Sunday, March 18, 2012

 Last night on TV1 There was a programme that featured an American teacher who came to NZ to ‘teach.’ He left an excellent job and went through the training he needed in order to teach here at Secondary level. He then chose to teach at a school in Dannevirke, a smallish town (by NZ standards) north east of Wellington. 
It wasn’t long before things went badly wrong for him. He became the target of a small group of students who gradually wore him down, using a range of planned and spontaneous techniques. Those in the teaching profession here would not be unfamiliar with these sad events. It is my belief that such occurrences are far more common than our educational leaders, parents, administrators and politicians would ever admit to.
For teachers in a similar situation, there is a 'cone of silence' operating. It does not help one’s professional standing to ever admit that he/she is ‘losing it’ or not coping in the classroom. No teacher wants the finger of ‘incompetency’ pointed at them. They would quickly feel alienated and unsupported in such a situation.
It needs to be stated that, yes there are teachers who would be better to leave the profession, both for themselves and the students they teach, but the vast majority of teachers are doing their utmost to impart useful knowledge to their students in a way that is genuine and one that uses ‘best practise.’
Sometimes I get the feeling that the public expects all teachers to be some sort of ‘super being,’ who can keep a class of teenagers busy and learning without major dramas.  They forget that teachers reflect the society from which they came; one that is increasingly divided (be it wealth, religion and culture). Teachers are not better than the rest of society, so why would the profession contain a selection of human beings, possessing some special quality that would transform teenagers into young citizens who parents themselves have had difficulty trying to transform. 
Once again I say that there are many teachers who come close to that ideal, but they are not the majority. We all know teachers, who we say made a difference in our lives and at some point most teachers have had this effect on some of thier students. It all depends on so many other factors, including personality match, makeup of classes, student interest in a subject, whether a student has eaten breakfast, or has taken drugs or alcohol in the lasts twenty four hours, or has been abused (physically, emotionally or sexually), has relationship difficulties (yes students have relationships---they think a week with a significant other constitutes a relationship) and a myriad of ‘difficulties a student brings into a classroom.
Teachers are taking it on the chin (unfortunately, exactly that sometimes--- I don’t know the figures and I suspect that many violent instances are covered up by schools) for the rest of society. They have little or no control on what issues their ‘charges’ bring into the classroom. Given that teenagers need time to learn harsh life lessons, the classroom is where much of this developmental stage is acted out. If a teacher thinks that they are there to teach, ignoring the issues the students carry, they quickly find out that their training has not prepared them for the difficult balance between their primary role and that of some sort of miracle worker (a combination of social worker and counsellor).
I know that schools vary in their response to when teachers find the going a bit rough. Many have excellent on-going professional development and take care of their teachers. However, even in these schools, it would not be hard to find teachers not coping with the behaviours of their students. They are possibly even more likely to ‘stay silent.’ They do not wish to risk competency procedures, so they endure, taking the stress home to their families, thereby continuing a vicious cycle.
Some leave, often taking a drop in salary. Perhaps they are the lucky ones; the ones who get out before their health suffers even more.  The union (PPTA) can be helpful in these matters. Their position is strong on ‘teacher safety,’ but the union has a new fight on its hands now that the government is letting it be known that it wants larger class sizes, quoting that it is the teacher quality that is more important than class-sizes. I would hope that the public is not fooled by this new direction, which is nothing more than dubious research dressed up to disguise the real aim of Government--- to cut costs. If you have any sympathy for the teacher in last night’s programme, you better be prepared for the deluge of reports of instances, similar ot the one described, that will occur in the very near future-------‘coming to a school near you!’
In summary---- our schools reflect our community. I am not being negative in stating that we can’t expect one segment of society (the school) to ‘fix up’ the failings that government policy, families, ‘faith centres,’ tradition, new trends, changing expectations, and technology have not delivered. I don’t know the answer---- but expect to see more teachers, speaking out, and leaving the profession.
Luckily, new teachers are coming through the system, or ‘older ones’ are reinventing themselves. Schools are not standing still----- they are seeking answers and solutions, but they can not do it alone. They need community support and they need to be well funded. In the long term the money we spend on education now, will be returned many times over in the future.