Close to 50% of Australians who graduate as teachers leave the profession within the first five years, many citing overwhelming workloads and unsupportive staffrooms as their main reason for leaving the job, according to new research.

Can teachers do their job?

It’s a common story: young or old, the teacher in your mind’s eye sits with their eyes on their daily planner, their cheek pressed to the spine of a phone, the cord wobbling as their head moves back and forwards between documents, their jaw tensing and relaxing with each word and sentence. You can’t hear the other side of the conversation but you can hear the teacher say things like: “well yes but she has in fact missed quite a few lessons….. I understand but she does need to make that clear to me….. we do have to move quickly through the course at times….”

The phrases suggest that the teacher is being asked questions about exactly how much attention he or she is paying to that student each lesson. Exactly what is the teacher – and the school – doing to help that student because she has a specific set of needs. Exactly what is being done about the amount of homework being given.

The teacher may have dealt with this many times. They may have vast experience and a resilient level of confidence. Then again, they may be having a bad day. This may be 3.30pm on a day full of lessons with a recess duty and lunchtime meeting thrown in. This may be the day when their own kids were sick thanks to the flu going around or a relative is unwell or recently passed. It may be the day that they were notified they didn’t complete their required professional development hours or didn’t fill in the excursion note in the required way. It may be the day they were dreading exactly because of the phone call they are now half way through.

A teacher’s job has certainly changed. My mother is a teacher. Uncles and aunties are teachers. Friends and, of course, colleagues are teachers. They agree that the demands on teachers have changed in the last decade or so more than ever before. I’ve only really known this world – from the teachers’ perspective – and so I suppose it’s less confronting for me and my cohort of teachers.

The idea of required professional development is anathema to some of my more experienced colleagues. Even the idea of extra curricular involvement isn’t consistently perceived by everyone in the profession. Some schools are quite demanding (often with some form of compensation) whereas some schools require nothing more than classroom duties. But regardless, even the most basic professional duties of a teacher in 2014 are, I believe, much more demanding than many other professional roles. This is for a variety of reasons but a few I will try to outline here.

Teaching isn’t like other professions. You are working with both young people – for whom you are legally and pedagogically responsible – and adults – who may or may not share the same educational vision as you. You are working for different bosses: direct line managers such as a subject coordinator, executive level leaders, parents and of course students themselves. (On a side note, this is why I get annoyed at people who try to apply business principles and ideas to a school – who are the shareholders? who are the employers? who are the workers?)

As a teacher, much of what you do is actually predetermined in terms of quality, quantity and frequency. You can’t decide to delay or bring forward your Year 7 History class because it will work more efficiently with your calendar. You can’t simply cancel an assessment task because the team feel it’s not a priority. You have deadlines; many of which compete and sometimes conflict. You have demands from different quarters which will have a real impact on students’ progress through a course or your departments’ administration or another teachers’ work.

Then again, sometimes you have to drop everything – including pressing or urgent priorities – for something even more urgent, such as the welfare of a student. I know many Year Coordinators who not only teach for most of the day but then spend their free lessons simply chasing up a confirmation of where a student physically is that day. Or dealing with a tragedy in a student’s life. Or managing a relationship breakdown. Or supporting a fellow teacher who is having difficulty with a student. Or any number of other things that don’t have anything to do with curriculum or strategic goals but are actually more important than both.

So I do have to remind myself that the workload of a full time teacher is heavy, to say the least. That anyone who does not have a full load of classes and the responsibilities that go with it do not – on a day to day basis – understand exactly what it is like at the moment. That those with less classes (like me) and those who are not teachers (like most people) need to take a moment to think before criticising the work of teachers as being easy or not a real job.

Also, parents need to realise that if we were to spend the time we actually want to helping a student in our class, say for 5 minutes, that 45 minutes with 27 other students in the room may prove an impossible time in which to do it. Parents need to realise that teachers are – from moment to moment – prioritising and reprioritising, adapting and changing, transforming and rethinking what they are about to say or do based on what the reality is. Add to this any number of distractions and interruptions, changes and conditions. Wind seems to affect students more than a new policy initiative from government.

Obviously the experiences, expectations and environments vary quite vastly between schools and systems. However, we need to be mindful of what it is we actually want teachers to be doing and align the expectations we place on them with that. If we want them to be administrators, keep piling on the paperwork. If we want them to be educators, give them the latitude to make professional decisions for the classroom and beyond. If we want teachers to be fully rounded individuals, they need to have the time and space to have a life. If we want them to be positive about the use of technology, it must add value to their work. If we want to be a functional, creative and innovative profession, we need to have goals and priorities that foster this.

Teachers can do their job. Most do it brilliantly and with little fuss. But what this look like may change day to day, minute to minute.

This rant was brought to you by Time – something not many teachers have in abundance.