Comment: Reinvest in teachers, NZ

OPINION: This teachers’ strike must be a circuit breaker for change if we are to turn around the growing teacher shortage crisis we have in New Zealand yesterday.

Current strike action by primary and intermediate teachers, following closely on the heels of strike action by nurses and other public servants, surely must send a signal to all New Zealanders that the past 10 years of underfunding of public sector professions must change. It is time to reinvest! Let us not be fooled by previous government statements that hundreds of millions was invested in education and health. The investment that must be made now, and should have been made then, is in the profession itself – in teacher salaries and working conditions, not just the funding of new schools.

These teachers yesterday are not striking through greed, but because of the absolute need for the change that will turn this crisis around. Shortly, secondary teachers will be negotiating salaries and working conditions so be warned, further strike action is likely if the ‘policy of neglect’ is not broken now. It is time to change and with a new government led by a forward thinking Prime Minister we, in the education sector, see a light of hope that we have been seeking for decades. This is why teachers and nurses are now taking action.

Let me present some facts about the current teacher shortage. Across the country, the number of students wanting to become teachers has dropped by around 40 percent over the past 10 years. At the University of Auckland, the biggest teacher education provider in the country, the number of students entering teacher education in 2013 was 949. Over the four years until 2017 this had dropped to 717. This is a 24.4 percent decrease in students potentially graduating to become teachers in our schools. That means there will be 230 fewer teachers graduating every year at a time when many older teachers are retiring and others are leaving the profession because of unsustainable living conditions, particularly in Auckland.

And the situation will only get worse. In some places, Northland for example, there are less than eight physics teachers for the whole region. We have developed online learning resources in STEM subjects to support schools struggling to teach these subjects. This online programme helps teachers of other subjects deliver STEM classes. We also have funded graduate courses in maths and science for primary teachers to attract them back to retrain in these specialist areas.

Underinvestment is key to every element of this crisis in education – it doesn’t take an expensive education and a massive student loan to work that out – and it has been going on for the past 24 years.

But these stop gap crisis management measures cannot continue indefinitely. We must reinvest in our teaching profession.

How can we do this? Firstly, we must incentivise students to enter the profession, and secondly, we must incentivise them to stay, and this is absolutely doable, if we have the will and country’s support to do it. When I became a student teacher more than 40 years ago I received fully funded support in the form of a government-funded studentship which gave me a start to a most rewarding and fulfilling career as a teacher and later teacher educator. (And make no mistake, despite what we too often read, teaching is a wonderfully rewarding career.) My studentship gave me a liveable allowance and although, I was bonded to teach for the equivalent years I had received the studentship, I didn’t have to pay back a student loan or had any other debt.

Further, and this will strike particularly hard for Auckland teachers coping with the housing market and cost of living, I benefited from another government scheme that provided up to $9000 towards my first home deposit given on a one-for-one basis based on my savings. This meant I saved $9000, and the government gave me an additional $9000. My first home cost $100,000 so you can see that, with an $18,000 deposit, I was helped generously into the Auckland housing market and if I stayed in the house for five years, which I did, the government’s contribution was written off.

Contrast my story with that of our younger teachers who have to pay back large student loans with no real government benefits and on limited professional salaries, and we can see why we have the crisis of yesterday. An equivalent studentship scheme may be too much to ask from a government today, but we have to do something along these lines to solve the teacher crisis we have created.

The second incentive scheme I propose relates to encouraging teachers to stay in the profession. This too is very necessary and teachers must play their part. Unlike other professions like nursing and medicine, where we have general nurses and generalist doctors supported by specialists called upon, and duly compensated, for their expertise, the teaching profession has largely remained generalist in nature. Classroom teachers have always been asked to perform their generalist roles alongside other roles that require specialist expertise. Typically, they do this to the best of their ability. But yesterday, more than ever, there is growing call for better resourced teachers with expertise in special education or managing high needs, learning difficulties and gifted education, and in high demand subjects such as maths, science and literacy. However, we appear reluctant to fund these specialists, accordingly.

In contrast, medical sector specialists are recognised and rewarded for their expertise, so why not in the education sector? Overseas, teachers who upskill to a master’s degree are paid for their higher level of expertise. Why not here? A national incentive scheme could target high needs specialist areas, fund appropriate qualification programmes for teachers to upskill and pay them for their specialism. Given the opportunity to upskill and gain salary recognition, I am sure our teachers would respond. Programmes that deliver high level expertise are already available in our universities, but the uptake from teachers is limited because they have to self-fund and there is no incentive in terms of career or salary advancement.

Underinvestment is key to every element of this crisis in education – it doesn’t take an expensive education and a massive student loan to work that out – and it has been going on for the past 24 years. Yesterday’s strike must be the circuit breaker to end this crisis and signal the changes needed so desperately in our profession, in our schools; for our teachers and most importantly, for future generations of young learners. My simple message? Reinvest in your teaching profession New Zealand.

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