The Education Department is finally trying to organise things better for us teachers through the national curriculum (while the relevant ministers argue about who has what word in their title, that is). Rudd and Gillard’s old back-to-basics rhetoric is all part of it. But while I think a national curriculum is a fantastic idea, I think this one may turn out to be just as disappointing as every other loose and unspecific curriculum they’ve produced.

That’s because the debate on this is fixated in the wrong place. People think that a set curriculum will destroy teacher autonomy and become a tool for brainwashing students. On the contrary, Australia’s first national curriculum, currently under construction, is in danger of having such a minuscule influence as to be completely ineffectual. It will define broad content areas and general aims, but it will not be complete if the assessment — worksheets, assessment criteria, scope for differentiation within each unit etc — is not also mapped out in fine detail.

If it is to work, the national curriculum needs to be more regimented, not less.

At the moment, good teaching comes at great emotional cost — exhaustion, endless brainstorming of creative teaching ideas, sourcing information, creating worksheets, managing behaviour. And that’s the fun stuff. The crap is all the hurdles of professional development. Reporting has also become a charade, mostly about preserving student self-esteem and concealing one’s true academic expectations of them.

I’m not sure how, given one entire year, a department of teachers manages to avoid teaching a single thing to a cohort of willing Diploma of Education students, but mine passed the test with flying colours. This is what happens when a bunch of academics decide that the concept of a national curriculum is a tyrannical abhorrence, and so they cover principles of pedagogy instead of the nuts and bolts of how to practically teach to set content.

I took the familiar route of many BA graduates into English teaching. Over the next four years, as I went from teaching in an impoverished rural school to an elite inner-city private one, I was to discover the gulf between my ideals of teaching and the actual reality.

But the signs were there from the start. Right from the moment I entered my first education class at university, I was reliving my worst memories of school: the lethargy and inaccuracy of group work, the boredom of endless oral presentations, the agony of having to complete pointless assignments, and the insulting lack of academic rigour.

My Diploma of Education (2006) gave me nothing with which to enter working life as an English teacher.

One unchallenged principle of the education system: that students will get something out of anything you do in the classroom. I would later experience the appalling inaccuracy and sloppiness that goes on in schools to plan courses and throw together the curriculum — oddly, curriculum planning is something that somehow always manages to rank last at planning days, falling behind items like training on how to deal with an anaphylactic crisis, or endless directives on new-fangled IT-based activities.

It’s not the fault of teachers that curriculum is sometimes shallow and slapdash. It’s the fault of a system in which nobody has bothered to write one for us.

I’ll let you in on another great fault with the education system: there is no curriculum.

In my first year out teaching I kept waiting for someone to explain what material I should be covering and what standards I should be aiming for. Instead I was told to examine VELS — a very unspecific document with unhelpful sentences such as “Students should study a range of challenging texts”. And this was supposed to be enough to explain what I’d be teaching in period two on Monday morning.

The boundaries for content in the classroom are undefined. Content spills over, uncontained and infinite, open-ended and inconclusive. It wanders off all the time, and pedagogues are constantly seduced to follow. All that high-minded stuff about students developing global awareness, computer literacy and thinking skills (to name a few fads) is language that hides the truth — that nobody has written a curriculum.

Good schools are organised enough to have courses planned, to share resources and to keep things going year to year. But, of course, this means that content varies from school to school. The rural school I began teaching in had no system of any kind. Really, the emphasis in education these days is that students make their own learning happen: that it’s better that they learn strategies to manage the overload of information in this wide world, rather than focus on learning a core of discrete facts and information.

This is a huge problem. The explosion of online information, the lack of control over content and the inability to harness and order material is profoundly annoying for students and it burns out teachers. A graduate teacher, like a child, needs structure, frameworks, limits when they start out. The temptation to over complicate is destructive of the teacher and the clear aims of teaching.

No matter how many glorious dreams they encouraged you to dream in your DipEd year, you quickly learn the hard truths. Parents, students and other teachers expect tangible outcomes from your teaching. Content is, surprise, surprise, a crucial part of education. Pity they didn’t warn us about that in the DipEd.