Why no one wants to teach in New Zealand

The ongoing dismissal of research-informed professional development demeans the teaching profession in NZ. But it doesn’t have to be like this, writes the University of Auckland's Stephen May

Let’s face it – teaching in New Zealand is a low status profession. This perhaps explains why there seem to be fewer and fewer people who want to become teachers. It also explains the looming staffing crisis in Auckland, with young teachers, in particular, leaving the city in droves because their pay and career prospects are not sufficient to afford to continue to live there.

Recent analysis also shows that teachers only tend to stay in the job for about five years. They often leave because they are burnt out by the demands of teaching, an increasingly narrow and prescriptive curriculum, and by policy initiatives that promise much, deliver very little, and are quickly replaced by some “new” policy that is equally ineffective and short term.

No wonder it feels like ground zero out there for so many teachers.

How have we got ourselves into this mess? Michael Apple, a prominent educational theorist, has described this process as the “deprofessionalisation of teaching”. It goes like this: ignore educational research, adopt a recipe approach to education policy and practice, and treat teachers increasingly as apprentices rather than as professionals in their own right and, voilà, there you have New Zealand education today.

No wonder so many teachers don’t want a bar of it – especially, when they are overworked, underpaid, and facing apparently intractable educational and wider social challenges which current educational policies can’t, or simply won’t, seriously address.

An over-emphasis on testing actually has the opposite effect – student outcomes get worse.

Take National Standards, for example. Implemented to improve student achievement, it has had the opposite effect. Why? Because if politicians and policy makers had read any of the attested international research, they would have quickly found that national testing just doesn’t work – at all, anywhere.

An over-emphasis on testing actually has the opposite effect – student outcomes get worse, while at the same time the school curriculum becomes narrower and less interesting for both students and teachers.

Even apparently more progressive educational policy initiatives suffer from the same limitations. Innovative learning environments (ILE), where classroom walls are being dismantled for more open, interactive and digital learning spaces, are a current Ministry of Education requirement of any new school rebuild in New Zealand. It all sounds very cutting edge but where is the research underpinning it?

Actually, no surprise here, there isn’t a lot of it – or at least not yet. So here we are investing in major school rebuilds that we might find to have been a mistake in 5-10 years' time and one not easy to remedy. Add to that the lack of any consistent or meaningful professional development support for ILE from the Ministry of Education, which has consistently underspent its PD budget in recent years, and the problem only amplifies.

This lack of meaningful engagement with research is reflected in other ways too.

For example, there is an almost constant discourse in New Zealand that teacher training, especially in universities, is “too theoretical”. Let’s just get back to classroom basics goes the catchcry. (Imagine saying that about engineering – don’t worry about the theory, just get on and build the damn bridge…). Or, from the other direction, we hear regular complaints about low academic standards among those training to be teachers. Either way, you can’t win and the cumulative effect is devastating for the profession as a whole.

No wonder then that most of our top-achieving high school students are not interested in a career in teaching.

No wonder that so-called academic schools regularly redirect their students away from teaching to more “prestigious” professions such as law, medicine and engineering. And no wonder, if the profession itself is not taken seriously, even at times by teachers themselves, that people look elsewhere to professions that do.

Why can’t we make teaching in New Zealand a profession actually worthy of its name?

This ongoing dismissal and denial of educational research, and research-informed professional development, both trivialise and demean the teaching profession in New Zealand. But it doesn’t have to be like this. In Finland, for example, teaching is regarded as the pinnacle of employment and teacher training is thus one of the most competitive university courses to get into.

Moreover, teacher education is unapologetically based on robust, high-level educational research that is used to inform good practices. Perhaps that might just explain Finland’s world-leading status in educational innovation. See here for the latest developments there.

That’s the key issue in education that should be exercising the political parties in this current election cycle. It is also the issue that all of us who are involved in education should be asking. Which party is going beyond the usual swathe of window dressing, ambulance chasing, silver bullet policies to advocate substantive, research informed, educational change?

Changes that address our apparently intractable differences in student achievement, for example? I don’t see that from any of the major political parties as yet, just the usual variations of the same anodyne, ineffective, education policies we’ve been promoting for years.

But I live in hope. After all, if Finland can do it, why can’t we make teaching in New Zealand a profession actually worthy of its name?

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