Our attitude towards teachers must change

May 9, 2014
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Once again, the misplaced idea that teachers aren’t doing their job was out for all to see in yesterday’s news reports.

Yesterday morning I awoke to a text message: ‘About time teachers have to prove themselves to get a pay rise.’ At first I was perplexed by the randomness of a text at 7:02am, yet an hour later, upon looking at the morning’s Herald Sun, it all made sense.

The headline read: ‘We learn, you earn’, on page three. The thrust of the story being that teachers will now be held to greater scrutiny if they wish to progress through the pay scale. This will involve proving how their teaching has had a positive impact on student results. It’s not like this is really news – the current system is already set up like this in a thereabout kind of way. Yet the undertone of the news reports and the accompanying commentary is something we’ve become very familiar with…

There are really two issues at play here. One of them is understandable, however ill considered; the other is a nagging cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The understandable yet ill considered part is the government holding teachers to greater scrutiny based on results. Sure, it sounds great in theory. Why should teachers who don’t ‘teach’ earn more money just cos? You know, it’s just that simple. Teachers teach, students learn, everybody wins. And results? Well it’s all about test scores right? Sure, why not. We’ll just cancel out all the other work that teachers do because school is a learning factory after all.

So hey, it should work fine because I love going to work every day just knowing that the teach-learn scenario naturally flows like clockwork. It’s like a neat little production line – I instruct my students on the day’s learning activities and they do them without complaint. They collectively submit their work with little prompting from me, and their results increase tenfold because I know stuff and at the end of the day they’ll know stuff because I taught stuff.

Or, and perhaps I’m reaching a bit here, maybe that’s not actually what always happens. Maybe we work with humans and the complexities of any school environment might get in the way of the neat robotic teach-learn-improve formula. I know it’s a stretch, but if we explore this further we might see why the whole ‘you get paid more when your students learn more’ sentiment may be ill considered. But more on that later…

The other issue at play with yesterday’s news is the really annoying part – the part that really pisses me off – that nagging cultural problem I mentioned. It’s that dumb mentality built on the premise that teachers are slack, lazy, ineffectual bludgers who don’t work hard enough and thereby fail our kids before jetting off to enjoy the good life on the too many holidays they get each year. Oh, and those weekends! Not to mention the cruisey 9am-3pm work cycle. It’s upon this premise that compels people like my friend to send me texts at 7am in the morning, exulting that teachers will now work for their pay. There are many people out there like him who hold such beliefs about teachers. They all remember their own school days, and apparently it was the teacher’s fault they didn’t perform well at school. It had nothing to do with responsibility for their own learning.

So with this in mind, it is rather easy for a politician of any political persuasion to score points by admonishing teachers. It’s generally well received by the public…‘Yeah, they should be working harder, that lot. I remember when I went to school, bloody teachers were useless.’ Ah yes, those teachers, living the good life while our kids suffer. Think of the children.

To be fair, not everyone shares these beliefs. There are people in the community who wholeheartedly respect the profession. They tend to be people who live with a teacher.

So let me first debunk some of the myths that circle all too commonly out in the suburbs. The myths that make the ‘teachers don’t work hard enough’ narrative so palatable in voter land.

Myth number 1 – teachers are failing our students

We currently have 1,046,788 students in our universities. Not that admission into tertiary education is the only marker for success, but it’s a hefty figure nonetheless.

Truancy rates are down, and schools currently offer a wider variety of programs ranging from welfare to community engagement that stretch way beyond the classroom. All of which require teachers to run them. What schools and teachers are expected to do has only increased with time, yet somehow the idea that school is all about the classroom and only the classroom continues to take hold.

Now, the ‘teachers are failing our students’ line was in vogue after last year’s modest international literacy and numeracy results for Australians aged 18-70. Yet simply blaming teachers for results in standardized testing across an array of age groups is overly simplistic. There are a myriad of factors that influence literacy levels, teaching being one of many. Upbringing, personal motivation, lifestyle, cognitive ability – among others – are all factors that can influence one’s literacy and numeracy levels. This brings me to myth number two…

Myth number 2 – teachers are the only responsible party for a child’s learning

Now it might seem like I’m trying to absolve teachers of responsibility, but education researcher John Hattie breaks it down like this:

When we are talking about achievement variation and what influences it, students account for 50%.

