Rebecca West, foundation deputy principal at South Rock State School in Queensland and Top 10 Finalist of the 2021 Global Teacher Prize, knows well the potential for burnout and overwhelm that can strike early on in teachers’ careers. 

And having noticed the common challenges and pitfalls faced by newcomers to the profession, West has outlined 10 of her top tips for new teachers in her book, Talkin' Chalk

West says the classroom – and the demands placed on teachers – are a very different beast to the scene she entered into over 20 years ago. 

“We didn't have the workload then that we had now. We weren't going through curriculum changes at that point. 

“We weren't going through these massively high expectations to report data. There wasn't even NAPLAN when I was teaching.

“So there would be was not the same workload when I hit the five-year mark that teachers are currently dealing with now,” West tells EducationHQ

Yet the intensity of the profession has stung sharply at various points, she admits. 

“There's definitely been other times in the career where you feel it and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, have I reached my limit?  Is this too much?’”

West says that much of the deflation felt by teachers can also come down to poor representation of the profession in the public realm and policy decisions that don’t add up. 

“There was that research that came out that said the majority of media articles are negative about teachers, and when we’re losing all sorts of supports and there’s funding changes (it can be hard).

“And even in the media at the moment, the current campaign around funding for schools, when you hear things like schools are struggling for resources, and yet other schools are getting swimming pools and things like that, it can be extremely demoralising,” West reflects. 

Determined to help as many early career teachers as possible get off to a flying start from day one, West says Talkin' Chalk is designed as a practical ‘how-to’ resource guide that comes with unfussy tips and tricks that can be picked up and implemented right away. 

With chapters including ‘how to plan your classroom-set up’, planning for short-term and long-term organisation, setting expectations, being kind to the relief teacher, and persevering and reflecting on practice, the school leader says the book taps into some key teaching wisdoms and common areas of struggle. 

“I felt like [these] were like the some of the basic things that they should learn very quickly, that didn't necessarily need a heavy and in depth course, to do it,” she says. 

“It's just these short, sharp, simple tips that I think would help alleviate their workload and get them off to a good start at the beginning of their career.” 

West says Talkin Chalk is designed as a practical ‘how-to’ resource guide with unfussy tips and tricks that new teachers can pick up and implement right away. 

Writing programs consumes the biggest slice of teachers’ workload, West says, and so a chapter is also dedicated to how to get the ball rolling in writing lesson plans and learning units which can be further developed with input from colleagues. 

Building solid relationships and effective communication styles are also critical in those sometimes shaky early days, West says. 

“I think it's a bit daunting for a beginning teacher, whether they're young, or whether they're experienced and have been working in other industries before.

“It's very overwhelming to join a new group of people that you're working with, and be in that adult space with different personalities and your own personal styles and complexities.

“So, there's some tips in there around how to manage cooperation, coordination with your colleagues and what that can look like if you're asking for help and operating in a space where there's lots of different people…” 

Another chapter discussing the importance of perseverance and personal reflection on practice intends to warn newbies of a reality you can always count on in teaching: ongoing change. 

“We know education is consistently changing, like, all the time,” West says. 

“The classroom that I had when I started teaching 20-plus years ago was very different to the classrooms we're seeing now. 

“And I think part of the burnout of some teachers has been, they probably weren't prepared for the constant changes that come into the system…”

Just in the last five years West notes schools have seen the adoption of the science of reading and new ways of operating in an inclusive classroom. 

Student wellbeing has also risen to the fore, and communities are “much more complex than what we’ve seen before”, West adds. 

“Even since I've written the book, now we've got a cost-of-living crisis. It's such an impact on all of our families, and that impact on what we do in schools now is quite significant.” 

When teachers aren’t mentally prepared to alter their practice, that’s when the burden of the job can really start to weigh down, West warns. 

“If you come in thinking ‘Oh, this is what teaching is, and this is what it's going to be like for my career’, that can be quite daunting for some people to go, ‘Oh, I've got to change each year, I've got to adapt, I've got to grow, I've got to change what I do for the different kids I've got in my space – I can't just pick up the same thing I did last year and then do it again’.”

When starting out, West says she escaped the throes of burnout by taking on an array of extra-curricular coaching roles. 

“That almost became my hobby, which is probably not the best thing to advocate for. 

“We should be advocating that people take a mental break from the workplace, but that was, I guess, my thing that kept me fuelled,” she shares. 

It was through running a 60-plus performing student choir, and coaching basketball, soccer, softball and Oztag teams, that West had the chance to connect with a wider network of teaching colleagues and “hear about these fascinating things they were doing in other schools”. 

“I think that collegiality of meeting other people in other schools kept the passion burning through,” she says. 

Since the book came out West has heard from many early career and preservice teachers who have got in touch to say it made them ‘feel better’ about the job at hand. 

“Funnily enough, I've even had experienced teachers contact me who said, ‘I was reading it to support you, and I actually got some really good suggestions out of it’.

“I've only had positive feedback from everyone. I haven't had anyone come back and go, ‘Oh my God, what a load of garbage’, which would be a bit gutting,” West laughs. 

Packed with editable templates, images and diagrams for teachers to adapt for their own needs, Talkin' Chalk is not just about ‘telling people how to teach’, the educator adds. 

“Any teachers that would ever want to follow up on anything from the book, if it's confusing, or if they are keen for more information, I’m all over social media. I'll answer anyone who sends out an inquiry.”

West posts on Instagram @talkin_chalk_, Facebook and YouTube