Even in pursuit of goals that many support, and in a favourable political environment, albeit with fiscal constraints, it is still easy to deliver a lesson on how to lose friends and not influence people, as primary teachers may be discovering.
Around 400,000 students and their families were affected nationwide by the one day primary teachers strike on 15 August, as were many employers.
“Industrial action”? In the learning coalmines and the dark satanic mills of pedagogy? In the post-industrial 21st Century? By tertiary educated people perfectly able to articulate a compelling case via old and new media and work through multiple political and community channels in ways that don’t inconvenience their natural allies and alienate others?
Rather than thinking outside the soapbox, the NZEI, the primary teachers’ union, appears to have simply dusted off anachronistic teacher salary campaigns and pushed go. The front page headline in The Press on 16 August was “Industrial action could escalate, teachers warn”. It was alongside a recycling story.
On 29 August, far from the front page, NZEI president Lynda Stuart was quoted as saying that primary school teachers were disappointed not to have a new pay offer two weeks after striking. From inside a rapidly shrinking non-painted corner Stuart said they had expected a new offer by now. After all, the nurses’ negotiations earlier this year produced a new pay offer roughly every two to three weeks.
Two further days of talks were planned.
Not The Art of the Deal
Not playing a trump card, Stuart said the union would not consider opening a vote on further strikes until it had a new offer from the Ministry of Education.
The Ministry had confirmed the day before that it hadn’t changed its offer of pay rises over three years ranging from 6.1 per cent to 14.7 per cent, making the entry salary $55,030 for university educated teachers and bringing the maximum classroom salary to $80,600.
NZEI is going for a 16 per cent pay rise over two years, among other claims to improve staffing and workloads it says have contributed to a national teacher shortage.
While the median wage has outpaced teachers’ salaries over time, as the NZEI has demonstrated, the Ministry of Education points out that the latter has outpaced the Labour Cost Index (LCI) which it prefers to use for comparisons.
Perhaps there needs to be a new measure, linked to an agreed percentage of an MP’s salary?
All Black role models?
Meanwhile primary teachers nationwide donned black to express “frustration” about the lack of a new offer after a whole fortnight had elapsed. For their learners this may not be the best example of exercising patience and self-control on the grounds that good things take time, especially with a newish government still shaking down.
Hopefully there are not also too many all-white exemplars like the mob of bullying sheep in Oat the Goat, the interactive bi-lingual anti-bullying tool which is proving a big hit in schools.
Goodbye Mr Chips
Placards were mainly well punctuated but hardly emphatic: “A school is not a McDonald’s. Stop upsizing our classes and workload.” “The 80s called they want their pay back.” “We are not walking out on our kids. We are walking for them.”
At least they didn’t trot out the old corporal punishment canard, “This is going to hurt me more than you”, though it may be true.
At one placard stop a passionate parent spoke in the third person about the great work of teachers, comments most of us would support in most cases. The accolade rang a little hollow when it turned out that she, herself, was also a teacher.
Addressing the converted rather than the big issues is great therapy but not very effective. Rather than ritual triennial salary war dances why not a more effective on-going strategy to develop cross-party consensus by engaging the wider public in an informed conversation about enhancing the vital status of teaching?
If there have to be painted up public appearances how about doing them on a Saturday morning? Not the best time to get TV traction, with or without a tractor mounting the stairs of Parliament, but a great time to interact with the community in a positive way while using social media to disseminate video and other messages.
Speaking pre-strike the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins said that the Government’s current offer was already double, on average, what the primary school sector received by way of increases under the National Government.
The Minister said he’d prefer the strike was cancelled in favour of further bargaining and discussion on the issues. He would, of course, after a pretty good opening offer. But he had a point about premature direct action. Well before negotiations even started in the current primary teachers round there were rumblings of trouble at rumour mill.
A fortnight before the surprise announcement on 19 October 2017 of the formation of the new Coaltion Government by Winston Peters, teacher unions were warning of likely strikes to seek pay rises costing “hundreds of millions of dollars”, including an extra allowance for teaching in areas of expensive housing such as Auckland.
Targets were obviously being prepared pre-election for the next pay round with a National-led government likely to be in the crosshairs. The winner turned out to be a hybrid horse of different colours.
A Labour-led Government is usually a time for advances in education, if it is in power long enough. There could be unintended political repercussions for Labour (think 1960 and 1975) in teachers going for a bigger initial hit than is wise in the circumstances and helping to scare some other horses, rather than going for significant progress now but playing a longer-term game.
With the Government facing the most aggressive push for public sector rate wage hikes in recent times and private sector employers sitting watching nervously on the sidelines, teachers took a big risk sending themselves off early.
