The Best Teachers Care


There are few phrases I hate more than the now ubiquitous "quality teachers". As a professional manipulator of language, I understand only too well how such phrases — seemingly innocent in themselves — slowly wear away at the morale and professional pride of people who are already fairly beaten and battered.

The phrase after all implies that many teachers are not "quality", and that somewhere, out there, are potential teachers made of smoother, silkier, more luxurious stuff. Upon entering the profession these gods would instantly show up the inferiority of the more homespun material filling teaching ranks today.

Pardon me while I choke down my rising gorge.

Notice also that we only apply this seriously nasty little phrase to teachers. Nowhere do I hear people calling for "quality" doctors, "quality" engineers, "quality" lawyers, "quality" business leaders or, particularly, "quality" politicians.

Teachers who entered the profession after 2004 currently undergo an accreditation process and, having listened to my daughter, who is a second year out teacher, complain about it at length, I can promise you the process is both demanding and rigorous. How much it helps the work of teaching itself is open to question, but the process takes serious time and effort.

As my daughter already leaves home before 6am and rarely returns home until after 7pm and spends hours every night and every weekend planning lessons and marking, I no longer allow anyone to tell me that teaching is a bludge. During my 30 years in ad agencies, including running my own — an industry renowned for tight deadlines and long hours — I have never worked as hard as she does.

Now the NSW State Govt is suggesting that all teachers should be compelled to undergo a similar accreditation process, regardless of how long they have been in the profession. Now I am all for ongoing professional development, mentoring, teacher feedback and a well structured career path that rewards teachers with more responsibility and more pay as they increase their skills, experience and capacity but an arms length, tick the boxes, bureaucratic, centralised, one size trying to fit all accreditation process that creates busy work for already very busy teachers is highly likely to do more harm than good.

The best teachers love their students. The part of their work they enjoy involves standing in a classroom and inspiring their students to think, understand and grasp ideas, skills and concepts they have never thought about before. That’s where the fun and the rewards are for good teachers. Planning the lessons that will create such dynamic learning is probably the next best part of the job.

Like police, firefighters, medical staff and other hands-on professionals, the paperwork teachers have to do is their least favourite task. Anyone who has ever had to mark 80 Year 8 essays on, well, just about anything, will understand just how tedious marking can be. But at least teachers can see the point of it. They set the assignment, they can see why they need to mark the result. Adding to their already onerous paperwork a layer of reporting on their own performance that can be assessed and evaluated en masse (and so on the cheap) is not likely to be met with enthusiasm.

And therein lies the problem. It is the best teachers who have the most choices. Teachers, like nurses and police are in demand in private enterprise. I’ve lost count of the number of ex-teachers I have worked with in business, some but not all in corporate training.

Ex-nurses have virtually taken over Occupational Health and Safety and Human Resource departments and ex-coppers run security for all sorts of organisations both large and small. Such practitioners have better working conditions, higher salaries, more perks and more status than their peers back at the school, hospital or cop shop, not to mention support staff to help with the boring admin. Increase the work teachers don’t like at the expense of the work they do, and more of them will leave. The ones most likely to leave are those with the most choices, in other words, the best ones.

Worse, the average age of teachers is now well over 40. The profession is aging quickly and many will be retiring over the next decade. The number of people applying for jobs as principals is already declining, particularly in hard to staff schools. There is a nationwide shortage of maths and science teachers. We start pursing our lips and wagging our fingers at the teachers who remain at our considerable peril.

By all means let’s help teachers improve their practice and become more effective but let’s do it for real. As Barack Obama put it recently, weighing the hog doesn’t make it any fatter.

The measurement freaks need to be reminded that we can help teachers teach better by increasing the amount of time they get to spend in the classroom and the time and resources they have to plan what they will do in that classroom, not by increasing the amount of time they must spend reporting on what they do or filling in online surveys or creating portfolios. We need to put more joy back into teaching, not more misery.

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