Every Friday Crikey’s mole by the microwave in a middle suburban state high staffroom will document the ins and outs of the sometimes rewarding, always underpaid, often challenging life of the secondary teacher.

Week one: The new term begins

The first day back is so very like a first date that the returning teacher will have spent a sleepless night dreaming of running down endless corridors towards a distant classroom never attained. Will they like me? Will I like them? And that’s just your fellow staff. The children are another thing altogether.

Never smile before Easter, goes the ancient wisdom. Certainly you don’t want the class to smile back since a bloke can be blinded by the revealed acreage of orthodontal appliances. The non-smiling maxim is put to a severe test with the induction of the year’s batch of Year 7s. They’re so yummy, you could eat them, which is possibly not a sentiment a parent would wish to hear coming from a teacher.

Experience tells you, of course, that there is a strict limit to cuteness. You are already on the lookout for those putative monsters, call them Tarquin and Vulnavia, who make of your life an exquisite torture in the middle school. As you gaze on the new lot like old Nestor in Troilus and Cressida, you look for “the baby figure of the giant mass to come at large”. Who will reach for life’s glittering prizes and who will simply steal them and end up being nabbed in a very bad wig at a Greek seaside resort? As you wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh, you decide that the worlds revolve like naughty children on rubbish duty gathering scraps with kitchen tongs on the back oval.

Back in the common room, the teaching body has separated into its constituent elements. In one corner, there are the jocks and the young folk exuding youthful vitality and something funky which has to be hormonal. In the other, where banished smokers once sat, are the elderly – at least by the unforgiving standards of the sonnenkinder opposite. Thus is the common room divided according to an unwritten Treaty of Tordesillas, carving our little world in two the way the Spanish and the Portuguese once claimed ownership of Orbis Terrarum.

That is the thing about the government school of the 21st century. In terms of the thinning ranks of teachers, a modern staffroom exhibits the pedagogic equivalent of male-pattern baldness. The enthusiastic young and the middle-aged with very little in between. It’s hardly a conundrum: lousy pay and worse conditions lead to attrition. It’s a sad state of affairs which is soon to push teachers into sensible shoes and onto the streets to protest. What lovely irony. In the quest for better pay we will all be sacrificing a day’s wage. The government might call it a win-win. Debate over. Only it’s not.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey