The essential element missing from the teachers’ dispute

School teacher and student high five each other

The key thing in working with young people is not whether you are a ‘teacher’. It is whether you are a GOOD teacher and want to get even better. Judging by New Zealand?s domestic results – the declines in literacy and numeracy, the massive gaps between ethnicities and deciles – our 48,000 teaching professionals have huge improvements to make. Using international comparisons ? for example, Unicef?s Innocenti report that placed the New Zealand profession at 33rd in the developed world at overcoming socio-economic disadvantage – a Royal Commission into teacher quality should be required (and into the ministry?s management along with it).

The calibre of our teachers is the essential element missing from the discourse around the pay dispute as the teacher unions act like the greedy seagulls from Finding Nemo and treat Minister Hipkins as a clownfish washed up on the dock. Their threats to carry the dispute well into 2019 confirm this, and the opportunities for a new government to bring systemic improvement for our young people are ebbing away.

It is anecdotal but two of my children went to one of New Zealand?s most ‘successful’ boys’ schools. I asked them once what made a good teacher. I then asked how many of those kinds of teachers did they have in their combined 10 years at that school. They came up with a total of six.

Collective contracts for teaching systemically organise the profession upon a myth. That is the deceit that a piece of paper or registration process creates a homogeneous profession and the only real distinguishing feature is how long you have been at the job. The acknowledged difficulties around performance pay is used as a buffer against talking about quality at all, because it is in the interests of the unions to avoid cracking the thin veneer of unity within the profession.

Good teachers aim at continuously improving. They make mistakes. Sometimes they push too hard, sometimes not hard enough. Sometimes they disagree with parents, sometimes with other staff. They reflect and go back again the next day to do better.

Good teachers never count the hours worked and most certainly would never publicly complain about it on social media. It is not how many hours you work, it is how good you were in those hours. I would much rather have a fabulous classroom teacher with excellent time management working 35 hours per week than a body in front of a class resenting their job and claiming to take 70 hours of Murphy?s Law time each and every week of the year. Most school car-parks are pretty empty by 4 pm – 10% of the people doing 90% of the work – the rule applies in many of our schools. Some people are working too hard, but often it can also be because others are not pulling their weight but know they can piggyback on the collective contract and that school leadership has no means to do anything about it.

The characteristics of a good teacher can be developed; they are not innate. Last month I attended a John Hattie lecture. I have been in teaching since 1991 and Hattie immediately had me rethinking strategies to improve the student experience and outcome ? as well as family engagement.

A second myth being framed in these disputes is that the primary source of workload is a minister/ministry issue. It isn?t; it is a school leadership issue. Even class size fits here. Schools are funded on a per-student basis but are able to use the operational funding to alter this in accordance with their priorities. There is significant waste of funding, and 30% of schools in New Zealand do not have the financial skill sets to stay within their budgets. The volume and timing of meetings within schools is to do with leadership, and huge efficiencies can be created. The key to reducing teacher workload and improving conditions of work is a school’s leadership ? not the minister.

Teaching is not a trivial pursuit. Sometimes it is simply 24/7. At a school I taught at, I was the first to receive a call that a young student had died doing a part-time job at the weekend. I spent long hours in a hospital and by his bed when a young man from Argentina broke his neck while playing against the 1st XV I coached. I had to drag a boy from 400m out in the ocean after he had a seizure. I have worked with staff while they have lost loved ones or despaired over their own children?s experiences or family breakups. I have supported families at funerals. You can?t quantify these things. They are a part of the calling that you earn the privilege to be a part of through your tireless and well organised day-to-day work, where you never treat children and families as a chore or your job as a burden. And, for the record, children are by no means worse than they were 25 years ago, nor has the job become more difficult.

To get the wins that will benefit our children from the current disputes, teachers need to back away from Minister Hipkins and have a good look at themselves and the organisation of their schools. Good teachers deserve significant pay but also need to be explaining to the public ? the parents and taxpayers – how they will continue to improve. Those that are just clipping the ticket or are trying hard but not getting it right need to frame their argument around a willingness to develop.

Rhetoric on the quality of teachers and school provision and the means to improve should be front and centre alongside the issue of pay. The Minister won?t bring it up, as he is loath to be seen criticising his ?friends?. Therefore the profession needs to do it.


by Alwyn Poole