The problem of the teacher

My friends are turning 40.  Every few days, a childhood friend, a school buddy, someone I’ve known more than half my lifetime, pops up on my facebook-birthday-reminder-calendar with this large and round-numbered anniversary of their birth.  The impact of technology has meant that I’m able to stay in contact – distant, sure, but contact nonetheless – with my school friends and classmates, and to remember and celebrate the effects we’ve had on each other.  I love it.  But.  It overshadows the group of people whose effects since that same childhood have been more profound, but profoundly less acknowledged: my teachers.

New Zealand is in the middle (we hope, though perhaps it’s naively optimistic to believe that we’re now halfway through it) of a teacher shortage crisis.  More than half our primary schools are missing teachers,* though under-reporting may make it more than that.   The salary for a fully trained and qualified teacher has slipped below than the median salary, and the job itself is getting worse.  Parents are assuming less and less responsibility for the behaviour and socialisation of their children, and teachers are becoming more social workers, marriage counsellors, financial consultants, nutritionists, administrative ninjas, and general punching bags to blame for anything wrong in society.  It’s a problem.

At the same time, the government campaigned on a promise to broaden participation in tertiary level education by providing one year fee free.  While I’m glad to have a left-ish government at last, I don’t think that this approach is going to make any kind of appreciable difference to the demographics of students in the tertiary sector.  The knock-on effects of supplying trained people – like teachers – will therefore probably not change either.  If anything, it has become worse, with universities removing staff from Education faculties, signalling clearly that the priorities of these big institutions sit firmly in research rather than community service, let alone student learning.  That’s a rant for another day.  The recent fall of the University of Auckland in rankings highlights the use of more and poorer measures of success.  It’s a problem.

Other countries have tried various means to address this.  The TeachFirst initiative exported to NZ from the UK is admirable, but still requires that the student has exceeded the entry hurdles – importantly including the social and financial barriers – to undergraduate study already.   It’s a good idea, but it doesn’t change much.  And, alarmingly, their own website says that graduates will have greater influence outside the classroom than inside it: “Equipped with an impressive array of skills and experiences you have gained through the programme, it is now up to you to choose whether you to stay in the classroom, or into other sectors where you can have a greater impact.”  Teaching and the life-long influence of good teachers is overlooked even here.  It’s a problem.

Luckily, this morning I had a shower.  And, luckier still, a thought to accompany it.  What if we saw teachers like we saw soldiers, armies, the defense force?  There is clearly an analogy to be made that a good education is a better defense strategy than a fleet of tanks, but I’m actually talking about something more practical.  What if, instead of funding students for one year free study, we used that money instead to mimic the training incentives of our military in sponsoring students to service.  The government funds their study towards being a teacher in return for a certain number of years in service as a teacher after graduation.  The barriers to tertiary education become lowered in a much more meaningful way than the Fee Free programme or TeachFirst because the initial hurdles are removed, and we create a more attractive career entry for people from all demographics and regions.

I realise that this is a one-thought-in-the-shower summary of what is a long-standing and complicated situation, but I’m sick of saying It’s a Problem.  I’ve said that enough already.  It’s time to move on with solving it.

* In an unforseen twist, one of my own ex-students is now the teacher in this class 🙂 Go Michelle!


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