As the Happy Days theme song taught us, Sunday and Monday are happy days. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are meant to be happy days, too – though not in mid May, because those are NAPLAN days.
In the past few months, the Independent Education Union (the IEUA) has unhappily called for an extensive review of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (aka NAPLAN), concerned with its effect on the curriculum and on student and staff wellbeing. The Centre for Independent Studies, on the other hand, commented very happily indeed that Julia Gillard’s introduction of NAPLAN was ‘the greatest achievement by an Australian federal education minister in decades.’ And NAPLAN continues to make the Australian educational media happy, both for its ability to start arguments and for its reputation as a tool to measure what works or doesn’t work in education. (This is good news for slam poets and writers-in-residence, who were among those credited for massive improvements at Canterbury Boys High.) Labor was also happy enough with NAPLAN to give it a walk-on role in the election campaign (and if they had won, they would have used the test results as one measure of how well their extra funding was being spent).
Gabbie Stroud’s memoir Teacher is almost militantly unhappy with NAPLAN, and gives it considerably more than a walk-on role. Rather, it is a main player: a powerful, insidious antagonist which emerges, along with other forces of educational standardisation, to drive Stroud in despair from the profession that she loves. Starting as an article in Griffith Review where it was shortlisted for a Walkley, Stroud’s memoir was published last year with plaudits from academics, authors and other educational presences. Noni Hazelhurst describes it as ‘heartbreaking’, Steve Biddulph as ‘crystal clear about what has gone wrong, and therefore how to fix it’.
I think we should be more cautious. Teacher has real strengths, most notably as a moving and perceptive account of the day-to-day trials of a committed and talented teacher, and evokes the exhaustion and joy and visceral, messy reality of teaching very well. But as a guide to educational policy, Teacher feels compromised. And for this teacher, Stroud’s diagnosis of the cause of the problem does not always ring true.
The first part of the memoir traces Stroud’s development as an idealistic, earnest student who is the recipient of loving, compassionate and sensitive teaching. Mrs Read and Ms Dee and Mrs Payton are the kinds of teachers who ‘revealed to me a part of myself that was braver and stronger and smarter than I knew’. They nurture her writing and provide guidance through a terrible family trauma. Inspired by their example, Stroud resolves to be a teacher, ‘a giver of gifts’, and the middle part of the memoir describes her early years in London, Canada and three schools in regional New South Wales (two in or near Paradise, and one in Belmora). She works her guts out. In London, she navigates her way through intrusively flirty teenage boys, boxloads of weekend marking, toxic colleagues, and a bewildering staff hierarchy (‘teachers don’t associate with dinner ladies’). When she returns to Paradise and is allocated a ‘dirty, filthy shed’ for a classroom she spends her January together with her parents fixing it up; together they ‘scrubbed walls, vacuumed floors and washed windows’, and Stroud replaces the books and buys a secondhand sofa, all to be greeted by an underwhelming response from her students. (‘What’s all this shit, then?’ asks the first kid through the door.)
That’s all before we get to Warren in Belmora, who chases other children around with scissors, punches Stroud in the face, and whose mother has abandoned him to foster care, saying she’s ‘not a fucking fit mother for the fucking kids’. Stroud helps clothe Warren, feeds him, accompanies him to the hospital (where his mother forgets he’s allergic to morphine) and alongside this attempts to keep teaching – and protecting – the rest of the class, despite feeling ‘like I’m parenting Warren while my class misses out on their teacher’.
At this stage, Stroud is twenty-five, which is also, the reader may feel, the number of seconds most other people would last in this job. But through all of this she doesn’t just persevere: she has real, brilliant successes. Warren ends up sobbing in her arms and admits to her during a long walk that he dreams of her most nights: ‘you’re with me and my dad and Errol’s there and we go camping.’ Other students tell her that ‘you’re the first teacher who ever made me change my behaviour’ and ‘I’m so glad I was taught by you … you were a guide, a teacher and a friend.’ Throughout these sections Stroud earns the reader’s admiration and sympathy and deep respect. As a piece of reportage from the frontline of the classroom, Teacher is at its moving, dedicated best.
