I am a partially sighted teacher, with about 20 per cent vision; a degenerative disease which is hereditary. I am unable to drive.

How is this relevant to education in New Zealand? A lack of sight and the inherent risks and limitations that go with it has shaped my approach to teaching and my philosophy of education and life. I tend to be a non-conformist. Not always by choice, but by necessity.

I have written textbooks in my subject area. The text is 14 font by necessity but this also makes them more user-friendly. My teaching style is very tactile involving substantial group work and games as well as more auditory approaches. These approaches evolved as my vision deteriorated. My students tend to respond well because it is “different”. I seldom use visual aids. I can’t see them. I don’t use IT for presentations but expect students to use it for research. My students achieve very well academically.

I have a year’s leave. This has given me scope to ponder what has been nagging me about the status of teaching in New Zealand.

Teaching has always struggled with the conflict between vocation and profession. Pre-service teacher education tends to emphasise the vocational aspect of teaching often by those who have long since forgone the rigours of classroom teaching. It is a calling, a moral duty to offer unquestioning service. Sadly this is almost in direct conflict with teachers gaining true professional status in this country. Such status needs to be demanded by teachers themselves. It is unlikely to be given easily by politicians or bureaucrats. David Lange showed the unwillingness of politicians to forgo meddling in education. He vetoed the idea of an autonomous education council to provide long-term non-partisan direction in education.

So what constitutes a “professional” teacher? I have no desire to spend my Saturdays on a sideline looking after the offspring of parents who are paid many multiples of my salary. The hoary myth that this somehow enhances your classroom effectiveness bemuses me. Those teachers who choose to share their coaching expertise should be paid accordingly. Some actually are which further compounds inequity in the system. Does this make me “unprofessional”?

The core role of a teacher should be their academic and pastoral roles in the classroom. This core role has always been ill-defined to the detriment of teachers.

Last year I attended a forum of political parties discussing schooling In New Zealand. The various candidates emphasised how much they valued teaching “as a profession”. Their overuse of the term irked me.

A profession controls entry into its own ranks. It ensures meaningful professional development. It effectively polices its members to ensure status is maintained. It may even control appraisal. It has meaningful input into professional practice such as curriculum and assessment.  A profession could also provide a pathway for members who don’t want to move into administrative roles.

One of the key issues this newly appointed education taskforce could examine is why there is a need for teacher unions as well as a sham professional teaching body. The sham has been set up by politicians to ensure it is largely apolitical and therefore non-threatening. It is a facade as a professional body.

The task force should also examine the role of the Education Review Office. It was initially set up as an information gathering body to ensure parents had fuller information about the market for schools. Its role has been punitive rather than supportive. It’s a sad relic of an earlier age when competition between schools was supposed to ensure efficient outcomes in the market for education.

There is huge scope for positive change.  But the current lack of professional status for teachers in New Zealand remains a fundamental problem for our schooling system.

Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom. He has written several Economics texts. He recommends the book Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan relating to the above discussion.

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