Floating around Facebook today is yet another inflammatory statement by a well-known media outlet using Australia’s place in the OECD rankings as a way to drum up attention for their show, but that also undermines the good work that goes on every single day in Australia’s educational institutions.

The caption reads: ‘What are we doing wrong in our schools?’

Of course upon reading this, anybody who is a teacher (or knows a teacher, or is aware of the frequent teacher bashing in Australian media), probably responded like me and felt instantly offended. My mind immediately began listing all the evidence to refute the underhanded assertion that schools, and the people who work in them, are the problem.

Within moments I had done what any self-respecting teacher would do: shared the post to my personal Facebook profile along with an angry emoji and caption of my own.

Perhaps it’s observation bias on my part, but it seems to me that posts, articles and TV segments like this are becoming increasingly common. They get shared thousands of times and the comment section is usually a highly agitated affair.

What a combination for the media outlet! Why wouldn’t they want to attract such attention and generate such activity on social media? They’ve got to keep the advertisers happy, after all.

It would be too easy to dismiss this as simply another example of sensationalism in the media. It is that, but it’s more than that too.

Hands up if you are a teacher and nobody has ever made a comment to you about how easy your job is, working only 6 hours a day and having all those holidays?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

And how often do you fire up at any comment like that, either face to face or on social media?

If you answered yes, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I have been guilty of this time and time again.

But over time I’ve come to reflect on this reaction and realised it’s not actually effective at all. And the more I observe and participate in the broader conversation around the social and political status quo of education in Australia (and by extension, the world), the more I think that angry reactions like my knee-jerk Facebook share are part of the problem.

Teaching has a PR problem
If you read the comment section (don’t, though, for your own sake) on any article online about education in Australia today, you will see comments of ‘another whinging teacher’ repeated over and over again. Usually these are troll-style replies from non-teachers to an actual teacher’s comment about the realities of teaching.

Often, the teacher’s original comment is well written and gives a number of real examples of the challenges we face individually and as a whole profession. But time after time I’ve seen not only the original teacher, but others who chime in to defend, engage with the troll in a less-than-professional, decidedly ‘whingy’ manner. Not every time of course, but often, in an attempt to refute the ‘whinging teacher’ comment, they end up proving it instead. Sadly, at times, I’ve actually been ashamed to be associated with teaching after some of the ways I’ve seen teachers behave online in comment wars.

The thing is, the trolls who post ‘whinging teacher’ comments to begin with aren’t actually trolls, but fellow Australians who have accepted the low status of teachers that our media often portrays. And by engaging with them in a whinging manner, we are only confirming their views and undermining ourselves.

So how do we overcome this PR problem?

1. The first step is to simply avoid reading comment sections on anything to do with teaching. It’s so tempting, but it’s not a productive use of your time and doesn’t actually solve any of the issue. Reading comment sections only leaves me feeling angry, upset and completely demotivated. Once I realised that, and stopped scrolling through to them, my life truly improved!

2. Equally, don’t comment or engage with the other commenters. If you want to genuinely respond to the author or media outlet, an email or letter is a better option. For a start, you avoid having trolls reply to you and getting drawn into a heated comment war. But also, taking the time to write a formal response means you can really think through what you want to say and hopefully you will be calmer than if you angrily reply to comments along with all the other keyboard warriors. A formal response also avoids playing into the ‘make things go viral’ game the media plays and will hopefully mean your opinion will be taken more seriously by them too.

3. Let go of the idea that you are ever going to convince someone of the truth about teaching through your comments or complaints. They don’t get it and likely never will. The more you argue with them and tell stories about how tough it is, the more you confirm their view that teachers are ‘soft’, ‘lazy’ and ‘whingers’. WE know it’s hard and that there are a lot of problems in the system. WE know that it does not make sense economically, let alone educationally or socio-emotionally, for our country to continue to ignore the high rate of teacher attrition and widening gap between the educational haves and have-nots. WE know that teachers work extremely hard and deserve more respect from both the community and the media. But we have to let our actions speak because our whinging words aren’t working.

4. As for our actions, focus on the ointment, not the fly. What you focus on expands. If you allow yourself to focus on the flies and frustrations, that’s all you will notice and pretty soon you will find there are more and more of them. Make a conscious effort to shift your focus to all the good things about teaching. Notice how much ointment there really is, even on the days there are a lot of flies. Remember the reason you became a teacher in the first place, make a list of all the best things about it, connect with colleagues to share positive stories and disengage from the negative stories as much as possible.

5. Be the change you wish you see in the world. I know it’s clichéd but if we want the general status quo of the teaching profession to change, we have to start with our own behaviour. This was a hard lesson for me to learn and I’ve got another post coming up about it soon. Be the best, most positive example you can be, and discuss this with your teaching buddies too. We can’t control anybody else’s behaviour or opinion, so let’s be the change together!