Gabbie Stroud’s novel renewed my enthusiasm for teaching: educator

The front cover of ‘Teacher’, by Gabbie Stroud. Published June 2018 (Allen & Unwin, Australia)

Gabbie Stroud’s novel Teacher has been flying off the shelves in major department stores as teachers around the country get their nose — and minds — into it.

As a memoir of a former teacher’s years in NSW, Canadian and UK primary schools, Teacher is harrowing and poignant — and it only took a temporary chink off my idealism for the profession.

I was chatting with other teachers recently about what I thought of the book and the resounding response was ‘I wasn’t sure if I should read it’. That was me for a couple of months as I procrastinated starting to read this 339-page book.

I didn’t want to be put off teaching. After all, I was just returning to casual teaching after a seven-month break to focus on my business writing. Those memories of behaviour management issues in my classrooms last year had somewhat dimmed over time.

Your experience as a teacher might not parallel that of Stroud’s, but you’ll be able to relate to many elements. Yes, we’re talking behaviour management still. You’ll feel a punch to the guts as you read about how the author worked doggedly to develop relationships with her students, no matter what was going on in their headspace and lives outside of school. You’ll recognise the characters she depicts as parents, co-workers, principals and her own family.

For those of us who’ve had toes trodden on or squished as a child rocks back on their chair, you’ll relate to Stroud’s anecdote about one of her students repeatedly kicking her shin, then throwing his shoe full-pelt at her chest.

He had wanted her to re-tie his knotty shoelace … now!

Her response was classic — I won’t spoil it for you.

Stroud shares her thoughts and utterings in staff meetings as the juggernaut of standardised testing and standards was being introduced in Australian schools. She says what many of us have been ruminating over, but not quite sure what to do with our disquiet.

She’s been vocal in her opposition to it — in fact, it was her Griffith Review article that spawned this very book.

I can pinpoint just where Teacher renewed my idealism for teaching work. It was reading about Stroud’s increasing numbness, not just at school, but elsewhere in her life.

“I just thought I’d like to walk into that bus,” she confided in her doctor.

“And there’s more … I can’t laugh. I can’t cry. Even if something’s really funny, or really sad. Even if I hurt myself. I’ve just got this numb, hollow feeling inside me. And my temper’s like a bloody firecracker.”

Stroud writes that her doctor looked at her like “he still thought it was perfectly normal” she was depressed and told her to “give it time”.

She left with a script for antidepressants and a psychologist’s phone number. Meeting the psychologist weeks later, and medicated, she got the clarity she needed.

“Nurses feel it, too. People in armed services, doctors, anyone who works in a profession where there’s a high chance of sudden change. There are so many variables in your workplace … You start to exist in a state of high alert,” said her psychologist.

“…If a kid starts swearing at you and you start feeling a stress response, your brain responds just the same as if a tiger was in the room with you. Cortisol starts dripping into your system and your body prepares for fight or flight. In your situation, your body has been resisting the urge to fight or flight for too long.”

Teachers resist the urge for fight or flight — that’s the crux of the book. How you manage it determines your mental health, your capacity to teach. I think Stroud offers us a route, a maxim we’re all echoing.

She notes early in the book that teaching is “all about relationships”. For her, it’s a relationship she needed to walk away from. We’ve all benefitted from that as her book puts behaviour management in schools on the agenda. I only hope it stays there.

Teachers have stepped up a level, but society overall has a huge role to play in setting higher standards for what’s acceptable classroom behaviour. That learning starts in the students’ home. As teachers, we’re only part of the picture.

Education writer MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism

Education writer MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism