Teachers unionist who wants to sack bad teachers
As a union organiser for teachers, Gary Zadkovich found himself counselling emotional public school principals forced to sack bad teachers. Years later he remains vehement bad, or ``under-performing’‘, teachers in public schools must be identified, and removed if they cannot lift their standards.
This could require professional support for up to 10 per cent of teachers. Those who fail to improve would be dismissed.
An industry description of under-performers as either ``can’t do or won’t do’’ could well apply to his union, the NSW Teachers Federation, with its image as an oppositional force to educational change. Under intense political pressure for national school league tables, Zadkovich has emerged as a public education advocate also prepared to publicly refute the Federation’s image as a defender of every teacher at any cost.
An outspoken deputy president of the NSW Teachers Federation _ and no supporter of school league tables _ Zadkovich has axed the era of ``won’t’’ in addressing teacher standards.
A former high school English teacher devoted to quality government-funded education, he points to public housing, then to public education.
``Think about what public housing is to the housing market,’’ he says. ``It’s a welfare safety net. Heaven forbid public education should become the same to the education system.’‘
Yet Zadkovich was no natural student, taking an indirect route back to the classroom.
``I was a good but disengaged student,’’ he says, a characteristic shared with his soccer-playing son Ruben and the reason Zadkovich could accept his son’s decision to leave school early.
Although a product of what he now accepts was ``the golden era’’ of public education, for four years Zadkovich played rugby league, laboured in sawmills, on railways and building sites, then on Indonesian oil rigs alongside his deeply loved step-father.
He was born in Roma in 1957. After the arrival of three children, his young parents separated when Zadkovich was seven. A rebellious middle-child and close to his father, for a year Zadkovich chose to live with him in Cairns. When he came home to Roma his mother, then 31, had met a 21-year-old Australian-Croatian rig worker.
``At first I had no time for him,’’ Zadkovich says with a smile. ``It took me about two weeks to realise what a fantastic bloke he was.’‘
When he was 11, Zadkovich took his step-father’s name, willingly adopting a new-Australian name in isolated rural Queensland.
Now the father of three sons, including Olyroo Ruben who scored Australia’s only goal at the Beijing Olympics, Zadkovich is a reluctant revolutionary.
Although an image he is keen to avoid, it is impossible to recall the last time a NSW Teachers Federation official acknowledged the existence of sub-standard teachers in public schools, much less suggested they should be sacked.
``I want to end the excuses for ignoring underperformance,’’ Zadkovich says. ``There can be no too hard basket. ``This is the Teacher’s Federation challenge to State and Federal education ministers: work with the profession to lift all teacher quality across the system,’’ he continues, lapsing into union-delegate lingo.
Zadkovich spent 14 years as a Federation organiser in south-western Sydney before his election as deputy president of the 60,000-member organisation 18 months ago.
As an organiser he fielded calls from school principals distressed that teachers put on formal improvement programs had failed to show adequate improvement.
``I’ve counselled teachers and principals on this,’’ he says. ``One principal rang me to say `I am about to sign a form that will take away the livelihood of a single parent with three kids.’ ``Dealing with under-performance weighs heavily on the conscience of principals who have to do this. Making that judgement is really awful.’‘
In defence of his colleagues, Zadkovich argues other industries and professions also have their share of poor performers. He also acknowledges teaching is one of the few remaining professions with a notional life-long career.
Married to Theresia, a principal at a public primary school near Bankstown, their sons were educated at Wonoona primary and high schools, near their Bulli home.
``Had we accepted the choice agenda of modern education, we could have had three kids in three different schools,’’ Zadkovich says. ``One or two might have gone selective, another could have been in a performing arts high school, another in a sports high. Instead they all went together as brothers with their friends and neighbours to the nearest public school.’‘
Their eldest son Luke, 28, is a lawyer living in London. Simon, 26, is a nurse who volunteered in Aceh, and Ruben, 23, who left school before finishing Year 12, is recovering from a groin injury but is on a soccer contract with Derby football club in England.
Their diverse paths reinforce Zadkovich’s faith in the strength of public education. His public housing analogy is behind opposition to identifying under-performing schools through national assessments of student performance.
Between selective, sport and performing arts high schools and the shift to private education brought about by ``parents’ lack of trust in the government to provide good, quality public schools’‘, Zadkovich says the perception is that local high schools cater to the left-overs.
``It creates a winners and losers scenario,’’ he says.
As a ``daggy soccer dad’‘, Zadkovich says he understands the point of league tables in football.
``Imagine doing that with more than 9500 schools across Australia, reducing a child’s school achievement, in all its complexities and complications, to the equivalent of kicking a ball into the back of a net? And what happens when parents find their child is in an under-performing school? Some places only have one school, and not all parents have the wealth to choose a private school.’‘
He also paints a picture of families deserting an under-performing school to enrol at a better one.
``What happens when 2000 parents choose a school with only 1000 places? Do we keep building more classrooms? And what about schools down the bottom? Do we close them?’‘
At 22, Zadkovich resumed his education at what is now the University of Southern Queensland, where he enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in language and literature with ambitions of becoming a sports journalist.
``My experience at uni was just fantastic,’’ he says.``I had the most amazing teachers _ Bruce Dawe taught me poetry. University inspired me to love learning, and that inspired me to be a teacher. ``I wanted to do for kids what these teachers had done for me.’’
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