I started teaching in New Zealand in the early 1990s. I had spent several years as a senior instructor at Outward Bound in Australia. During that time I spent months at a time in the bush inflicting pain and suffering on army officer cadets from Duntroon Military Academy. It was a great job for a Kiwi.
When I arrived at Teachers College in Dunedin they sat us in a circle. We had to share the reasons why we had chosen teaching as a career. When I said I liked the idea of 12 weeks’ holiday a year I was admonished by the lecturer. I am one of the few from that group still teaching.
I love and hate the job. My background was in outdoor education. Yet my first teaching position involved teaching Economics to senior levels. I felt totally inadequate for the first few years. In my second year I was given the bottom Year 10 maths class. I could just control them but struggled to teach them. It almost broke me.
Teaching is a strange job. Everyone has experienced schooling so has an opinion on teaching. But unless you have experienced the job you know very little about the reality of this strange occupation.
To do it well requires an unusual mix of characteristics. It requires stamina to front up and motivate a sometimes reluctant audience hour after hour, day after day. It requires constant performance. It requires intellect to master a syllabus, or in the case of primary teachers, a range of subjects. It requires patience and humour and the ability to be a clear communicator. It requires high degrees of literacy and numeracy.
During my time in the mainstream school system my roles have ranged. I have been a Head of Department. I have been a lecturer in teacher training in my subject areas. I have written text books in my subject. I have written countless articles on my subject for the mainstream media. I have covered the broad spectrum of teaching at various levels in New Zealand.
Yet teaching in New Zealand frustrates the hell out of me. Teachers are their own worst enemy. They fail to appreciate that politicians will never deliver for them. They need to realise that we still retain colonial attitudes towards formal education. The essence of this attitude is that students need to be force fed a curriculum in order to join the workforce as soon as possible.
Teachers are meant to facilitate this process. For this reason they have little control over what they teach. They have little control over how they teach and assess it or their own professional development. They have no control over entry standards into their own occupation. Their pay and conditions reflect this. This ensures it is an occupation that is generally unattractive to the best and brightest. It is not a high status occupation because it lacks the attributes of a real profession such as medicine or law or accounting. Yet quality teaching is crucial to our future national prosperity.
Teaching is not a profession in New Zealand. It is an occupation controlled by political whim.
The Picot report that underpinned the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms from the late 1980s was explicit in this. The reforms were designed to avoid “provider capture”. This meant teachers should have little input into the education process in New Zealand. A key aspect of these reforms was meant to be the establishment of a non-partisan group to provide long-term strategic vision for education in New Zealand. This key clause was vetoed by Prime Minister Lange. So our schooling system has remained a political football ever since and this is costing us dearly. There is no long-term vision or strategy. We lurch from policy to policy depending on the government of the day. It is a really bad way to achieve long-term educational success for our young people.
We are living in an age where a relevant well-funded education system is crucial to our national prosperity. Teachers likely need to be more accountable in their professional performance but they also need to be paid a lot more if they are good at what they do. Our current schooling system could best be described as de-professionalising for those who teach in it. It could be argued that it has been deliberately designed this way. Yet our politicians continue to regard education as an expense rather than an investment. Teachers need to stop being martyrs and start getting angry and articulating positive changes. No one else is going to do it for them. The future of our young people depends on this.
Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peters College in Epsom.