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'The frustrating moment when I knew I had to give up on teaching.'

In 2014, Gabrielle Stroud was a dedicated teacher with over a decade of experience. Then the education model shifted, Naplan was rolled out and suddenly Gabrielle was prevented from doing the very thing she prided herself on: teaching children according to their individual needs, fostering their unique talents.

This a snapshot of her story.

After I returned from duty on the seniors’ playground, I was thinking about the incident I needed to document, the worksheet I forgot to photocopy, the lunch I’d need to make for Sarah. I was ignoring the weight in my chest, the feeling that my heart was bruised.

My students waited outside our door, but then there was a new drama because Allan lost his tooth – really lost it. It had fallen out and gone missing. A lost lost tooth. A great tragedy.

The children consoled Allan and admired his bloody mouth.

“Let’s have a look,” I said and I studied the red, gummy flesh of his mouth. I gave him a tissue and he sucked on it for a moment before revealing his mouth to me again. There was a perfect gap where the tooth had been. I could even see the tiny hole of the root. Allan’s face was sad. What good is it to lose a tooth and have nothing to show for it?

“I think you look so much older now you’ve lost a tooth,” I said, turning him slightly so his peers could confirm.
“You look like a old man,” Owen told him.
“A bit like a vampire,” another one said. “With all the blood.”
“I haven’t lost any teeth,” Olivia said miserably.
“Will the tooth fairy still bring me a coin?” Allan asked, his face pale and stressed.
“Yes,” I said. “This has happened before; the tooth fairy understands. But what we should do is write a letter to let the tooth fairy know about your tooth.”

At that moment I decided to abandon my Maths lesson. I moved to the computer and brought up a blank document and projected it onto the screen. Together, as a class, we wrote to the tooth fairy and explained all about the lost lost tooth.

“You should write: We don’t know if he swallowed it,” said Jock and I was surprised. Jock was yet to write a word for me. “Write that, Mrs Stroud. We don’t know if he swallowed it or dropped it.”
I typed their ideas and their words. It was new magic in my classroom and I saw the stress leave Allan’s face. Saw the engagement in my students’ eyes.

Gabbie speaks to Mia Freedman about falling out of love with teaching on No Filter:

“Will we email this?” someone asked.
“No,” I said. “Allan will take this home and leave it out for the fairy.”
“I don’t think the tooth fairy does email, anyway,” Isla said. “But maybe Facebook?” She looked to me for confirmation.
“I’m not sure. The tooth fairy’s probably too busy for Facey.”

Allan took the printed letter.

“I’m still a bit sad,” he confessed as he sat down.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” I told him. “It’s sweet because your first tooth has fallen out. But it’s also bitter because you lost that tooth and you can’t find it.”

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The children understood immediately. Bittersweet, they echoed.

“Like sweet and sour,” one said. “But mixed together.”
“Like chocolate and lemons.”
“Like crying and laughing.”
“Like ya dog dying, but ya get a new one.”

Bittersweet. It became our favourite word.

When I look back at that year, touch the memories like a bruise, I can see the beauty in my work, the sacred bond I had created, the learning that occurred, the teaching I was doing. The magic that was there.

But when I touch those memories for longer, press that bruise harder, I recall the pain. The struggle.

The national curriculum was being rolled out like a steamroller flattening us into conformity and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers were looming like the boogeyman in my childhood hallway. I could almost hear him coming, screaming at me, “You’re accountable, you’re accountable, you’re accountable”. I was creating new folders of paperwork. Collecting evidence to show that I was competent—feeling tempted to ‘create’ evidence that showed I was competent. Staff meetings became devoted to completing paperwork for professional standards. More meetings were held in the name of standards. The whole thing felt like an insult and a threat.

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"Gab, do you have that data regarding Kindergarten Math assessments?"

The Principal was flicking through screens, preparing for another marathon meeting.

"I didn’t get it done today," I admitted. "Allan had a lost lost tooth and so I—"
"Tomorrow," he said and his eyes followed the artificial light, the staff meeting agenda glowing bright against the screen.

No! I wanted to argue. What I did today was important. You didn’t see the magic, you didn’t see the things I did. But then my chest began to ache and I thought, I’m not sure I’ll be here tomorrow.

We started up our laptops and followed the Principal’s gaze, light from the screen spilling over us as the machine hummed overhead.

"You’ve got to get this done," he was saying. He was leading us through professional standards, dragging us toward a finishing line. "It’s part of being a professional, maintaining your accreditation."
"I did my Masters not that long ago," I said to him. "I’m five years trained with over ten years of teaching experience, internationally as well as here in Australia."
"Doesn’t matter," he said, but I could hear that his voice was weary.
"Why can’t they just value what I am doing? The things I do achieve?" Lana stapled sheets of paper together.
"Because," I said, reaching to take the stapler from her, "it’s a deficit model. Our system examines what’s lacking rather than valuing what’s achieved."

The system doesn’t understand a “lost” lost tooth, I thought. It's never met Allan and it doesn’t trust me.

This is an edited extract from Teacher by Gabbie Stroud published by Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99 available now.

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