LYNDSAY CONNORS. Learning the value of teachers’ work

The shock of dealing with the realities of the coronavirus pandemic has  forced our prime minister to realise that schools are fundamental to our democracy and that teachers are on the front line of society and should be valued accordingly.

As a result, his words have marked a welcome change from the previous rhetoric of Coalition governments in Canberra. Their indifference during the Fraser years to public schools and the teachers who work in them turned to hostility during the Howard era.

The pandemic brings to mind the counsel from the book of Ecclesiastes that there is ‘a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing’. While refraining from embracing and from many other normal activities, I’ve found myself with the time to think about those teachers.

When I think about the 1980s from my perspective as a then member of the Schools Commission, I recall that they were dispiriting times for teachers. Although we had a better educated teaching force than had existed for our parents or grandparents, we seemed vaguely dissatisfied. Regular reports on teacher education were commissioned and routinely ignored.

It was a time when the Australian community seemed to be saying to our teachers ‘’we don’t know what it is that you should be teaching and we can’t be really be bothered to give the matter much thought anyway, but when we see what you are doing, we somehow know this isn’t it”. Since that time there have been advances. While you might say it was the least we could do, we have taken the bother to develop national teaching standards and these, along with curriculum standards, provide a useful point of reference for the profession itself and the general public, so long as they are not used as a straitjacket.

It is hard to believe that it has taken a global pandemic to waken some leaders and sections of the general community to the fact that teachers are on the ‘front line’. How could it have been otherwise, given the fact that schooling is one of our society’s few universal and compulsory activities? The ongoing shocks and ripples that affect families tend to find their way in schools. I am always bemused when people argue that many teachers lack “real life” experience. If you want to see real life up close and on a daily basis, work in a school!

Teachers and principals were on the front line when the AIDS epidemic reached Australia in the 1980s. They are on the front line every year through the worst flu months. There are few of us who, as parents, could say we have never decided when it suited us, to send a child to school when they were off colour and possibly contagious, with scant regard for the effect on their teachers (or fellow students).

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that in all actions concerning children the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. Most of us would probably consider that it should be the primary consideration. During the current pandemic, our prime minister has recognised the place of schools in the economy, and of teachers standing ‘in loco parentis’ while adults are at work. But he has gone to great lengths to emphasise that children have a right to education, and that learning delayed is all too often learning denied.

Teaching is a highly intellectual endeavour. It takes brains to work out how to coax young people to abandon the many things that attract their immediate interest and to turn their hearts and minds to acquiring the knowledge and skills that wiser heads know will benefit them throughout their lives. It could be an almost boringly repetitive task but for the fact that the daily routine is constantly interrupted.

Good teachers are lifelong learners. I recall the time when I was having a coffee with a very dear friend when I could see she was dying to tell me something. I assumed it would be a piece of juicy gossip. Instead she looked at me and said: “I’ve had a great week, you know. I’ve really worked out how to teach climate to Year 8”. This was a woman well into her fifties who had spent all her adult life teaching history and geography. And she probably had to vary those lessons for the next Year 8, because the engagement between teachers and students is that specific.

Teachers teach down the generations. For example, I’ve been thinking of the teachers who taught my mother in the years between World War 1 and the Depression. Like so many women of that generation, she grew up in material poverty and left school at 14. But like so many of those women, she left school having had teachers who sent her into the world believing that she was smart – a “good writer”. And when, as parents, the chance came for their own children to have a full secondary schooling, they seized it eagerly.

For some children, schools are the only place where they are safe and secure and where they have the guidance and support of adults who behave rationally and responsibly – teachers.

I think of the wonderful education my grandchildren are experiencing in their suburban public schools, of the many kindnesses they experience from teachers. And of the patience that teachers must have invested in the regular live performances in these schools to find a way to include each and every child and yet to produce an event that is bearable for jaded parents to watch, or even a stunning event like the NSW School Spectacular. I think of the music teacher who has turned one tall, gangly youth in our family into a fine player of the French horn.

There is a wealth of research that confirms that what keeps teachers going is seeing their students learn. Which is just as well because their young students are generally not old enough to give them the kind of appreciative feedback which grateful adult clients often provide to their doctors, nurses and other professionals. I don’t recall ever acknowledging in any way the huge debt I owe to my own high school teachers who worked to keep me on task when my mother died several months before I was due to sit the old NSW Leaving Certificate.

Back to the book of Ecclesiastes: it also reminds us that there is” a time to keep silence, and a time to speak”.