But alongside this, and taking centre stage in the final third of the book, is another narrative: the story of Stroud’s frustration with the increased paperwork that comes from standardisation. She expanded upon this in her recent appearance on Q&A: the term incorporates ‘standardised teaching’, ‘standardised curriculum’ and ‘professional teaching standards’. It has, she feels, resulted in an unmanageable administrative burden – a lot of paperwork that tells you what to teach and demands you prove that you are teaching it well, determined by a government bureaucracy that doesn’t trust teachers to do the job without it. On maternity leave she watches the standardised test NAPLAN ‘infiltrate the classroom’; returning to school she finds herself ‘slogging it out day after day with big dark shadows of standardisation over my head.’ Children cry when they are introduced to rubrics; her own daughter gets ‘this stressed-out feeling’ when she thinks of NAPLAN. She compares the professional standards for teachers to ‘the boogeyman in my childhood hallway’ and rescues a colleague who has broken down due to ‘professional teaching standards’ and ‘the national curriculum’. Soon afterwards she herself is prescribed Zoloft, her marriage (which has been unravelling through the story) disintegrates completely, and she leaves the profession.
Stroud’s distress (and her colleague’s) sounds appalling, and after all she has gone through, her departure from the profession seems like both a personal loss and a loss to the students she might have taught. But it is possible to feel shocked and saddened by her vulnerability and pain, while also questioning whether she has the right target in her sights. The administrative load may have been unreasonable, and you could perhaps point a finger at the implementation schedule she was under, but it doesn’t follow that a standardised system itself is the culprit. Indeed, even before it enters the narrative, Stroud is describing ‘teacher-tiredness’. In London, it ‘often consumed my whole weekend … a cumulative tiredness that seemed to layer heavily on top of itself, no matter how much sleep I got each evening’. Similar reflections occur in Paradise, where ‘teaching took the better part of me’, and in St Peter’s, where she has ‘a workload that is heavy and relentless’. It all sounds punishing, and that’s the point: like many teachers she was completely knackered in the early years, even before the processes that she describes comes in. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t have too much to do. Of course she did, and given the drop-out rates for the profession it seems clear that work could be done to support teachers better in their earlier years. But throwing out a standardised system is not necessarily the right kind of work.
My second concern is there’s a tendency in Teacher to characterise (and categorise) teaching in a fairly black-and-white way, with cold-hearted, paper-pushing administrators, and the intuitive, empathetic, common-sense teachers doing the real work. The pattern is set early, when a tell-it-like-it-is teacher trainer asks: ‘hey, do you guys call it peda-dodgy rather than pedagogy?’ It continues with Stroud’s loving depiction of her colleague Sophie, a mentor and saviour for her, and one of the few people who can get through to Warren, though pointedly, ‘paperwork is not Sophie’s strong suit.’ On the one hand she’s right: if a teacher is good enough to connect with the desperately vulnerable Warrens of the classroom, it seems hard to care about minimalist lesson plans, and hard also not to resent a bureaucracy that doesn’t recognise this. But on the other hand minimalist paperwork doesn’t always equal excellent teaching, just like a standardised system doesn’t cancel out the ability to inspire and create and motivate. And maybe I’ve just been lucky, but in the high schools I’ve taught at NAPLAN is usually encountered with a shrug and eye-rolling grace. My favourite response was from a Year 7 girl who cheerfully mocked the first question in her practice maths paper: ‘Jenny has fourteen apples. What – a – loser.’
These kinds of anomalies wouldn’t matter so much if Stroud hadn’t become a kind of representative for teachers and teacher disenfranchisement: on Q&A she pronounced the profession ‘near rock bottom’ and Teacher is the discussion book of last month’s IEU/NSW book club. A memoir claiming the kind of universality that Teacher does owes itself more nuanced conclusions.
Stroud gets some things so right – like the emotional cost of caring, for example, and the vital importance of time, and the extraordinary relief and gratitude you can feel to supportive colleagues after a difficult class. True, going by Teacher’s Goodreads ratings, with close to a thousand high ratings and many glowing comments from teachers, there are people who feel a similar way as Stroud. But to me it seems that, although she showed repeatedly that she could observe (and respond brilliantly to) the extraordinary complexity of the classroom, in her despair she has not applied the same perceptiveness to her diagnosis of the teaching profession as a whole. This classroom cri de couer suffers as a result.