This article first appeared on ABC Online Opinion on 5th September 2008
As NSW teachers push for further industrial action in their pay claims, and as their colleagues from other states prepare to fight the Federal Government’s education reforms, it’s perhaps time to take a closer look at the difficult and often cloistered life of a teacher. I taught in public primary and secondary schools for 15 years before diving into the muddy pond of business. In recent times, I’ve occasionally chosen to front a primary or secondary class just to kick the bank balance along (casual teaching is good for that) or lighten up from pressures of business (children are great for that).
Yet while I’ve long supported the public education system and the undervalued teachers who work in it, my visits to schools lately have left me championing Rudd’s education reforms in a way I never thought possible.
Most schools contain vibrant teachers who are passionate about the development of their students. I’ve seen them and am in awe of them. Yet I’ve also witnessed teachers who are long past their use-by date. It seems our schools contain many teachers who have never left school. Coming directly from university or the old college system straight into the classroom, their experience and knowledge of the world outside their teaching cube is limited to the odd overseas vacation. Some sadly, spend 40 years in the classroom planning for their retirement payout.
While a narrow world view was unquestioned in the 50’s when the world was indeed a smaller place, our time of ‘global everything’ requires, indeed demands a wide and innovative educational perspective from our teachers. Attitudes defined by antiquated methods, narrow world views and a non-competitive ‘tenure’ system produce a malaise that I’ve witnessed time and time again.
On chatting to teachers in staff rooms, I’m stunned as to how many ask about ‘getting out of teaching’. They want to know how I did it, how I survive and if there’s a demand for their skills. It’s as if these individuals feel frightened of the outside world and are amazed at those who manage to break out.
Children don’t just need teachers, they need great teachers. While they need people who can help them understand mathematical concepts and the meaning of Shakespeare, it’s teachers who embrace a world outside the curriculum that’s important. Perhaps it should be mandatory for all teachers to job-swap every three years to give them a peek at the bigger (realer!) world.
For too long state teacher’s unions have applied narrow, old-world views to education. The rest of the world get’s paid according to performance. In my small business, like most others, I don’t get paid unless I work damn hard and constantly innovate. Treading water by simply covering the bases and waiting for retirement would see my business collapse within months. Performance-based pay is a fact of broader life that teacher’s unions have avoided for years, yet without financial incentive to be the very best they can be, teachers can slip into the long slow ‘death-by-superannuation’ cycle that holds many teachers to their jobs and makes a student’s life hell. There’s no incentive to improve, and there’s no incentive to get out.
Transparency in school performance, while more problematic than performance-based pay, is essential in giving both parents and teachers the choice they deserve. Rudd acknowledges that some parents will stay clear of schools that aren’t achieving, yet so will some teachers. Others however, will relish the challenge of helping transform an underachieving school. Principals, under pressure to improve their school’s performance, will need to employ (on higher salaries) teachers who can engage, innovate and inspire. The ‘death by superannuation’ teachers, fronted with new ideas and fresh ways will either copy their colleagues, or opt out…possibly to a job they’re more suited to….possibly to early retirement.
I know it scares most teachers to think their ‘tenure’ in a school or indeed their job is limited, yet the concept of a ‘job for life’ went west 20 years ago. Without radical change incorporating not only transparency and performance based pay, but key performance indicators outside of curriculum expertise, the teaching malaise I’ve witnessed all too often will worsen. From what I’ve seen, death by superannuation is a death that both teachers and students can do without.