The corona virus has highlighted the flaws and fault-lines in our education policies, the anomalies and the inequalities. It also provided cover recently for the easy passage through the national parliament of the Education Amendment Act, which can only serve to exacerbate these problems. But this is not the time to speak of these things. And, even if it were, there would be a need to keep a sense of proportion about the effect of these recent amendments. After all, the Act itself was already befouled with special deals, a repository for the bones governments have thrown over the years to insatiable and self-interested sectional interest groups. And it will have to wait until the time is right to express disbelief that amending the Act to expand ministerial discretion to create even more of such deals came so hard on the heels of the sports rorts affair. But this is a time to keep silent on such setbacks.

The global pandemic has reminded us that schools carry the weight of our fondest hopes and deepest fears for our children. This is a time for quiet reflection about the need to put behind us a time where children and their teachers have been used as pawns in an ugly game of wedge politics that exploited the flaws in our federal system of government at the expense of our overall educational performance as a nation and, in particular, of those students who are most dependent upon schools for their hopes of a constructive and rewarding future (and of their teachers).

The time will come to speak about building the bridge to the education system our students and their teachers deserve. Governments now provide funds equivalent to the total national salary bill for teachers across both public and private schools. We need a system where those funds are used for their proper purpose, to deliver the appropriate amount and quality of teaching across our whole school system according to such criteria as equity, efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and accountability.

When this crisis abates, we will find that there has never have been a time of greater need for a school system that gives all our children and young people an equal chance to gain the values, knowledge and skills to help them make rational and wise decisions collectively and in their private lives about how best to deal with the many problems that will confront the world they share.

Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she was the co-author with Jim McMorrow of the report Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement, published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.

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Lyndsay Connors AO has held senior positions in education at both the national level and in NSW. In 2015, she co-authored Imperatives in Schools Funding: Equity, sustainability and achievement.

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4 Responses to LYNDSAY CONNORS. Learning the value of teachers’ work

  1. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    A wonderful essay, Lyndsay,
    I spent three decades in the classroom teaching Social Science related subjects including Geography, History and Religious Studies, to difficult teenagers from Years 7 to 12. My wife still teaches Maths and Religious Studies to Years 7 to 12 at a Girls School. I retired from teaching 15 years ago, just as the digital age was starting .The internet was in its infancy.How different it is today as I see her after 40 years of teaching, mastering new skills at a frenetic pace for Term 2.
    As I watch my wife, at her desk next to me in our home office, working on reports and preparing for a virtual classroom next Term, I marvel at the fact that even in school holidays (teacher stand down) after a Term which I can only describe as a horror, she is still working literally day and night!
    I was literally nauseated by the appeal by Prime Minister Morrison to teachers to return to the classroom next Term. I immediately sent off an email . The response? an idiotic reply from some staffer! At least in his ‘lecture’ he acknowledged, that like the incredibly brave doctors and nurses, teachers too are front line troops. However there is a vast difference between an A&E Triage and a crowded classroom or staff room. For a start teachers CAN NOT wear protective clothing, not even masks ! They can’t physically enforce the 1.5 metre separation rule. They are literally exposed to any virus or germ that students may unwittingly bring to school. Too many parents, faced with taking a day off work to care for their sick child, decide the financial cost is too much and send their sick child to school to infect others. I had a case myself where a child arrived in my classroom with measles! I had immunity but some students contracted the virus with serious consequences!. What if a student or teacher asymptomatic themselves, brings Corona Virus to the school community? It has already happend!
    Teachers these days have to attend numerous ‘inservice” courses; often in their own time, during weekends in Term time or during “stand down” between Terms. They have to meet accreditation guidelines, be observed and observe classroom practice,attend after school meetings after a tiring day in the classroom. Often a day of 6 periods without any relief and they may even have a ‘supervision duty’ at Recess or Lunchtime.No time to recharge the battery.
    Who would wish to be a teacher today and be called to fight on the front line against an invisible enemy ??

  2. Avatar Jim Kable says:

    I was so buoyed by Lyndsay’s generous words that I was suddenly back in my Year 10 class at Macintyre High in Inverell in 1975 – as we read our way into a kind of understanding of the darkness of racism (not that that was the word much in use then – more prejudice and bigotry) with Alan PATON’s Cry, the Beloved Country – and the classic by Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird – and Wole SOYINKA’s poem “Telephone Conversation” – or I am with a Year 9 English class in 1987 or was it 1988 at Nelson Bay HS – we have read a novel – then in groups – a chapter assigned to each group of three – scripted – then making a video version of the book (all kinds of back-scenes roles – costuming, make-up, location finders – and in those days of bulky heavy equipment – the cinematographers a pair of boys – equipment on loan from the regional office) – a Sunday afternoon screening attended by many of those students and their parents. A class which debated and engaged in so many positives you would have taken it for the best class in that year – but in that graded/ranked/inequitable kind of labelling – they were somewhere position mid-rank. But that in itself is untrue – they were the equal of any. I was inordinately proud of them all. Years later several saw me at a 20-year reunion – to tell me of their studies at university. And so on.

