Regardless of anything that may come of tomorrow’s strike, primary teacher Anita Horsley has already booked her ticket out of New Zealand. She’s attending a job fair in Melbourne in January, in hopes of finding a placement at an international school somewhere out there in the big wide world.
Anita stresses that this isn’t her ‘big OE’. A self-described 38-year-old ‘homebody’, she’s more concerned with cultivating some roots here at home than finding herself.
“I’m sure it will be a great experience, but I’m just sorry that it’s come to this. I can’t get ahead basically, there’s just no way I can afford a house or anything like that, especially living in Auckland.”
Anita has been a teacher at Riverhead School in northwest Auckland for three years, the same school she found work at after she qualified. She says she’s a ‘late bloomer’, having made the decision to follow her dream of being a teacher after plenty of life experience, which she thinks stands her in good stead in the classroom. Anita put in the hard yards at Auckland University between 2013 and 2016. When she applied for the job at Riverhead, things were very different.
“I found it really hard to find a job when I first graduated. I applied for many positions throughout the Auckland region. Some schools got back to me to tell me I’d been unsuccessful, but lots didn’t bother. Now beginning teachers are being sought after straight out of university, but just three years ago, I would have taken anything.”
Anita says she knows that her principal would love to keep her, and she’d love to stay, but her predicament has become acute – she finds herself simply unable to even get started on the life she wants for herself and her partner.
“If I stay, this time next year I’ll be in the same situation. At 38 years of age, I live in Whenuapai with my parents.
“My brother is a secondary teacher who’s been teaching overseas in Doha, Qatar, for years. When I was doing my degree, maybe I had it in mind to do the same, but you know what? After being at Riverhead for three years, I don’t want to leave. That’s the thing – I’ve grown a connection with 390 students, I’ve made connections with them. I’m leaving because I want a life, and financially that’s just impossible. And I’m sure that lots of other beginning teachers are thinking the same.”
“I knew going into teaching that it wasn’t a well-paid job. But teachers don’t do this job for the money. I knew it was going to be a hard struggle and stuff like that, but I can’t even save a hundred bucks a week, living in Auckland. That’s why I’m living with my parents – so I can save money, so I can go overseas, and have a more realistic chance of coming back eventually.
“I’ve got family and friends here, I’m a homebody – I don’t want to turn my back on New Zealand, but I feel like I have to, to have a chance at some independence, and to make a normal life for myself.”
If it looks like a crisis, and feels like a crisis…
The Minister of Education said in a recent interview that he’s not prepared to call the current teacher shortage a ‘crisis’. Begging to differ is Dr Ngaire Hoben, Associate Dean and Head of Initial Teacher Education at Auckland University.
“We’ve been trying to tell the Ministry about the patterns we’re seeing for some years. None of this should be a surprise to them. I just don’t understand, it perplexes me that we can go from oversupply a few years ago to the crisis we’re now seeing.”
Ngaire reports that Auckland University doesn’t have it quite as bad as other institutions that have reported a 40 per cent drop in enrolment – at least among primary students, ECE numbers have been worse – but it wouldn’t be far off.
Ngaire says that the factors underpinning this crisis aren’t murky – people who would have considered becoming a teacher see a lot of responsibility and workload, and a not a lot of reward. As a society, says Ngaire, we all need to look at why that’s been allowed to happen.
“I think one of the main factors is an absolute lack of public esteem for teachers and teaching. People are not seeing teaching as a first choice occupation because teachers are just simply not valued.
“When you look at first-year salaries, as I have over the last few days, for starting teaching and sustaining a family – or even sustaining yourself – they’re just absolutely miserable, how can you do it?”
As is repeated by everyone involved in this story, Ngaire says that teachers don’t do what they do for the money – teachers, she says, get an enormous amount of job satisfaction from the classroom. But she says that what’s crippling the profession in these times is workload, and constant demands for accountability – that she says come first from the public. Coupled with low remuneration, it’s easy to see why someone who might have made for a passionate and determined teacher will think more than twice about taking out a student loan and heading for one of the courses Ngaire oversees.
“We know that the quality of the teacher is really important. But I think this mania for accountability has gone too far – now we tend to lay the blame for anything and everything at the teachers feet.
Ngaire wonders how as a society, it’s come to this.
“There’s been a couple of articles out there lately that have looked at poverty, and they’ve used single parent teachers as the exemplars. I just looked at that and thought ‘my God’.”
Industrial action not taken lightly
NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart has had a busy week. The first strike in the education sector for many years clearly isn’t a decision that’s been taken lightly, but the current crisis can’t be allowed to continue, she says. The steep slump in numbers signing on to teacher training courses is reason enough for alarm, but we also need to consider the number of teachers like Anita who are leaving the profession after a handful of years, because they view the profession as incompatible with the life goals we as New Zealanders still rightly see as something we should all be able to attain.
“We might get people into teaching, but we don’t keep them. People like myself went into teaching as a career, we went in for the long haul. Teachers build their craft over the years, and that’s what we want to see, because it benefits our young people.”
