I am writing this as New Zealand primary school teachers prepare to strike after rejecting their Government’s latest pay offer. Like elsewhere in the world, it is becoming more and more difficult to attract people to the teaching profession. Money is one issue (especially in areas where teachers simply cannot afford to live) but teachers are also asking for staffing and workload issues to be addressed.
I have not taught in New Zealand for over 8 years and my New Zealand teaching experience was limited to an independent school. But, despite not being able to write with any real authority on the rights and wrongs of this industrial action, I have a vested interest in the status of my profession – in New Zealand and around the world.
It is not all about the money. But it is about status and that goes hand in hand with money (and everything else teachers are asking for). Teaching might be seen as a valuable and honourable profession in New Zealand but teachers are not afforded the same status as business owners, politicians, pilots, doctors, and lawyers. Teachers will always be fighting for money, resources, and time as long as they lack the status required to garner the necessary support from the public and those the public have voted for to act in the best interests of the profession and ultimately, our young people. Teachers need to reclaim their professional status.
It is a bit of cliché now to look for Finland for answers to another country’s educational dilemmas. But I think it is useful to look to a country where teaching is well respected and remunerated and students consistently outperform their international peers.
Teaching’s status in Finland starts with an intensive five-year master’s degree grounded and theory with a research component. Only the best candidates are accepted and hundreds are turned away every year. This high level of training provides the basis for giving teachers and schools the autonomy to choose what methods to use in the classroom. Essentially, their training provides teachers with the status to be trusted by parents and administrators to use their theoretical and practical expertise to meet the needs of their students. These needs are met in innovative ways that showcase their expertise and professional judgement and this further cements a teacher’s status as a professional in his or her own right.
Judging by how sought after New Zealand teachers are in international schools, New Zealand teachers are trained well. Internationally, New Zealand teachers have a professional status that they might not command at home and training must logically be a factor in developing this status.
I am not in a position to be able to provide an opinion on current teacher training in New Zealand but assuming that training is not the issue, how might teachers reclaim their professional status?
I worry that teachers are not able to use their expertise and professional judgement to its fullest because planning, teaching, and assessment practices have become so standardized. Many of these practices do not always meet student needs and may be preventing those needs from being met. Teachers are best placed to identify their students’ needs and must be trusted to use their expertise and professional judgement to plan, teach and assess accordingly.
A framework within which teachers, parents and students can collaborate and work purposefully towards clearly defined student objectives is essential and a degree of standardization is inevitable and important in any framework. But this framework must not negate teacher expertise and professional judgement. A framework that erodes a teacher’s autonomy not only impacts a teacher’s status, it also negatively impacts upon a teacher’s motivation and agility to meet the needs of his or her students. Educational leaders need to be mindful of this.
Greater teacher autonomy might also help alleviate issues of workload, time and stress. Most teachers will do what is required of them by school leadership even if they do not believe that it is having any positive impact on student outcomes. They want to keep their jobs. Most teachers will also do what they believe will have a positive impact on student outcomes. They want to do a good job. This situation is stressful and time consuming.
Teachers will not be afforded more autonomy until the status of the profession is elevated and teachers, with the help of school leaders, must take responsibility for this. Teachers need to prove to parents, the public, and the politicians that they have the theoretical and practical knowledge to call their own shots. Some teachers will never be able to earn this trust, others will need to greatly improve their practice, but for many teachers I believe it is simply a matter of promoting their expertise and professional judgement beyond their classrooms.
In a shop last week I was asked what I did for a living. When I replied that I was a teacher, I was reminded that I was on holiday and how great that must be. When I said I taught overseas, I was reminded that I can travel a lot overseas. I was keen for this conversation to end so I wrapped it up pretty quickly. Later that day, I read a newspaper article about teachers preparing to strike and was kicking myself about how I basically confirmed this person’s belief that teachers had it easy.
In a pub later in the week, I was asked the same question. I said I was a teacher but before the anticipated holiday quip I added that I was interested in character and the development of a growth mindset in children. I was asked what growth mindset was and I explained it. This person started chatting about his children and himself at school and how he wished he was aware of it back then. I talked about how teachers spend a lot of time on this and I gave him the name of a couple of books. I am interested in character development and growth mindset but I could have said anything at all. I just wanted to get the point across that teaching is a profession grounded in theory and research. I am not sure if he was really interested in growth mindset but I definitely felt that he respected me and my profession a lot more than the person in the shop.
Most schools are very good at promoting the character and achievements of their students. Websites, newsletters, radio, television, newspapers, parent evenings, assemblies, prize-givings, and even billboards are used by many schools to celebrate their students. Rightly so. My pub chat got me thinking about the potential impact of schools celebrating the character and achievements of their teachers in the same way. In the pub, I only got my point across to one person but these other channels of communication could easily be leveraged by schools to elevate the status of their teachers in the the minds of many more.
The promotion of teachers could take many forms. Simple teacher profiles on a school website highlighting professional qualifications, experiences, and interests would be an easy start. Short summaries of professional development days, conferences attended, and articles read would also help put teachers in a more professional light. But I believe teachers sharing what they are doing in their classrooms in the context of theory and research would give education a real chance of sitting alongside (or at least in the same room as) law and medicine.
Teachers must be given the training to innovate and share. Teacher training must provide teachers with the theoretical foundation necessary for teachers to base their innovative practices on. Teachers must also be provided guidance and opportunities in their training to conduct, analyze, and share their own action research. Teachers must then be given the time to innovate. This time might be carved out in a framework that provides teachers with the autonomy that I have alluded to earlier in this post but the onus must be on teachers to share what they are doing autonomously if they are to reclaim their professional status.
Once their professional status is reclaimed, teachers might have more success at the bargaining table. Despite some public support for teacher pay being linked to student performance, this seems to be thankfully off the table. But I wonder if the contribution a teacher makes to the profession through action research, teacher mentoring, piloting programs, and generally contributing to teaching and learning beyond his or her own classroom might be considered as worthy of a few more dollars. After all, the status of the profession depends upon these contributions and with status comes more talent, more support, more money, and ultimately better outcomes for our young people and our country. Ask Finland.