‘It is what students bring to the table that predicts achievement more than any other variable. The correlation between ability and achievement is high, so it is no surprise that bright students have steeper trajectories of learning than their less bright students.’ – Hattie

So if the student is personally responsible for 50% of their learning, what is the breakdown of the other 50 percent? Home life: 5-10 percent. Peer influence: 5-10 percent. The school: 5-10 percent. Teachers: 30 percent.

Now 30 percent is a significant amount, and teachers who can maximize this 30 percent influence are our most effective. Yet what is telling here is that 70% of a student’s learning is essentially out of the individual teacher’s control.

How can the teacher be held accountable for a student whose parents show little interest in their child’s education? Why should a school be judged on the underperformance of a grade three student whose parents never read to her at home?

From my personal experience, I have consistently found that the students who perform best are those who have come from homes where the parents are engaged and interested in their child’s education and wellbeing.

Myth number 3 – the only measure of success is test results

Some teachers do a brilliant job at just keeping students attending school. School is more than just a learning factory where students attend and learn how to read and write. Here’s just a short list of teachers’ work that does not always get recognized:

Camps

Excursions

Lunch clubs

After school tutoring

After school clubs

Before school clubs

Sports days

Concerts

Productions

Wellbeing days

Formals

Debutant Balls

Carnivals

Note, I said short list. There are more extra-curricular activities that teachers do because of their passion for the job. Yet the above activities don’t rank on literacy and numeracy test results that are often used as the sole measuring tool for a school or teacher’s success. But hey, we should be judged solely on results, right?

Myth number 4 – teachers work 9am-3pm

My watch must be broken. It keeps saying that it’s 6pm when I climb into the car to leave work. It really must be 3pm because so many people keep telling me that’s when my profession knocks off. I must be pretty good then, to fit in all those meetings, phone calls, parent conferences, tutorials and lesson planning into a six hour day. Oh, and I forgot to mention correction and report writing; apparently those things just don’t exist.

Myth number 5 – teachers get too many holidays

You know, because unit plans, correction and report writing just works itself out, I don’t need the extra time to do this during term. I’ll just work on it during my 9am-3pm working day and it will all be sweet – don’t sweat it.

The kids won’t mind rocking up a few extra weeks during the year. I mean, 10 week terms, what are we thinking here? Let’s just do the four week break at the end of the year and have one big 40 week term. It’s what everyone else does. The teachers can just deal with it. Kids don’t get tired or irritable. They’ll just learn more and teachers will finally have to work all year like everyone else.

Myth number 6 – Nah seriously, you teachers do get too many holidays. Admit it.

If teaching was so easy and the holidays so plentiful, then why does the profession have one of the highest turnover rates? Why is teacher burnout still an issue?

Believe it or not, teachers don’t know everything about their subject. They need time to complete personal learning and to plan accordingly. Think of English teachers – they must frequently study new texts and write interesting and engaging unit plans to pass on to the students. The work teachers complete is not confined to the classroom. So naturally, ‘holidays’ can be a useful time to refocus and plan our curriculum so we can, you know, get those results you want…


What’s written above are the most common jibes that I’m sure pisses every teacher off. It seems that everyone is an expert on teachers.

How hard could it be? Isn’t it your job to make it interesting? If a kid is bored in your class then it’s your fault!

Sure, but does this mean I shouldn’t teach to the standardised test that my results will be judged on? Because that’s not interesting. Tell me, when can I plan to make it interesting if I’m leaving work at 3pm every day? I must just make it all up on the fly.

Oh whinge, whinge, whinge. All you teachers are whingers.

It’s within this cultural framework that governments pass policies designed to make teachers more accountable and thus embed result driven pay structures. I’ll state clearly that I believe teachers should be efficient, reliable, organized and passionate about their job, as should anyone in their chosen profession. They should plan and assess accordingly, as well as engage in the myriad of tasks required of them on a daily basis. Yet if teachers are going to be held accountable on factors that are largely out of their immediate control, (remember the 70% stuff I talked about earlier) then how is this fair?

