The secret teacher: Educating Maltese kids in an age of under-appreciation

Eight educators spoke to MaltaToday about the reality they face in Maltese schools. Matthew Vella compiled a narrative that shows a profession overwhelmed by unpaid duties, administrative burden, and parental mistrust

A typical day in my classroom: the phone ringing at least 10 times, people constantly coming in and out of my classroom, having to call parents of ‘sick’ pupils – all while I’m trying to teach the 21 pupils sitting in front of me.

Today I had a very bad day: sitting at home reflecting on it, unfortunately I have to say that I feel like I barely taught anything today.

Too many distractions – from phone, nurture teachers, peripatetic lessons, phoning parents, the P.A. system, ice packs vs ice packs – and so on. And have I mentioned the phone? These distractions do not affect just me, the teacher, but also the kids.

And honestly I don’t blame them. These might seem ‘little things’ but all together it’s one big mess. But obviously, here in Malta we only expect the ‘best’ grades for the benchmark exams! (Yes, I teach year 6 – always on the go with a huge pile of papers to grade here at home. And no, I’m not the kind of teacher to give loads of homework).

I don’t think it’s fair on my wellbeing and mental health.

Sometimes I feel that my job is too much and a lot is expected of me. This is my fourth year teaching, but I feel like I have aged 20 years.

Sometimes I feel like I’m an internet browser with many tabs open, as I go from one thing to the next and the next. And then if I forget that one thing out of a million, all hell breaks loose. I love my job and I want to do this for a living as I enjoy it. But sometimes, after listening to other people, what is expected of them at their work and their salaries, I joke that I’m insane to be in this industry with such horrible conditions and a poor salary.

I feel sorry for those who think our job is easy or a joke. Our job makes the other professions possible, yet we are treated like slaves – we are mainly expected to just give. 

‘Many wonder why so many teachers leave their jobs’

Primary school, Church

With so much heartache, I am listing down some of the hard-hitting realities primary teachers have to face on a daily basis:

A full timetable: where teachers are on duty all the time. Mentally and physically we get drained, no time to recharge ourselves as we are with the kids all the time. It has to be a miracle to try and escape the classroom to go to the bathroom, with that fear at the back of your mind that something might happen while you are away for those couple of minutes to do your basic human needs.

No time to disconnect from classroom stresses: there are so many duties we are expected to do, with so much of it over-spilling after school till late at night. At “curriculum time” we are overloaded with meetings with parents and the management team, where minutes are taken, meeting psychologists, IEPs, MAP sessions, follow-ups on students who need further help (they don’t have an LSA so the teacher is expected to perform a miracle on them). There’s no time to do anything at school: lesson planning, resources, corrections, uploading students’ homework on the school management system, replying to parents’ emails, writing reports and other things we are expected to do are all done at home!

With all the difficulties and social problems, hardships in students’ family backgrounds, literacy needs, parents’ court cases, food allergies and all the diverse baggage the children bring with them from home, teachers, especially at primary level, are expected to act as:

Mum and dad, because some kids lack that at home; Nurses, since there is none at school; Carers, providing basic necessities; Counsellors, with so many problems children wish to talk about because they have nobody to listen to them; Security guards, because children lack discipline nowadays and many do not respect authority – with little support from the education authorities of what appropriate action should be taken.

And if there is still time left, then there is educating them... more like providing them with life values that they do not learn at home! 

What about classroom size? How can you give time and special attention in one class to 26 children with different needs and requirements?

All this is expected to be done at the same time as covering a curriculum, correcting school work and homework at home, since there is no time to correct at school when taken up with all the above and having to help many children with learning difficulties.

Many parents don’t have the time or patience to read together with their children, explore books and pictures, or narrate stories, or dream together, make up imaginative play, or take them out on educational visits. And then authorities come to school expecting everything from the teacher! 

Don’t you think it is humanly impossible? And then many wonder why so many good and dedicated educators are leaving or considering leaving the profession.

‘You have to buy your own coffee’

Secondary school, State

Imagine a workplace where stationery is an essential resource to do your job but you have to buy and take your own with you.

You have to buy your own printer cartridges, print your own documents at home, spend hundreds of euros yearly from your own pocket on laminations and everything else to do your job properly. Imagine a workplace where air-conditioning is unheard of, where most of the time you cannot go to the bathroom, where you even have to take water and coffee with you because your employer does not even provide a water dispenser for the staff. That workplace is the school.

At our school there are colleagues who have no space in the staff room – no desk to work on when not in a classroom, no locker to keep things from disappearing. We are also not covered in case of abuse by students or on issues of health and safety. What happens if a student accuses us of something which is not true? What happens if a student is aggressive towards us? Thankfully the great majority of students are not like that but it is disconcerting that there is nothing to protect us should something happen.

If our employer really values our profession and our wellbeing as employees, they should start from these very basic things before even thinking about academic subjects.

‘Physical threats are a common occurrence’

Nurture Class Teacher, Church School

One of the issues of most concern to me as a Nurture Class teacher is the fact that we are bombarded every day with children’s social situations, which unfortunately we cannot do much about but support the child. This causes a lot of concern and psychological stress.

We have no support whatsoever and we know the management team of the school are themselves under the same stress.

Physical threats are a common occurrence with students hitting, pulling hair, biting, and verbal abuse of students both towards other students, teachers/LSAs and management team. This is compounded by unresponsive or aggressive parents.

We also have students of different nationalities in the same class, with a good number of them not knowing any Maltese and being very limited in English. This makes communication very difficult and thus learning academic subjects nearly impossible.

