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On teaching, and why National have got it wrong, again.

February 3rd, 2014

The Prime Minister’s new education initiative, unveiled last week and featuring four new roles for teachers and principals, looks fantastic – hundreds of millions of dollars spent on education, with the goal of raising achievement.

But looks can be deceiving. The four new positions – lead and expert teachers, and executive and change principals – will attract substantial amounts of funding, but are unlikely to raise student achievement in any meaningful way. Instead, they are simply a means of sneaking in performance-related pay by stealth.

Consider, for example, Lead Teachers. According to Parliament website, “Their classroom will be open for other teachers, including beginning teachers, to observe and learn from their practice.” This, then, would appear to be the extent of their duties – to leave their classroom doors unlocked. Most teachers already, in a spirit of collegiality, already do this. We have nothing to hide; on the contrary, we embrace the opportunity to share our successful practices with our colleagues. But under Mr. Key’s new plans, one in ten of us – around 5,000 teachers – will be anointed to the position of Lead Teacher, trousering an extra $20,000 per year, for doing, in effect, what we do already. Since there will be a fixed number of Lead Teachers, this is not a position a teacher can meaningfully aspire to: “If I work hard, if I manage to help my students to achieve, if I excel, then I too can become a Lead Teacher, but only if there’s a position available, and only if my face fits.” This is, clearly, performance pay under another guise.

Incentive pay has also slipped in through the back door. Change Principals – the most egregiously lavish expense in the Prime Minister’s package – will be paid an additional $50,000 per year to take on the challenge of working in an under-performing school. Let’s remind ourselves that a classroom teacher has to be in the profession for six years before making that much per year – and that’s the additional  payment a Change Principal will receive. This is a huge imbalance in payment.

Similarly baffling is the Expert Teacher position. An Expert Teacher, appointed by an Executive Principal, will be taken out of the classroom for two days a week to visit other schools sharing his or her wisdom. Setting aside the absurdity of the notion that an expert classroom teacher is best used by being removed from the classroom, who will teach that teacher’s students on those two days? If an Expert Teacher is, indeed, so valuable in the classroom, then taking him out of the classroom will, surely, impact, quite directly and quite negatively, the very students his expertise should be benefiting. The role also assumes that teaching ability is a transferable skill, that what I do, with my experience and my personality, in my physics classroom, in my school, is something I can teach to another teacher, an English or dance or food technology teacher for example, in a different school with completely different skillset, experience and challenges. I want nothing more than to see achievement raised for all students in all schools; I do not believe that this is the way to go about achieving this goal.

Teachers have for years been asking for pay increases that match inflation, only to be told that no more money is available; we now know that money can be found – huge sums of money, enough to fund significant pay rises across the board – to pay for the Prime Minister’s new ideas. We have seen the profession denigrated, and seen our working conditions facing a constant threat. When teachers want their salaries to remain level in real terms, we are told that the coffers are empty. But when the Prime Minister wants to invent new positions that nobody has asked for, that are so ill-defined that the Education Minister, Hekia Parata, has now had to call in education professionals to start fleshing out these roles, hundreds of millions of dollars can be magicked up for a select few who are deemed worthy.  The Prime Minister is willing to fling tens of thousands of dollars at Change Principals to encourage them to take on the challenges of poorly-performing schools, but is unwilling to recognise that any changes a Change Principal wishes to introduce will be implemented by classroom teachers. Not, largely, by Lead Teachers, since 9 out of ten of us will not be Lead Teachers. Not by Expert Teachers, because they will be too busy sharing their wisdom at other schools in the area. No, the work will be done by the rank and file classroom teachers who, again, are left with nothing but a suggestion that they are neither sufficiently accomplished to be designated Lead Teachers nor expert enough to be tapped as Expert Teachers.

The teachers’ unions have met this initiative with guarded praise; I hope that the NZEI and my union, the PPTA, will eventually recognise this scheme for what it is. In the meantime, I am very disappointed to see the opening of the school year marked by such a divisive policy.

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