But you’re the one teaching them! Surely when they’re in your class they should always be able to learn!

Okay, sure, why not.

**Bell rings**

Hello year nine. Alright I’ll just get all eyes to the front while I mark the roll. Annie? Not here? Kane? Yep.Brooke? Brooke? Okay not here. Beth? Away too?

Hmm, looks like the rest of you are here though. I’ll just have to catch up with those guys when I get a chance.

Alright guys, books out. We’ll be working on the persuasive essays that we started yesterday.

‘Sir, my book’s at home.’ …. ‘Yeah mine too.’ …. ‘Can I go to my locker? I left my book in there’

Okay, use some blank paper today but make sure you find those notes from yesterday when you get your book again.

**Jess and Ally walk in**

Girls, why are you late?

‘Sorry sir. Ally was upset.’

Right, make up the time at the end of the class. In the meantime please get your books out from yesterday.

‘What did we do yesterday?’

Remember the persuasive language essay that we started?

‘Nutt’

Okay well it’s in your books if you have a look.

**Back to addressing the class** Anyways, what I’d like you to do guys is..

**Speaker sounds** – ‘excuse me for the interruption, could student X please come to the office?’

…Alright, anyway, guys, eyes on me, you’ll remember that I told you to focus on…

‘SIR, can I go to the toilet?’

Not right now, anyway..

‘But why not?’

**Ten minutes pass – students are working away**

Brodie? Brodie? Come on, let’s get on with it.

‘I’m tired, sir.’

Yeah well me too, but how about we finish this paragraph?

‘I got hardly any sleep last night. My step-dad kicked me out. I ended up staying at a friend’s place.’

Hmm okay, well, look, do what you can and I’ll work with you for a few minutes. Now if…

**Student calls out** ‘MR! I need some help.’

I’ll be there soon. Now Brodie…

‘SIR, Kane’s pushing the table into me.’

**Knock on the door – welfare counsellor is at the door for Jack**

Yes Jack’s here. Jack, off you go. Make sure you catch up for homework yeah.

‘Sure sir. But my computer is at my dad’s place and I won’t be there until next week.’

**Jack leaves**

Okay guys can I just get eyes to front?

‘Sir, can I get a drink?’


You get the picture. This is before the instrumental student arrives thirty minutes late because of his guitar lesson. I should probably make sure that he learnt every single thing too. I should probably also touch base with the teacher’s aide in the room to ensure that the three students with learning challenges are coping. And I better not forget to follow up on the three absent students. I’m pretty sure I saw one of them at school earlier today? Why aren’t they in class?

Now the point of this is not to elicit sympathy or tell some woe-is-me story. I love my job and the challenges it brings. I’ll also add that obviously not every class goes this way, but as any teacher would know, all of the above can and sometimes does occur at multiple instances during one lesson.

The point is to illustrate that teaching is not predictable and classrooms are complex. It’s all too easy to say that teachers should be held accountable for results. Yet what is not considered is the many factors that stand in the way of teachers achieving said results. Is this an excuse not to try? Certainly not. Is it reason enough to give the teaching profession the benefit of the doubt and let them do their job without the added stress? Perhaps.

Teaching is not a business. It cannot be run like a production line where students simply enter the classroom, teachers do their thing, and the learning just happens. If it was, then sure, judge us on the results. How good would it be if it just worked that way?

Just imagine: my VCE history students get awesome results, and I receive a nice little pay rise. Of course, I needn’t mind acknowledging the English teacher who taught the kids how to write essays, and I won’t even consider the sport teacher who helped provide the students with an outlet away from the classroom. And the welfare coordinator who pulled strings to make sure that the students got to the exam on time, pfft. It was all me. I take the credit because I taught them – and these are MY results. It’s that simple right? It’s not like teaching is a collegiate job where many people in the school environment influence student outcomes.

But seriously now, as a society we need to rethink our attitude towards the teaching profession. The majority of teachers are passionate, hardworking enthusiasts who became teachers because they wanted to make a difference in peoples’ lives. And sometimes, many times, that difference is not just something that can be measured on a graph.

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