As I walk through the grand school gates at 7.30am, my breath is taken away by the sight of Sydney Harbour Bridge across the bay. Australia is, quite literally, miles away from my former role as a teacher in inner-city London.
In the UK, I specialised in supporting disadvantaged, low-attaining students. Teaching was more than a profession. It was a lifestyle. I worked 11-hour days, continued working in the evening and at weekends, yet still had an overwhelming sense that I was falling behind. It was time for a change.
Now, I work at an independent all-boys school in Sydney and my new job is simple: to teach maths. I spend my day either planning lessons or teaching lessons. I have enough non-contact periods to do my planning throughout the day and only have to stay for an hour after school.
If I have a student who is displaying challenging behaviour, the housemaster will deal with them. Initially, this made me feel slightly powerless. Over time though, I’ve learned that the housemasters are not undermining me, but are here to deal with issues promptly, so that I can focus on delivering high-quality lessons.
This could not be further from how it worked in the UK. There, I completed the majority of my planning during the holidays, so that I could spend term time completing admin tasks: individually logging merits onto a computer system; recording detentions into the same computer system; contacting parents about behavioural concerns; analysing data from regular assessments on each class; attending mandatory meetings three times a week. And all of this without having a staff room to escape to.
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Teaching not data-driven
The most noticeable difference here is that teaching is not data-driven. Students are assessed termly, but solely to inform your planning and identify where students need further practice. In my last school, students were formally assessed every four weeks and this data was used as a measure of how effective you were as a teacher. Your professional development targets were based on how much progress your classes made and this had the potential to affect your pay.
However, it is becoming apparent that teaching initiatives from the UK are slowly coming our way. A teaching and learning coordinator is going to be appointed at the school to raise teaching standards. There are also plans to introduce lesson observations, as well as a new minimum standard of literacy and numeracy for students to be eligible for Year 12 assessment. Although many of these strategies can have a positive impact for learners, I firmly believe that this should not be at the expense of staff welfare, and I hope that my school maintains realistic expectations of what we can achieve.
As much as I appreciate the improved workload in Sydney, I do recognise that this job has its own challenges. I have quickly learned that some of the students’ views need to be challenged, particularly towards women. The boys have access to money, but some have absent parents and lack supervision at home.
Despite the high fees associated with this school, I was initially shocked by the number of students who have learning difficulties, need support with their mental health and require high levels of pastoral guidance from their teachers. In some ways, they are just as vulnerable as the students I used to teach. The difference here is that I feel I can have an impact without administrative tasks compromising my ability to do so.
Fiona Burgess is a maths teacher at an independent all-boys school in Sydney
This piece first appeared in Tes magazine on 19 May 2017