BACKGROUND: Teachers can be at risk of exposure to psychosocial hazards. Improving workplace safety for teachers, within a 'systems thinking' context, should begin with understanding the work. OBJECTIVE: While much is known about what teachers do, little is known about how teachers conceptualize 'work'. Knowing how teachers conceptualize 'work' provides a reference point for exploring attitudes towards work health and safety. METHODS: The paper presents a review of the literature, an overview of heuristic methodology describing and interpreting the lived experience of teachers as workers, and analysis of teachers' accounts of work. The heuristic approach allowed the author to compare their lived experiences and perceptions as a teacher with the lived experience of teachers in the NSW school system. RESULTS: Teaching is work that is both rewarding and hazardous. It is argued that teachers draw on battle motifs, perceive a need for safety within a workplace context, and have an ability to conduct personal risk assessments. CONCLUSIONS: Findings from the study provided direction for the second phase of the project that is aimed at exploring the ways in which teachers conceptualize psychosocial work-related hazards and the extent to which they are visible in teaching practice and policy.