by Martin Thrupp
This week I went with my son to his parent-teacher interviews. As a Year 13 student, one of the oldest at the school now, he didn’t really want me there anymore. But I insisted because it wasn’t all about him.
I was mainly there to thank the teachers at his state secondary school and I sought out the principal and thanked that person too. This school has taught two of my children, very different sorts of kids, and done it well. Sincerely thanking the teachers was the least I could do.
I hear the frustrations of Anela Pritchard, the Year 10 student who wrote a hard-hitting speech about teachers and then posted it on Facebook. But many of her points can be related back to the policy environment that teachers are having to grapple with.
Teachers are certainly ‘paid to teach’ and like many professionals they have mortgages to pay. But this doesn’t really capture their motives or commitments. In fact getting an education is not at all like buying groceries. There’s a relationship that has to be invested in by all concerned. Nor are the gains made always immediately obvious.
Many recent criticisms of teachers and schools seem intended to undermine the education system. They are often related to the privatisation agenda that has become obvious under this Government.
Look at the way Minister of Education Hekia Parata chose to launch a recent report criticising the teaching of school mathematics. It was published by the right-wing think-tank ‘The New Zealand Initiative’. On the other hand she quickly dismissed my research on the National Standards on the grounds it had been funded by the NZEI. Any contradiction here Minister?
There have also been complaints that the NZEI and PPTA have hijacked the Government’s ‘Investing in Educational Success’ reform. This implies that teachers are being misled by their unions. But the distinction doesn’t hold up. Most teachers are union members and those I meet at union events tend to be much like the people I meet in schools wherever I go.
Although it would be nice to think that the public would defend their teachers, many don’t have the time or inclination to dig deeper than the rhetoric of policy. It can be easy to criticise teachers – we have all had some – but teachers can’t be expected to address all of society’s problems.
There is a very real risk that too much public criticism will end up killing off the goodwill and commitment within the system and of those thinking of going teaching. If teacher supply becomes a problem we will soon see the sting go out of the comments!
Without the mainly good work being done daily in our public education system, many more New Zealand children and families would face educational and social difficulties. There are always improvements that can be made but we will achieve much more with honey than with vinegar.
I thought the teachers at my son’s school looked tired. This winter term has been a long one. I hope all teachers and their students have a good holiday.
~ Martin Thrupp is Professor of Education at the University of Waikato