It seems inevitable. A massive – this one possibly one of the largest in N.Z. history – teachers/principals strike is now nearly certain. With the territory comes the accusations that teachers are simply being greedy and wanting all the money they can get. What many people seem to forget is that the strikes have not been entirely about getting a bigger wages, or more money. Often the strikes are about things such as:
- working conditions
- how streamlined the bureaucracy is
- special needs students
- managing troublesome or otherwise problematic students
The first problem is the environment in which our teachers work. Working conditions are often the biggest gripe after pay. Not being a teacher, but knowing several in the profession I am guessing that on top of the teaching day there is 2-3 hours preparatory time of teaching material, paper work and marking assessments. My guess is that whilst a school teacher might have a teaching day from 0830 to 1500 hours, the above mean that they are not really finished for the day until 1800 hours at night where upon they have time for dinner, maybe 2 hours relaxation before it is time to clean up and go to bed.
The second issue is bureaucracy. It is a word we hear all the time. It is the state officialdom that takes the every day operating decisions out of the hands of elected officials and put them in the hands of regular civilians. In the New Zealand education system it is agencies such as the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, the Ministry of Education and so forth who are responsible for administering the education through the Tomorrow’s Schools framework, the assessment regimes, making sure New Zealand is compliant with its international obligations, among other things.
New Zealand teachers have a huge workload. I described an average day very briefly above, but what I did not mention was the challenges that bureaucracy pose. Getting to know each student, their characteristics, learning interests and any special needs are just part of it. Obtaining approval for activities, special needs support staff, resourcing among other things are just a small range. I am talking about all levels of bureaucracy right down from the Ministry to internal administrative needs at each school.
The third issue is special needs students who, through no fault of their own, pose particular challenges. Integrating one into a class room setting sometimes works well, but other times can be a complete disaster. How a student with particular conditions such as autism are mentally wired can be quite contrary to how they would be expected to function. Would they and their classmates be safe? How would they react in an emergency? What help would they need and who could supply it? These and a huge range of other questions all come up.
When I was a student I had speech impairment and hearing loss. I had hand to eye co-ordination issues. The speech impairment is pretty well gone, and the hand to eye co-ordination is pretty good, but I am still hearing impaired. I still come across as different, even though I hold down a full time job, have a social life, participate in human rights activism and can travel on my own overseas. So, how a developmentally impaired student worse than myself will cope in a system that is very different from the one that assisted me will be interesting to see.
The fourth and final issue I see is how to manage disruptive students. Some of the answers are glaringly obvious and are just waiting for the right trigger to become something that can be implemented. Many children for example come to school on an empty stomach, not having had breakfast. Right before the school day even starts, there is a certainty of some disruption – the causes of the lack of breakfast could be many:
- No money for breakfast
- Dysfunctional family where properly feeding the children is not a priority
- A time poor house where parents both work long hours
It could simply be that the child has learning or behavioural issues that are fuelled by a toxic family environment – violence, excessive drinking, anti social or otherwise inappropriate behaviour. These two causes and others can lead to any range of problems – fights, wilful damage of property, assault, bullying and so on. And a failure to arrest the problem in its early stages will teach the child that this is okay conduct. The teacher has limited options for dealing with it. And they run the risk of being groped, spat on, assaulted as well, which only serves to worsen the situation.
So, whilst sad I am that it is has come to this, the demands we place on a teacher these days are massive. They are often made to be a whole range of things that they are simply not trained to deal with. When will we step up and accept that teachers are overworked and sometimes work in a horrible environment?