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September 27, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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The lost art of keeping our teachers

A week ago in this very magazine, a feature entitled Strength, Unity & Solidarity: Collectives and Activism in New Zealand was published. As if by magic, comments from former Act MP Deborah Coddington the day before publication rendered true one of the central ideas from that article—specifically, the notion that New Zealanders are wary of big public displays of dissatisfaction and New Zealanders are actively discouraged from engaging in protest.

On Wednesday 15 September approximately 1500 secondary school teachers marched on parliament in protest over pay and working conditions. As a panellist on TV One’s Q+A programme, Coddington accused these teachers of being hypocrites—forcing kids to be well-behaved within classrooms, but then undermining that with their protest action. The comparison is simply laughable.

On the same programme, Guyon Espiner interviewed Education Minister Anne Tolley, and many of the figures she threw around were decidedly misleading. In particular she said that secondary school teachers earned an average pay packet of $70,000 per year, which she thought was a “pretty good wage in today’s economy”. That figure, rather than being the average wage teachers earn, is actually the possible average one teacher might earn over their career. This includes all possible extras, including those who take up management positions within their schools. The Post-Primary Teachers’ Association (PPTA) responded that at many schools the basic salary is capped at $69,000, with the average salary starting at just $37,000.

In the interests of full disclosure, it is important to state that my partner is in fact a teacher, albeit in the private sector, and as such, these accusations by Coddington and Tolley I find particularly infuriating at a personal level. Attachments aside, the issues around pay and conditions in the education sector are significant. As Espiner pointed out, Tolley herself, in a speech to the PPTA in September last year, said, “as teachers, you have a most important job, second only to parenting”. Unfortunately, her comments in the interview, and her refusal to negotiate further, don’t reflect this.

The PPTA is asking the government for a four per cent pay increase, and negotiations at the time of writing have seen the government offer just 1.5 per cent this year, with a further one per cent to follow next year. Tolley has argued that a four per cent pay rise is simply not viable in today’s economic climate, especially when the country is borrowing $250 million every week just to “stay afloat”. Teachers have reason to be sceptical of these claims, especially when they see a whopping $1.7 billion being invested into South Canterbury Finance. A four per cent pay increase for teachers, on the other hand, would cost the government significantly less at $200 million.

It’s not all about the money either. Teachers also hold valid concerns about ballooning class sizes, the safety of both teachers and students within the classroom and school grounds, the lack of investment in professional development, and the unfair working hours of part-time teachers. As Peter Beyer, an English teacher at Otahuhu College told The Dominion Post, “it’s our children that are at risk and we’re marching for them first. The government will say we’re greedy, we’re after money, but we asked for very little money—we asked for a realistic settlement—and we’re marching mainly for the students and for the conditions we work in.”

The size of classes is really the key problem here. In a bid to individualise learning in senior classes, junior classes have had to bear the brunt of the lack of resources. The size of these classes is driven up considerably—in a time in students’ development when disengagement first starts to kick in—rendering the individualised learning in the senior classes somewhat redundant.

Furthermore, the high workload generated by these large classes is a huge burden on teachers, and creates an environment that is less than desirable. One teacher told The Dominion Post that due to having to deal with a class of 37 students, “I used to pray every day that there would be some kids away because we’d have to go out and borrow chairs and borrow desks. I mean that’s just ludicrous.”

Once again, New Zealand needs to reevaluate its priorities. The government is following a prescription typical of a centre-right government and judging by the polls, they’re not too far off the mark. But between cutting back significantly on funding in Early Childhood Education in the 2010 Budget and refusing to adequately deal with a post-primary sector that is pushed to its limits, this government runs the risk of severely undermining the future of our most important resource: people.

No doubt this will be of particular interest to graduates of Victoria’s Bachelor of Education programme who might be questioning what they’ve got themselves into.

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