The message from the government is that it is listening, and doing what it can to address the work-life balance issue that, along with remuneration, are cited as the big disincentives that are fuelling a worsening crisis. Minister Hipkins was quick off the mark in making good on a central campaign promise to kill National Standards, which he points to as evidence of willingness to enter into dialogue. Lynda says that’s not a silver bullet in terms of easing what is perceived as an onerous workload, that swings the balance toward the ‘con’ column for anyone considering a career in primary education.
“We’re really pleased that National Standards is gone. We acknowledge and applaud the current government for doing that, that’s wonderful. However there are a lot of other things that impact on workload for teachers.
“There are significantly challenging students in classrooms that teachers are spending an awful lot of time on differentiating programmes for, without the support that they need for those children. That means that teachers are working many, many hours in the evenings and on their weekends. They’re dealing with children who have got foetal alcohol syndrome, they may have suffered trauma, all of those things. We actually want to give every single child the very best that we possibly can.
“If you’re in a classroom with 32 children, and within that classroom you have a number of children who have significantly challenging behaviours, or significant learning difficulties, then you need to be able to give those children more resourcing, and more help. So workload must be seen as much, much bigger and broader than just getting rid of National Standards.”
Lynda says she wants the public to know that no one involved takes tomorrow’s industrial action lightly. But perhaps the public has a couple of pertinent questions that she can help clear up: given the government’s apparent concessions in the form of the death of National Standards, and it’s avowed willingness to engage, is this a government that the NZEI thinks it can work with? Because obviously industrial action would suggest not. And secondly, why now? Lynda’s answer, very possibly not unintentionally, recalls the government’s key election marketing pitch to the country.
“None of our teachers and principals take industrial action lightly. It’s not something that we want to do, it’s something that our members say we need to do, because we need to show that we are in a crisis – we keep hearing that we’re not in a crisis, but we are. This is a sign of the huge frustration that’s in the sector. We’ve come into this negotiation space with limited claims, which may have significant cost implications, but that’s because teaching has been underfunded for the last nine years.”
Others have wondered whether the industrial action is some sort of an early-term message to the government, precisely because there is perceived cause for hope – some sort of double-down scenario: ‘if you think you can continue to paper over the cracks as the previous government did, think again.’ Lynda says the members of the NZEI don’t feel like there are any remaining options, and that it’s just unfortunate that this government finds itself in the breach after just months in the job.
“What I’m hearing from principals is that the tank’s empty. We’re at the point now where this just needs to be fixed. That’s the message to the government. We can’t do stop-gap measures any longer. We have to look at the solutions that are being put forward, now.
“We’re pleased to have the government that we have. But unfortunately they’ve inherited the mess. Every government though has the responsibility to fix what is in front of them. We look to this government with hope, but we look to this government expecting them to reinstate education to the place and the space that it should be in. It’s not that we can’t work with this government, absolutely not. What we’re saying is, this is where we’re at, you have the wherewithal to address these issues. Come on, lets just do this.”
If they’ve got a pulse
Matt Skilton, principal at Tahatai Coast School in Papamoa, Tauranga, says that the Western Bay of Plenty Principals’ Association is a fantastic vehicle for stimulating professional conversations among his regional peers. Those conversations recently seem to keep returning to a theme causing big headaches among Tauranga principals, a malaise that really shouldn’t be affecting an affluent and desirable corner of the country: how do we find more teachers, when we’re getting one or two applicants for most jobs advertised?
“We’ve got a growing region, new schools being built, and strong new entrant growth. We’ve just opened our fifth new entrant class, because of roll growth, and other schools around here are experiencing that too. That really drains resources, and before you know it, you’re at the bottom of the barrel so to speak, in terms of what you’d normally have as surplus staff.
“[At our latest meeting] we also talked about a rumour we’ve heard that a new school in Auckland had just 11 applicants across the entire school. That number would probably include those non-New Zealand trained teachers who may have applied from overseas countries such as India and South Africa.
“There is this shared understanding that we’re all experiencing shortages. Many of these schools are very reputable schools, and we talked about say, a country school in the middle of East Cape somewhere – it must be really dire for them.
“It’s quite scary. I feel that part of the problem in terms of why we’re not seeing these applicants coming through, especially coming out of ITE, is that the sector has gone through the last nine or ten years under the last government, trying to create transparent classrooms with such high levels of accountability, and a narrower curriculum, that they’ve sort of forgotten the focus of a primary school – that to me is generating really good memories, and engaging kids in authentic learning, and actually seeing the curriculum as something beyond reading, writing and maths. I think that because of that, the sector has been talked about negatively, and put people off the idea of a career in teaching.
“We’ve had as low as one applicant applying for jobs we’ve advertised. Thank goodness that person would have got the job even if thirty had applied – so we got away with it, by good luck not good management!”
“We used to have 140 applying, only a year or two ago, to a school like ours. Now I’m hearing principals say they’ll take applicants if they have a pulse – which of course is a facetious way of saying ‘that’s how thin on the ground the situation has become’.”