    During many years as an exchange teacher in Japan – and here I want to acknowledge Teow Loon Ti’s wisdom – echoes of Tao-ism and Confucius-ism – the role of the three-way partnership – parents and students(their children) and teachers. Not something I learnt about in Japan – it was always a part of my understanding – but in Japan made more explicit especially by some of the outstanding teachers with whom I worked – middle school, senior high and at university level. I learnt to send out my introductory letter to all the parents of my various new classes each year – or to send notes/cards to my university students at home for New Year – written in easy English – as a way of alerting their parents to their student son or daughter’s English language studies.

    I’d been writing letters to a Year 10 English class at Nelson Bay HS – five regularly-spaced throughout the year – discussing what we had studied together and what we are about to study together – as much for my students as for the parents who might want to understand where we were at. Seeking their feedback. Why it was that we spent one month or so on children’s picture books. Reading from my collection of around 200 such books. Brief evaluations written up. Then in groups (self-selected) their devising making writing illustrating of their own picture books – then a visit to the local infants school classes to read their books – the local newspaper editor in with his camera to record the moment. So many good memories of my teaching/my students – the parents – from way back then – from the 1970s to the early 1990s/in Japan most of the 1990s/2000s -(I am just your junior, Teow Loon Ti! Born in 1949.)

  3. Avatar Teow Loon Ti says:

    Ms Connors,

    I couldn’t agree with you more that Australian teachers are doing an admirable job of educating our children. I think that the education policty makers in Australia have got it wrong when they compare our children’s educational achievements using the PISA or other tests. At the best, these test results only tell us where our standing is against other countries but are of questionable value when they are used as a basis for analysing the health of our educational system. They seem to ascribe the lower standing of our children’s performance compared with other countries like Finland, Singapore, Hongkong or Japan to the lack of quality teaching or unequal distribution of resources. Perhaps as a person who has straddled Asian and Austalian Societies in equal halves in my seven and a half decade and whose family has experienced education on both sides of the divide, I could offer some overlooked observations.

    Many years ago, a primary school teacher neighbour of mine bemoaned the fact that he spent half his class time keeping the children quiet enough to teach them something. Embedded in this comaplaint are two fundamental ideas that I believe are the keys to effective learning and teaching – motivation and discipline. Children here are no different from children in countries like Singapore, Hongkong or Japan (my children were Singapore/Australian educated; my grandchildren are in school here). What is perhaps different is the culture of school and education. The emphasis is different. Helicopter parents aside, Asian parents are by Australian norms inordinately involved in the education of their children. They generally have a “spare the rod and spoil the child” (no physical implication here) approach to their children’s education. Their belief that a good education is the key to a good future is almost universal. I remember as a child, my own mother used to tell me that without a good education, I would end up working like a beast of burden. There were many examples in those days of “coolies” to scare a child out of complacency. In most families, children are acculturated to the idea that there is a time for play and a time to work. Study time is usually between dinner and bedtime when they are expected to complete their homework and revise their school lessons. The attitute of the parents towards the teacher is usually a very respectful one. In this way, the idea of “loco parentis” is made meaningful, especially as one one is reminded that a classroom teacher has to be parent to more than 20 children and educate them at the same time. The parents generally play a big role in disciplining their children; especially in reminding them to “listen to the teacher!”

    What I am saying is that in these countries parents are in the main motivated by the idea of their children doing well in school, going to university and getting a good profession job subsequently. This aspiration extends to the children as an expectation of themselves as well as their parents. Many of the more mature children who see their parents struggling to put food on the table were motivated to work very hard. I am very proud of some classmates of mine who came for very poor families but managed to make it to universities and heads of corporations. Now that these countries have become relatively affluent, the culture continues. It all started in Taoism’s and Confucius’ exhortation to learn from your “teachers.” How else does anyone think that many East Asian and South Asian parents with meagre incomes send their children by the millions to Australia and other developed countries for an education but by scrimping and saving all their lives. The children in turn visualize themselves as doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers etc (not in that order importance). Motivation gives rise to disciplin which gives rise to attainment of a common aspiration – is how I would summarise it.

    Perhaps the path to better achievement in Australia lies in better cooperation, exchange and mutual learning between all parents and teachers?

    Sincerely,

    Teow Loon Ti

  4. Avatar Jon Buttery says:

    Wonderful sentiments. However I do wonder whether this is indeed the time to avoid the debates. And it’s not clear to me that it’s just Liberals that have been infected with the central control and nonsense that passes for much education debate in this country.

    Covid and economics will drive a massive change in funding in the area, with many private schools facing potential collapse and seeking Government help. How that plays out will involve politics and have an impact for decades to come.

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