Monday, August 17, 2020

Opinion Piece: Is Negative Culture the Real Reason Teachers Are Leaving the Profession?

I have been reading a lot about graduate teachers lately and how they're leaving the teaching profession in droves. As someone who quit full time teaching after only two years despite getting outstanding student results, I thought I would add my two cents to the conversation.

Image caption: Me the summer before I started teaching.

I thought I would start off by recounting my first weeks and months at my first school as a teacher. I was 22 and applied for a teaching position through the government-mandated channels. That is to say, I applied, interviewed and got the job legitimately. I had not known anyone at the school. No friend or family member gave me a leg up. 

I spent my summer preparing curriculum for my new classes, buying professional clothing and brushing up on some content that I was rusty on. Then, summer over, I walked into my school...and felt like I had marched head first into a brick wall. The hostility directed towards me was visceral. No one would talk to me, they wouldn't let me sit with them at lunchtime, they wouldn't even point me in the right direction when I was lost. And that curriculum I was told to prepare, that I had spent my summer working on? It was the wrong curriculum. I had been told the wrong thing.

What had I done wrong? Why was everyone so mean to me? After several weeks of this, one teacher took pity on me and whispered to me to hang in there, that I was impressing everyone with my hard work and easy manner with the students.  

"Their opinion of you is changing."

"What do you mean?" I whispered back, heart in my throat. I was finally getting some answers.
You see, at the end of the previous school year the principal had decided not to renew the contract of one of the school's staff members. He decided to get some fresh blood in, a graduate who would not only be cheaper in a world of tight budgets, but would breathe some fresh air into the school. He chose me. The teachers were angered by this and wanted to see me fail, to prove to the boss that you cannot replace experience. 

So they set out to make my life a living hell. Me, at 22 years old. They were old enough to be my parents, were supposed to care about the future of the younger generation. I am shaking as I write this, over 10 years on.

Image caption: Me about 3 months before I quit. I can't believe how exhausted and unhappy I look. I lost so much weight that I couldn't afford to lose from the stress.

I get really angry when people tell me I should return to teaching, but at a more academic school. "Your problem is that you had terrible students,"  I have been told countless times. Wrong. I loved my students. Being in the classroom with them was the only time I was happy in the job. It was the comments under the breath in the staff room, the snide remarks should I dare say anything in a meeting, the downright aggressive behaviour of many of the teachers, that destroyed the profession for me. 

I now teach in a private setting where I am valued as the expert that I am. Until the birth of my son I was in charge of the hiring and firing of teachers. I hired a range of age groups, personalities and experience levels. As long as you had passion and cared about my students, you were fine by me. But I would be damned if I would let any of my teachers treat someone the way I was treated when I first started, back when I was little more than a child myself. 
Image caption: Ten years later, happier than I've ever been.

You want to retain good quality teachers in your school? Take a good hard look at the culture in your work environment and you may just find it's not the workload that is losing you staff. I can only speak from my own experiences, of course, but those experiences were so grim that it would take a lot to convince me to go back to school.

Weekly Research Fact #5

The wall and gates of a city were a status symbol, telling the world how good your leader was. But they were obviously important for the defence of a city as well. For example, in 272BC renowned warrior king Pyrrhus of Epirus was making a name for himself through the use of war elephants. But when he tried to sneak one through the gates of Argos the elephant got stuck, foiling Pyrrhus' plans for a surprise attack. This cost Pyrrhus his life - an old lady, alerted to the attack, threw a roof tile from a window, hitting Pyrrhus on the head and killing him. But then again, this was the guy that has the saying "Pyrrhic victory"  named after him because of his habit of winning great victories at an unacceptable loss of life.

From Wikipedia:  A Pyrrhic victory (/ˈpɪrɪk/PIRR-ik) is a victory  that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Weekly Research Fact #4

Weekly research fact #4: Pharaohs would remove the names of previous rulers from statues and place their own name over the top so they would be remembered instead, all so they would live on forever in the after life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

My First 3 Steps When Creating a New Character

Image: Researching a Faerie king

I have a real issue with character development when I first start writing a new story. I get so excited about my new idea that I tend to dive into writing without getting to know any if the main players very well beforehand. This always results in the story fizzling out very quickly, ending up in the scrap heap. It's only when I spend time with the characters first that they then take the time to tell me their whole story.

So what do I do to get to know each character?

Step 1. First I like to work out what event from their past has set them on their current path, whether they know it or not. I write scenes from their perspective (even if they are never the perspective character in the story). It might be a scene at school where their teacher is a total monster to them, a scene where they experience rejection from a love interest, a scene where they receive positive feedback from something they have done. All of these things shape who we are as people, and they will shape your characters as well.

Step 2. The next thing I do is work out my character's religious/moral beliefs. What a person believes on colours the way they view the world. Very, very religious people tend to wear blinkers when placed in situations that go against their faith, as do hardcore atheists. Not everyone is flexible in the face of new evidence.
Image source:

Step 3. The final step is to work out what motivates each character. Often this is a combination of the first two points. Experienced a childhood of neglect? You might be motivated by positive affirmations of others. Have unbreakable faith in your god/s? You might be brave in the face of bodily danger. Grow up with a parent with alcoholism? You may have a zero tolerance attitude to alcohol/a close bond with the bottle/an addictive personality that sees you constantly seeking your next high.

Once I know all of this about my characters I spend a lot of time talking with them, often out loud or in my head while I'm out walking or driving. I throw them into imaginery situations and see how they react. Then, of course, I write my story and reassess each character. If they have not behaved as I had expected I go back to work getting to know them even better to work out why. 

It's no wonder I cry so hard when I have to kill my darlings.

So tell me: what do you do to develop three dimensional, consistent characters? I'm always looking for new techniques to try.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Ash's Research Fact #3

Weekly research fact #3: Another way Anztecs used to make sacrifices was by piercing their ear and collecting their blood to take for the priest to burn. Alternatively they would pull straw through the holes and burn the straw. All of their sacrificing was to feed Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, who was waging an eternal war against darkness. If the darkness won the world would end, as it had ended six times before.

Lovely stuff.