Dear Senator Birmingham, I was 21 when I took my first tentative steps towards becoming a teacher. Although a little unsure it was what I ...

Victorian Teacher's Red Letter

18:58:00 Dyslexia Australia 0 Comments

Dear Senator Birmingham,

I was 21 when I took my first tentative steps towards becoming a teacher. Although a little unsure it was what I wanted to do long term, I had an undergraduate degree under my belt and stars in my eyes. I was ready to change the world.  At least for a while. I still remember that first day of my first teaching round; by 9:15 am I knew I would love it. By 11:00am I knew I would never leave. I am a teacher. Like so many of my colleagues, the passion for education flows through my veins in the way oxygen does for others. To a large extent, it defines me.

And so, with those stars firmly planted in my eyes, I began my career. I relished my job and loved ‘my’ kids, sacrificing evenings, weekends and holidays to the betterment of those students in my care and myself as an educator. I secretly high fived myself at the end of every week, proud of the impact I had made on the little people in front of me. I felt noble. I was proud of myself and proud of the profession which had chosen me. I was a willing accomplice. 

Despite no financial need to return to work after starting a family, I continued to teach in different formats and settings, between the arrival of each of my children. I just couldn’t walk away. Although I loved my days at home with my kids I would laugh with amusement at myself, as the ‘teacher within’ would rear her head, ensuring my children were continually exposed to books and play based (but ‘language rich!’) activities.  On my days at work I would experience the small glow of satisfaction for what I was able to do for the kids I worked with. Armed with the new perspective of a parent I suddenly saw things a little differently, although those stars in my eyes stayed firmly in place and I relished the chance to work with families to achieve good outcomes for their kids. I felt honoured for the opportunities that came my way and held my head up proudly as a teacher, for what I contributed to society.   

Sadly, I no longer feel this way. Years later, I have realised that those stars in my eyes were actually just rose coloured glasses and that my teaching has not been the high quality I always assumed it to be. I put my trust in the leadership, of varying levels, that surrounded me, to provide me with the tools I needed to be an exceptional teacher. I trusted my university training and then later, the professional development that was provided. Ironically I even returned to work within the education faculty of the very university at which I studied.  However now the reality of our education system has bitten hard and I hang my head, the guilt of past actions haunting me. ‘Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.’ This has become my inner mantra, but it’s hard to swallow when you are fighting a system which does not want to acknowledge its own mistakes. How do I move forward?

Those rose coloured glasses are well and truly gone.

My glasses began slipping around the same time one of my children started school. Bright, articulate and ready to take on the world, we had high hopes for our daughter, as did her kindergarten teacher. With obvious high intelligence and a desire to learn to read we were all actually very surprised she wasn’t reading before school, however with every confidence in all those wonderful ‘language rich activities’ and the children's literature to which she had been exposed since birth, we knew it wouldn’t be long. How naive we were. 

Eventually I was summoned by her teacher for a meeting to be told of their concern. The teacher was as perplexed as I; “she doesn’t present as a child who will struggle…”. I will never forget those words. And in an instant our lives changed.

Over the coming years I worried myself sick over how we could get her to read. Behavioural optometry, visual therapy, Reading Recovery….. And an ongoing battle of wills with her school. Dyslexia? No way. I was apparently letting my ‘teacher head’ rule my heart and not willing to accept reality. All the while our outgoing social butterfly had retreated into herself and was barely unrecognisable. The only time we saw her come to life was during her extra curricular activities. Eventually we sought help from the Australian Dyslexia Association and my beautiful creative girl was profiled for dyslexia and dysgraphia.  

And so the real battle began.  As the realities of dyslexia remediation opened up for me, those rose coloured glasses clattered noisily to the floor, amid phrases like “evidenced based practice,” “explicit teaching” and “systematic phonics.” As a teacher, ironically with a passion for literacy and intervention, the ground was shaky and much of what I believed and held close was challenged. I felt let down. Let down by a system which ignored its weaknesses to the detriment of students, parents and teachers alike. How could this system allow me to waste so much of my time learning unproven methodologies? How could this system allow me, with my lack of evidence based knowledge and expertise, to lead and guide the education of both students AND beginning teachers? And how could this system allow my daughter to ‘slip through’ without the skills she so desperately needs.  I am angry. Oh so angry. And very confused. How, in a country like Australia, have we ended up here?

These days I sit across the table from the families I support and my heart feels heavy. I feel burdened by the poor job I have done for these people, and others like them, in the past. I fight for change and there are many days when I feel like I am winning, but equally there are days when the fight feels too great. I have often left work at the end of the day and cried with frustration and hopelessness on my drive home, although thankfully those days are becoming fewer. I am slowly winning, but at what cost? I was saddened recently, by a comment made by one of my own children; “I’ll never be a teacher. Sorry mum, I see how much you love it, but I also see how hard you work. You have to fight every day and I don’t want to do that. The fight is too hard.”  

And each day IS a fight. Now a parent to multiple identified dyslexic children, I fight the battle of ensuring my kids get the help they need to ‘even out the playing field’ at their own school. I fight the battle for one of my children to balance intense anxiety and the desperate want to hide her dyslexia from those around her; I despise the shame she feels. I fight the battle of finding the line between completing the homework my kids have to do, the homework they really need to do and time for the relaxation and down time they desperately want. I fight to balance the time between the creative outlets which build their confidence and give my children joy, against the cost and time involved. The impact of this is huge for our whole family.  I could write you several ‘red letters’ about each of these battles and the impact it has on each of my children. However this letter is not directly about my kids. This letter is about me. 

This letter is about the battle I fight daily for change within our system. The battle I fight internally about mistakes I have unwittingly made which have impacted others and the battle I face daily, to stay motivated to work within this system. There have been far too many points within my recent career when it would have been easier to just walk away. To quote one of my children, yes the fight is too hard. There are days when it feels insurmountable. I no longer feel the pride I once did about my profession. I read posts on the Dyslexia Support Facebook pages daily and cringe at the lack of action from those with power.  I pep myself up with self talk of how lucky I am to be working within education at such an exciting time of change, but some days I question the likelihood of any real action and I feel despondent and hopeless. Will we ever achieve our goals or am I wasting my time?   

Which leads me to my final fight, the one which surrounds the guilt I feel over all the time I invest in helping other people’s children, while my own desperately need more. There are not enough hours in the day to achieve all I need and I worry that no matter what I do, it will never be enough. Would life be simpler if I stopped my fight and concentrated on my own children? In years to come would my kids look back and be grateful? Or would they be so consumed with supporting and advocating for their own children within a system which still hasn’t evolved, that they barely have time to reflect? It’s a cliche but ‘square peg, round hole’. When will the system change?  

The stars in my eyes and rose coloured glasses may be long gone, however the passion remains and burns brightly alongside a desire for a quality, evidenced based education system. It is this want, which keeps me signing up again, year after year. Because my kids deserve it. Our parents deserve it. Our teachers deserve it. 

And I deserve it.  I have invested too much of myself into this profession to walk away. I have given you my all; the very best of myself. It is time I demanded something back.  Please don’t let me down.

Thank you for your time.

Yours faithfully,

A committed teacher from Victoria.