Teacher Michelle Kerr leading the class in a lesson about the tree weta. PHOTO/ELISA VORSTER

Primary school teachers around the country will strike on Wednesday over increasing workloads and lack of resources. ELISA VORSTER went back to school last week to find out what keeps teachers going, and to tackle the myth that teaching is a 9am-3pm job.

It’s 10am and I scuttle into the back of Room 8 like a tardy child who expects to get reprimanded.

Michelle Kerr is teaching her 25 Year 3 and 4 pupils about the tree weta.

The children are already getting excited so Kerr calls out “hocus pocus” to which the class immediately replies “that means focus”.

She hands out a couple of Dojos – a digital rewards system where the kids receive a treat when they earn enough points.

“Which I pay for out of my own pocket, by the way,” Kerr tells me.

She asks the now silent pupils what ‘invertebrate’ means.

It’s at this point I realise two things – I don’t know what an invertebrate is, and Kerr must have put in some serious background work to prepare for this lesson.

The pupils then fill out their worksheets and excitedly look at the weta living inside a plastic pipe in the classroom terrarium before the bell rings for morning tea.

Kerr sits next to me to answer my questions during her break time.

“I’m a teacher, this is what we do,” she says.

She says the initial lesson plan about creepy critters was planned before the beginning of term and she made the giant wall display for it in her own time.

“I spent 30 minutes last night to find one three-minute video suitable for the lesson to help them get the information they need,” she says.

In fact, she refreshes herself and preps for the following day’s lesson after school each day.

“The bell rings at 3pm and I just get stuck in.”

Her school day starts at 7.45am each day before the children get there so she can respond to emails from senior management, external agencies, and parents.

She prepares extra resources, such as photocopying worksheets, making posters and laminating charts.

As a syndicate leader, she also has extra duties including writing up meeting minutes.

At 8.30am the children start to arrive and Kerr uses the time to communicate with parents.

Before she could explain further, we are briefly interrupted as she quickly chats to one pupil about ‘making good choices’ in the playground.

“Your brain just goes all day,” she says.

“We’re teachers but we also teach them to socialise.

“We have to be aware of every single child’s needs.”

She tells me that if she’s not on duty at morning tea, she will usually have coffee in the staff room, but rarely goes there for lunch, instead choosing to eat at her desk and mark work or prepare for the afternoon’s lessons.

She doesn’t work weekends but instead stays until 6.30pm on Fridays to get her work done, and admits she still takes marking home.

Teachers receive two days per term of release time but Kerr says it isn’t enough to cover all the work she had already told me about, as well as everything else they are expected to do.

This includes collecting evidence throughout the year of their professional development as part of their teaching registration requirements.

Then there is report writing, which can take up to two hours a night over a four-week period – and that happens twice a year.

And what about all those holidays, you ask?

Well most of those get eaten up with more lesson planning and marking, including about two weeks at the end of the summer holidays preparing the classrooms for the year ahead – on top of professional development days.

Kerr seems to be saying the same things I have already heard a lot of teachers saying, and wants the same result most teachers want from the strike action on Wednesday.

“We’re hoping for more support and understanding on what we do on a day-to-day basis with the children.”

This includes more support for children with learning or behavioural issues without jumping through hoops and “having to fill out the same paperwork multiple times only to be told no”.
“It would be nice to recognise the worth of teachers,” Kerr says.

“Once you reach the top of the pay scale, it’s really hard to be valued in a monetary way unless you take on more responsibilities and more work.”

I ask her the question everyone wants to know – why do teachers do what they do?

“I love it, just working with kids,” she says.

“You’re with them for such a short time but it’s a really important part of their life.

“It’s very hard work sometimes and your own family and children can come second best to other people’s children.

“There’s challenges and it’s busy but every day is different, and it can be extremely rewarding.”

Once break time is over, so is my talking time with Kerr, as she spends the next hour joining in with the children’s physical fitness, sings a song in te reo, helps pupils with their reading, and teaches them about superheroes named ‘Metaphor Man’ and ‘Simile Girl’.

I left wondering whether Kerr, like other teachers, was in fact the real superhero.