We Want Change!...Somebody do something!

Today I went along to the teacher’s strike action in Christchurch. There were some interesting speeches whose content I’ll talk about another time but I joined the throng of people as we wandered down through town to stand before the Ministry of Education building. Along the way, I decided to engage some people in conversation.

My first conversation was with a young mother who was also a teacher. She said that for her, the class sizes were an issue and just generally that there wasn’t enough time to teach. I pointed out that even at the private schools I taught at with class sizes of around eleven students many of the same issues remained as there were still children with learning and behavioural needs. In terms of the time factor, the teacher suggested that more teacher aides and learning support where needed. However, the government has been increasing funding for this with an extra $217 million pledged in 2018 for four years of learning support. The other thing we discussed was the fact that the number of children needing support had grown. While the teacher I was talking to wanted to “stick at it” so that she could get her registration, she did mention that her mother had quit teaching reasonably recently after a long career as a teacher because she was no longer enjoying it. At the end of the conversation she wasn’t sure how to best change the system nor if more money would actually solve the problem but she knew it needed change.

Having reached the Ministry of Education I struck up a conversation with another teacher. When I asked him what he thought the key thing that needed to change was, he answered that it was the time to teach. Primary school teachers needed more release time. I followed that question with, where would we be able to get the additional staff needed? He wasn’t sure how it would work but he was adamant that a way had to be found.

My third conversation was with a teacher who had taught for around 14 years. He was actually thinking of changing career although he wasn’t sure to what. He also wasn’t convinced that this march was going to fundamentally change anything. He said he worked in a lower socio-economic school and there were a lot of issues to deal with that drained on his time. Even programs such as school breakfasts which, while needed by the kids, still took up even more extra teacher time. Was there any hope that things would change? Well, he wasn’t really sure how.

I talked to a few more teachers asking my question of, what do you think is the biggest factor that needs to change? One teacher answered, “How long is a piece of string?” All of them said change needed to happen and while they had similar talking points they got a bit stuck when it came to practical ways of achieving these things.

As I walked back to my car I had a final conversation with a secondary teacher going the same way. He believed that a raise in pay may be what is needed as this may keep teachers from leaving which in turn could reduce the workload. However, this is tricky to say as many teachers say it is not about the pay but the conditions that would make them leave or stay.

Coming away from this event, these are the main issues that I see:

Firstly, it seems that teachers have a wish list with no practical way of achieving these things. They want smaller class sizes and more release time yet there are not enough teachers and support staff. How they are going to attract enough people to make this a reality remains a mystery. They want to raise their pay while simultaneously reducing their workload and increasing their workforce. How this is financially feasible also remains a mystery.

Secondly, if teachers did get what they wanted, there is no guarantee that these things would actually make a big difference. Yes, smaller class sizes can make the problems less intense but it certainly doesn’t go away. From my experience, you still have the same issues of behavioural needs, learning needs, and constant interruptions to deal with as a teacher of eleven students as well that is not that less intense. Even the extra release time, which I had at times during my career, mostly ends up being used in ways that you can’t foresee. While it sounds nice to think that you’ve got extra time to sit there and plan amazing lessons, this is not usually what happens. And if teachers got more pay, would this really make them happy? Would we stop having to hear teachers on Facebook complain about all the extra hours they do for no pay? I somehow think not. In the past fifteen years, government spending per student per year has gone up from $4768 to around $9000. This is quite an increase and yet what have we got to show for it? Will more money make a difference when it doesn’t seem to have done much in the past?

What is encouraging to hear is that teachers are saying that they got into teaching to make a difference. I am willing to accept that this is indeed the case and certainly more work is needed in society to really help our children succeed rather than succumb to a status quo existence where our young people have little idea as to their meaning and purpose in life. But how can you make a difference by doing the same thing as everybody else in a system that is clearly not working? How can you make a difference while not being different? We like to shout, “somebody do something!” yet we often draw back from that person being us.

The horse and carriage system was what most of the world used over a hundred years ago. It has slowly become obsolete through scientific discoveries and the invention of the motor car. While I am sure people could have kept on updating the horse and carriage system, in the end, all these cosmetic changes would have been ineffective when compared to the great change of using a motor instead of a horse. The whole system of schooling, whether that is public school, private school or even homeschooling, is obsolete. We have made many great discoveries in how human beings actually learn and how our human psychology works. These discoveries have shown that positive human development is not compatible with schooling. If we want to make a difference we actually have to live differently. I’m not talking about somebody else or even the government doing things differently, I’m talking about me and you.