This also applies to parents who cannot communicate in English or Maltese and thus it is very difficult to interact with them. Not to mention the fact that since they come from different countries, with very different educational systems, they all find it hard to adjust and sometimes it is hard to explain the simple school rules and routines. This sometimes results in misunderstanding the student and wasting time in communication issues.

‘We have too much noise and stress levels are high’

Kindergarten Assistant, State School

The way inclusion is being practised is not inclusion at all. We have severely autistic children who scream and throw tantrums all day, making it impossible for the teacher to teach, causing stress and having the other children close their ears to shut out the noise. Even if they have an LSA they cannot do much.

Kindergarten Assistants face a large number of kids in class, with behavioural problems and undiagnosed conditions and even parents in denial. We have excessive paperwork, assessment and inclusion paperwork and adaptations. We have to do everything from PE, music, drama, literacy, numeracy, art, and we have executive officers constantly changing and requesting different work/strategies.

We have children who are already tired after breakfast club. We have joined classes due to lack of space and when teachers are sick they are topped up to 30 pupils. We have too much noise and stress levels are high, leading to burn-out. No staff rooms or curriculum time.

Many parents don’t have the time or patience to read together with their children, explore books and pictures, or narrate stories, or dream together

‘LSAs file reports that nobody is reading’

Learning Support Assistant, State School

When a parent files a complaint directly with the College Principal instead of communicating directly with the teachers/LSA concerned, sometimes on trivial matters (an example in point: a teacher using her mobile device during her lesson as an ICT tool and the parent complained that the teacher was using Facebook), the head of school assumes a neutral position, not siding with the staff.

There is too much pressure – all this stress and we are still in the beginning of the scholastic year, there needs to be more communication with staff. This job is causing a mental strain.

LSAs are filling in their daily schedule reports and all this is a waste of time, energy and resource. We all know from experience that nobody reads them; whoever wants to observe us in class can go ahead, we have students’ work that is proof that a goal was achieved or not during a lesson. Today we also have the tablet, and mobiles to take visual pictures of pupils’ work, which we can use in their school tablet devices in PowerPoint as proof of their work. But still, we are wasting our time. We need to put our energy more in helping and supporting our students in class.

Moreover, if an LSA has three shared students with different levels s/he needs to adapt the schoolwork, homework and notes to take home on cardboard and highlighted to help their memory. We need money for these resources as every year we have to deal with different disabilities and different year groups. 

‘Honestly I don’t think I’ll last for long’

Primary school teacher, State school

I’m a primary school teacher who has been teaching for just a few years, and honestly I don’t think I’ll be able to last more.

One of the main concerns I have is the infinite number of corrections I have to do, varying from homework to classwork. I rarely do a class correction as it is impossible to do this on a daily basis (creative writing, comprehensions, other worksheets for 24 students).

One may easily say give less homework/classwork. However, I don’t give that much. Writing and comprehension work has to be done and corrected weekly. Proper feedback must be given to students. How else can they learn? Should I just give them back their papers to file and that’s it?

Another concern is the teaching load. I generally have a full day on the go, non-stop. Maths, Maltese, English, Religion, Social Studies, PE, Science, Creative Arts… and collecting money, homework, task explanations, lesson delivery, dealing with daily incidents, solving arguments, getting resources, books… not correcting work, not going to the bathroom, not sitting down! There’s no break time as I am constantly supervising the children or helping them with other things (many things!). I rarely eat my lunch.

Also, paperwork galore, including referrals, the register, attendance – why do I have to mark students as medical or excused days later on iLearn (the online system)? This takes time! This happens during the day in the morning: that means less contact time with the students. This cannot be done while the students are doing classwork as I’ll be going around helping them with their difficulties. It gets done at home.

Primary teachers are always on the go. It’s a very long day for us and it does not stop once we go home. We need to prepare lessons, correct work, answer emails and adapt accordingly. This does not take an hour or two. We need help. We need to feel appreciated. We need to be listened to.

‘I think of other careers I can pursue’

Primary school teacher, State school

After four years at University, I started my career full of enthusiasm but that didn’t last long.

Now, after a number of years teaching primary, I feel so drained and unhappy in my career that I spend most of my time thinking of other careers to pursue. How can I be happy at my place of work when I was forced to go back to class due to shortages of teachers? How can I be motivated when all the work I did during the summer holidays was for nothing? Every morning I step into class with a smile on my face, when, honestly, I just want to quit!

Why should we stay in this profession when:

1. There’s a lack of respect by parents, students and the public in general.

2. The salary is peanuts compared to other professions.

3. Spending our own salary on resources as we don’t have a work resource allowance.

4. We spend holidays and weekends planning ahead and not to mention correcting copybooks, planning exam papers and doing other paperwork after school hours.

5. And when you finally get chosen in an interview, you’ll be sent back to class four days before starting school and without taking into consideration seniority or placing in the interview.

Who is going to teach in these schools when there aren’t enough teachers to fill the posts

Parents expect us to be teachers, parents, counsellors, nurses, policemen and worst of all… babysitters. Not to mention that if a child does not pass, the teacher is to blame, and if the student passes… that’s because s/he is smart.

Our pleas are falling on deaf ears. Why is the government continuously building new schools? Who is going to teach in these schools when there aren’t enough teachers to fill the posts in the school we already have? We don’t need new schools. We need to be respected and treated as professionals. We need a better salary, more help in the classrooms, more opportunities and less paperwork.

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