had been an unfortunate exception, and I started believing I could play a part in making things universally better. So it was to my dismay when, after finally graduating, I realised that my original suspicions had been correct; the institution of education was severely lacking. Furthermore, as a new teacher, I would bear the brunt of its short falls from the front line.
I witnessed as our restrictive and poorly executed education system constantly failed countless young people. They arrived at the start of every year, bright eyed and bushy tailed, and within a week their innate fires were collectively extinguished by outdated dogma. Dead weights, they’d wander home after being smacked in the face by the realisation that this year, nothing would change. They would be force fed facts, a portion of which they would be required to regurgitate on an exam paper, and eventually they’d be spat out, none the wiser.
I was struck dumb by the injustice and frustrated by the fact that education, possibly the single most important social service, has been left to stagnate. Truly, there is little wonder that as a people we are becoming increasingly ignorant and lethargic; our world is rapidly changing, yet we are stunting the growth of our younger generations for fear of change. Teaching should be about opening minds, not limiting them. Our current system, founded on an obsession with bureaucracy and restricted by a tradition of control fails on this most fundamental level.
Finally my disdain and discontentment grew to a point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I quit my job and moved far away, believing it had been a bum steer getting involved with education in the first place. That what I should have done all along was something else.
Yet ever since I threw in the towel, a niggling nuisance in the back of my mind has refused to quiet. I dwell on the fact that, despite the system’s bottomless pit falls, the fundamentals of teaching and learning are alive and well. After all, in its basic form education is simply a process of interpersonal relations. Working with young people is wonderful; passing your passion about, watching them weigh the happy shape of it. And despite the bombardment of bureaucratic bullshit there remained rare moments when, against all odds, students managed to reach realisations about themselves and the human condition through our lessons. Witnessing that was truly wicked.
This week I will begin the process of returning to school as a casual teacher. I miss the classroom, but I’m primarily being driven by my compulsive inability to give up. Education needs to be better. And I want to play a part in making this happen. In the long term, that will mean returning to university. For now, if all I can do is be ready with a soothing hand to steady a student whose disconsolation has left them floundering, I’m going to want to be there for that, too.