Not too long ago I moved to the UK to work as a teacher, hired by a secondary school in southern England that has a reputation for being somewhat difficult. It isn’t the most challenging school going around, but it is challenging, especially for a new teacher from another country. If I ask people in the area about the school, they often laugh to themselves and crack a joke about how dumb I was to leave what they imagine as paradise to come and teach somewhere like this.
They have a point. In Australia the pay is better, the conditions are better, and there isn’t the pressure of Ofsted inspections – which push teachers in England to their limit. Obviously Australia has plenty of its own difficult schools. However, I’d say that there is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness regarding the state of education in England, especially in the type of school I’m employed in. I’m not arguing that things are perfect in Australia, but I am saying that, from my limited experience, a lot of teachers in England are burning out and only the most dedicated practitioners remain resolute in the face of such difficult workplace conditions.
So, what’s so difficult about teaching here? Well, it depends where you work. Of the teachers I know in England, some work in grammar schools, others work in massive comprehensives, and some, like me, work in community schools. The problems vary depending on the postcode. On one end of the spectrum are the issues that face grammar school teachers, who suffer the wrath of high expectations from school leadership, parents and the community. Where I work, in a community-school context, I have to stare down classrooms of disillusioned kids who don’t expect to achieve anything after they finish school. You can’t blame them either – every second article online seems to herald the end of the world in one way or another, whether it’s climate change, the dawn of AI or nuclear war. Why should they care about The Tempest? Half of them haven’t even been to London. The students also know their school is a meat grinder for new teachers, especially foreign ones.
When I arrived, my first impressions weren’t good. For my first day I was told to expect an induction. In other words, no teaching. Instead I was asked (begged) to teach five one hour lessons. Sure, I thought. After just arriving in the country I’d love to push through that 16,000 km, double-flight jet lag and teach some kids. It will be great experience! I was handed a single A4 piece of paper that had three dot points on it explaining each of my five lessons, and was promptly shepherded into a classroom. The kids had no idea how to read me and I had no idea how to read them. It was madness. I couldn’t use the systems, I had no idea how to access materials and some of the staff treated me as ephemeral. There one day, likely gone the next. The students ran around the classroom and talked over everything I said. You can list all the behaviour management strategies that you want, but if a classroom has had supply teachers for weeks before you get to it, you can guarantee it’s going to take some time to set some routine.
But I didn’t know that then. I just saw myself as a failure. On that day, it felt as if no one expected me to last, or really cared either way. I wanted to quit. At the end of the day, I sat in my Airbnb, too tired to even weep and reconsidered everything. Looking back, I don’t know how or why I decided to stay, but I suppose moving here alone had something to do with it. I had something to prove. I fell asleep in my cheap suit.
Days passed and things became easier. I learnt the systems, then the names of staff and then the names of all of my students. I discovered that there were people who knew how I felt and cared about me. I dug in. But the most important thing I learnt in my time there was to have perspective. I had to toughen up to the reality of my school and the community it belonged to. I had to put my life in the greater perspective of all this. Why did I come here? What exactly was I trying to prove? After all, being Australian, it’s the question that every second person here asks me. The answer is simple: I wanted to travel. And incidentally, it was through travelling that I came to one of my major insights about teaching: that it is a privilege. Even in a difficult school like mine.
A trip came up. A fellow teacher at my school wanted to travel to Bosnia. She’d already been once and was moved by stories of the conflict there; especially Srebrenica. In 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army rounded up and killed approximately 8000 men and boys from in and around the town – mainly Muslim – in a brutal act of ethnic cleansing. It turned out that my friend had designed a scheme of work that explored the conflict, and was teaching it to our students. When I heard this I was immediately impressed. I couldn’t believe our students were taking to geopolitical material that didn’t involve England or America. Even I, as an Australian, was considered exotic. Somehow, they were engaged in a topic that I don’t even hear my academic friends discuss all that much. My friend was nominated for an award for the scheme of work too. I don’t need much of a reason to travel, and this was more than enough.
Some time later we arrived in Sarajevo. Between 1992 and 1995 the city was surrounded by the Bosnian Serb Army, that did everything it could to make life hell for the people there. Snipers fired on civilians crossing the street for food, and water and artillery blasts targeted schools, hospitals and residential areas. Eleven thousand people were killed, of whom 1000 were children. There are cemeteries filled with white gravestones all over the city, each recording lives book-ended by engravings between 1991 and 1996, and when you climb to the Yellow Fortress and cast your eyes over the landscape of forested mountainside and see Sarajevo nestled inside the valley, you can imagine how the city could have been tortured from higher ground.
While I was travelling through the town I was particularly struck by stories about the resilience of teachers and students throughout the siege. Education was one of the ways the people of Sarajevo resisted and held onto their identity during the longest military siege of a city in the last century. Teachers set up improvised classrooms and held high expectations of their students. It wasn’t a good enough excuse that the town was under siege, the students still had to complete their work.
Perhaps what was most impressive was the strength of morality and empathy teachers instilled in their classrooms. Students were taught to empathise with the surrounding and relentless enemy rather than demonise it. This seems incredible and also somewhat absurd, when you consider the fact that children were directly targeted by sniper fire, but resistance can come in the form of moral superiority over one’s oppressor. Hussain (2005) highlighted that teachers actively discouraged students from humouring revenge fantasies and that this may, in the long-term, have helped alleviate some of the potential trauma. Teachers joke that we sometimes have to be therapists too. But in Sarajevo the teachers really were therapists; this was their resistance.
Stories of resistance are perhaps the most important stories to tell in history, reminding us that people are not just passive figures in their own oppression. Resistance comes in many forms. The story of one teacher and three pupils who died when their improvised classroom was shelled horrified me. In a small museum off a sidestreet in the new town, a plaque described the situation from the point of view of one of the students: ‘Then I looked to where my teacher, Fatima Gunic, was. Her head was on her desk. The blackboard behind her had shrapnel holes in it. Her hair was coming out of the holes. I ran.’
I read this quotation over and over again. I found myself humiliated to have been disheartened in my role so easily in England. Granted, it’s a wildly different context, but I couldn’t help but to make comparisons between what these teachers were willing to sacrifice, and what I wasn’t. It rocked me to realise that for these people, education was essentially a weapon. An assertion of the basic human right to learn. People died for it. I had been complaining that a few students refused to listen to me. It was a job, even though at times I thought I was fighting for my life. But the truth is I could always go home. I still can.
Context is everything, and schools are emblematic of the communities they exist in. They are each nested within broader circles of complexity. I was trained in Australia and I work in England. Each school I have worked in has been wildly different, but I never went to school to resist oppression. I never taught in an act to resist it either. My context is one of good fortune.
I’ll share a final story from Sarajevo that changed my perspective, or perhaps gave me some. While driving around with our generous Airbnb host and friend, Dino, he asked me what I did for a career. I told him I was a teacher.
‘Do you like it?’ he asked me.
‘Yeah I do’, I said, smirking at my friend in the seat beside me. ‘Well, sometimes I do.’
‘Why?’ He asked, smiling back.
‘The kids are so poorly behaved. I find it difficult in England. We aren’t used to that back home.’ My friend stayed quiet. She’s wiser than me, less impulsive. Dino kept driving, navigating through the reckless drivers in the city. Reckless to my eyes anyway. Eventually, Dino spoke.
‘I wanted to be a teacher’, he said. ‘It was all I wanted to do. But then the war came.’