Losing the War?
There are undoubtedly endemic quantity and quality issues in teacher and support staff supply, even if the Ministry has played them down in the current negotiations.
South Auckland Middle School principal Alwyn Poole argues the case on Stuff that “striking teachers have already lost the war, even if they win a small pay battle”.
“The current collective agreement round for teachers takes us back to the 1970s, and teachers and their unions (with the approval of their members) are screwing this up very, very badly. They have already lost even if they ‘win’…How on earth does all this moaning and complaining inspire the next generation into this amazing career? It doesn’t. The unions are making it embarrassing to want to be a teacher.”
He argues that it is well past time for another bargaining agent under the Employment Contracts Act – “something like a Professional Association of Academic Teachers (PAAT) – that has a high bar in terms of qualifications and stated ethics. This will elevate the profession and give the better teachers an opportunity to seek their best pay and conditions, as is possible in all other professions”.
Members of a Profession?
“… the committee considers that teaching is a profession and that teachers are, and should be encouraged to regard themselves as, members of a profession.” 1978 Marshall Report
For many teaching is a vocation. But to what extent do teachers-and more importantly others-see teaching as a profession?
Auckland Point School principal Sonya Hockley said on strike day that the most important issue faced by teachers was “raising the profile of the profession so that it was viewed as a valuable career option for graduates.” But as Alwyn Poole said, having other colleagues throughout the country trashing the job doesn’t help.
What might help lift professional self-esteem and recruitment is an emphasis on the real value of teaching and the mix of tangible and intangible rewards. While underlining the attributes and skills necessary for teachers to succeed it is fair to touch on some of the benefits of the challenging job. These include reasonable job security for most established teachers and family friendly “at school” hours and weeks.
This doesn’t mean glossing over the amount of homework necessary to prepare an ongoing diet of food for thought for hungry young minds, nor playing down the undoubted challenges of the classroom, ancient or modern.
For balance, what about a bit of emphasis on the satisfaction of seeing young eyes and minds open and brains develop? Think of Ernest Rutherford’s headmaster at Fox Hill School, who first sparked Rutherford’s interest in science, watching his protegee’s later progress at Canterbury College and Cambridge University.
The intangibles have to be complemented by appropriate salary levels, adequate support staff and opportunities for professional development in a positive learning environment. But salary is not necessarily a big factor at point of entry, though it may be in terms of retention. NZEI ranked salaries fourth on its 2017 10 point plan to solve Auckland’s teacher shortage.
Many ex-teachers in all walks of life demonstrate that teaching is an excellent springboard for other things because of the skills and experience gained.
Reg Revans in “The Learning Organisarion” says: “For an organisation to survive its rate of learning must be equal to, or greater than, the rate of change in its external environment.”
Collective pay negotiations are the raison d’etre of the NZEI and PPTA and their permanent employees. The NZEI got off on the wrong foot in the current negotiating dance. Shooting itself again in the same appendage won’t help its survival prospects.
Perhaps it is time for the NZEI to do some self-reflection and reinvention to enable it to play an enhanced leadership role by building cross-party consensus about the value of education.
Spreading change by positive diffusion, like two gases meeting and mingling, takes time. But being the opposite of confrontation it works effectively at the molecular level.
In their role as knowledge navigators, teachers are more important than ever in showing learners how to navigate the ocean of information while avoiding the icebergs of misinformation.
Research shows that countries with a greater proportion of the population tertiary educated generally have higher levels of innovation and productivity. Opportunities to learn and to apply that learning result in both public and private good. Education provision in New Zealand is already undergoing some rebalancing to reflect that duality.
The foundations for lifelong learning and adaptability need to be laid down early.
From 1990 Finland brought about a revaluation of the Finnish public’s estimation of the teaching profession through tougher entry standards and a cross-sector consensus of the key role of education and training in a fast evolving society.
This forward-looking approach to adapting to the rapidly changing world and learning to innovate was demonstrated pre-iPhone by the way Nokia shifted its focus from pulp and paper to cellphone technology.
In this country there are calls to lift the entry bar for teacher recruitment: “Given the future capability teachers require…there is a strong case for lifting entry requirements for academic capability generally, literacy and numeracy, and content knowledge that supports teachers’ ability to work with the relevant curriculum…..having high entry standards may help to reposition teaching more generally as a high status profession and one that it is a privilege to enter.”
Given the increasing importance of education for the future of this country and all its citizens, it would be a pity if the current negotiating imbroglio deflected the focus away from much needed attitude, value and system changes.