Who’d be a teacher, eh

  1. By Bob Wilson and guest writer Lyn Nuttall

Apart from sharing my life with a teacher in the 1970s and much later spending a couple of years on a high school P&C, teaching is not really on my radar.

Image Gerd Altman www.pixabay.com

But it should be, with the teaching profession in tatters, if you follow the global headlines. First there is the teacher shortage, a situation worsening by the year, as teachers take the flight path and leave the fight to others.

As matters stand in May 2023, teachers are holding rolling strikes in the UK and New Zealand, with sporadic strikes in Australian states. In June last year, NSW state school and private school teachers collectively went on strike, primarily over wages and conditions. That was unprecedented.

The issues are many and varied but focus on unsatisfactory wages, over-work, a dearth of resources and in Australia, the much-hated National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Introduced in 2008 for years 3, 5, 7 and 9, NAPLAN is the only nation-wide assessment of students’ literacy and numeracy skills. The tests, held over nine days, started this year on March 15.

Studies into NAPLAN since its introduction in 2008 have suggested that there is an overall negative impact on curriculum and wellbeing from the testing. Dulfer, Polesel and Rice, (2012) surveyed over 8,000 teachers nationally across primary and secondary contexts. It identified that despite ACARA* suggesting the need only for familiarisation with the test, 30% of the teachers in NAPLAN years reported practising the test three to four times in the two weeks before implementation. This amplified children’s self-doubt and added to the pressures of an already crowded curriculum.

A Senate inquiry was established to assess the effectiveness of NAPLAN. One submission probably sums up the major issues for many teachers.

“NAPLAN is not effective because it only provides teachers, parents and students with a very limited view of a student’s learning and capabilities at school. It breaks the basic rules and concept of valid assessment. The test results do not tell teachers, who do their job, and care about each of the students they teach, anything more than they already know about their students and how they are doing in their learning.”

The submission, from a teacher in Western Australia, observed that test results often cause low self-esteem in very young students. These students do not have the level of maturity to place the assessment in the right perspective, he wrote. This causes stress and anxiety to students who already know that they struggle at school.

NAPLAN and funding shortages in State schools could be identified as some of the reasons for dire forecasts that up to 70% of Australian teachers could quit. Unions, doing what they do best, reduce the issues to numbers, focussing on wages and conditions.

Dr Fiona Longmuir of Monash University says the shortage of teachers in Australia and other countries and education itself was exacerbated during the Covid-19 years.

“Teacher numbers and resourcing, unequal access and outcomes, and widespread student disillusionment, disengagement and mental ill-health aren’t new – but have been blatantly exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. How we respond now will be crucial for future generations,”

Dr Longmuir, a lecturer in education leadership at Monash, said teacher shortages have reached critical levels in the US, UK, Australia, Europe and Africa.

“The supply and demand of teachers, particularly in  ‘hard-to-staff’  locations, continues to be an issue, and was heightened over the pandemic due to a lack of effective policy solutions.”

Dr Longmuir said the expectations of teachers’ performance had increased over time, as schools increased their reliance on standardised tests.

Joshua Fullard of the University of Warwick (UK) surveyed 300 teachers to assess what would encourage them to stay in the profession.

He asked how likely they might be to leave teaching in a number of different scenarios, such as a salary increase or an increase or decrease in their working hours.

“My findings show that policies related to reducing teacher working hours and improving the quality of school leaders would be effective. I also found that increasing teachers’ salaries would reduce their intentions of leaving. However, only a large pay rise – over 10% – is likely to have a significant effect.”

Professor Fullard’s research showed that school leaders played a particularly important role in teachers’ decision to leave the profession.

“I found that an improvement in senior leadership quality would have a greater impact on teacher intentions than a 5% pay rise.”

The main problem in all countries seemed to be excessive working hours and workloads. Problem students and discipline gets a mention, as does the lack of respect for teachers at all levels. As for over-work, teachers reported working an average of around 52 hours a week during term time. Prof Fullard found that a five-hour-a-week reduction in working hours would have a similar effect on teacher retention as a 10% pay rise. In Australia, primary and secondary teachers work about 45 hours a week, higher than the international average.

What I found interesting, enquiring into the state of the teaching profession, is that little to nothing is said about or on behalf of children.

FOMM reader and sometime contributor Lyn Nuttall was a primary school teacher for 33 1/3 years – “just like the LPs”.

He retired aged 60 and, though disconnected from the classroom since 2010, recently wrote this piece of whimsy which lightens the topic and perhaps reminds us of teachers who made a difference to our lives:

What’s the matter with “kids”?

As the song from Bye Bye Birdie went (1960), without the quotation marks.

I’ve never minded calling children “kids”. It’s a friendly sounding word with no historical baggage as an epithet. To my mind, its connotations are positive.

Over the years I’ve occasionally met someone who objected along the lines of, “They’re not baby goats, they’re children,” but that’s like chiding a French speaker for using the endearment mon chou: “He’s not a green leafy vegetable…” There are many colloquialisms that sprang from figurative speech, and we don’t insist on users being literal.

In many contexts, of course “children” sounds better. “Student” has replaced “pupil” which seems to have gone out of fashion, and it does suggest 1950s officialese. In Queensland, pupil-free days became student-free days at some point.

Teachers have various ways of addressing a class: “people”, “guys”, “folks”. Some of these sound better coming from a teacher seated on a reversed chair. I once heard an able student referred to as a “good little unit” but the small-school principal who said that was a bit unhinged.

I used to slip facetiously into “peanuts”, “bananas”, “ladies and gentlemen”, “ladles and jellybeans”. Context was everything. When I first started teaching you would hear some old-timers using “youse” but that’s rare these days.

Long before gender neutrality became the norm I gave up “girls and boys” and would say, “Good morning everyone,” probably influenced by the broadcaster Karl Haas’s “Hello everyone”. I hated hearing a class chanting “good morning” in reply, so in later years I would dispense with a greeting and say something like, “Okay, let’s get this show on the road,” or just jump in and start talking about whatever needed our attention. The sky didn’t fall in.

One novel variation I heard came from a parent who worked for the RAAF. When he was President of the Parents & Citizens Association, he talked to the school assembly one morning and referred throughout to children as “personnel”. Force of habit.

Thanks, Lyn, for that piece of humorous nostalgia. Ed.

BTW, I used to address my class of ‘B2E2 Industrial Boys’ as ‘Gentlemen’, in the hope that they would respond as such. It actually worked quite well. Ed

* The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority

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