Teachers and the union that doesn’t like payrises
If you had to rank the most important professions, teaching would be right up the top of the list. There is something noble about entering a profession which offers comparatively low rates for so vital a service as preparing children for a productive working life and a rounded social and intellectual life.
The teachers who most impress me are those who choose to work in the toughest public schools, where the idealised view of teaching spelled out above jars with the reality that “teaching” probably feels more like child-minding, with dysfunctional parenting and the absence of male role models in the family home leaving classrooms looking more like crèches for young adults who still act like little kids.
I was talking to a mate this week who also attended a fairly standard public school. She was saying that she can’t remember too many bad teachers from her school days, but will always remember the many excellent teachers she had. It’s an assessment which gels with my experience at a state school, where so many teachers went the extra yard, often outside of school hours, not just for kids who wanted to learn but also for those who did not.
The question then is if teachers are doing such important work, and so often doing it so well, why don’t they get paid more money? Those who disparage the profession would say that the amount of holidays teachers enjoy should preclude them from any significant salary increases. The holidays they enjoy – by necessity, on account of the school calendar – in no way justify the pittance they are paid.
The strange thing about teaching as a profession in this country is that, historically, one of the chief obstacles to increasing teachers’ pay has been the teachers’ unions.
That’s not quite correct – the unions have often argued for across-the-board pay increases. But when it comes to adopting the same industrial practices which exist in every other workplace, whereby individuals have their performance reviewed annually, and enjoy salary hikes and one-off bonuses for demonstrated excellence, the teachers unions have vehemently resisted what is now the standard everywhere else.
Their obstinance on the issue has reflected the old-school Marxist heritage of these unions, where the united we stand maxim has manifested itself in a one-in, all-in view on pay. I would suspect that there are hundreds of hard-working teachers out there who privately love the idea of performance pay – knowing they are good enough to qualify for it – but would never say so for fear of violating the industrial culture of their union and upsetting the order of things in the staff room.
It’s been a protection racket for the mediocre. It has ensured that people are remunerated and promoted on the basis of longevity, not talent. It has held back the best teachers and discouraged people who would make brilliant teachers from entering the profession at all.
For the first time I can recall in Australia, there have been some positive signs from the Australian Education Union about the excellent and long overdue proposals from School Education Minister Peter Garrett for annual performance reviews for every government teacher and bonuses of $7500 for highly accomplished teachers and $10,000 for so-called “lead” teachers.
Reading the Garrett plan, it seems strange that in 2012 a discussion is even taking place about the introduction of these measures, whereby teacher performance is tied to literacy and numeracy results at schools, with the appropriate weightings to ensure that teachers at poor schools don’t miss out. In any other workplace, from a low-skilled call centre to the highest-paid white collar job, the link between performance and payment has been routine for decades.
The comments from the head of the AEU, Angelos Gavrielatos, suggest that even the peak teachers’ union now recognises this. The union has shown more preparedness than it has in the past to sit down at least and discuss the issue with government. Gavrielatos said last week in response to Peter Garrett’s plan that every teacher should be entitled to ongoing professional development to make sure that their performance targets can be met.
Anything less than the flat rejection of the plan is a marked shift in the union’s previous rhetoric on this issue, and a sign perhaps that the AEU is finally heeding public opinion.
If the unions genuinely believe in public education they would be well advised to back the plan. Perversely, their historic commitment to the existing industrial arrangements have served as a massive free advertisement for the private system, with independent schools putting their teachers through their paces every year and paying the best ones a comparative motza. Surely every teacher who is worth his or her salt should be eligible for that.
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