Here’s a modest proposal for addressing the teacher shortage: stop denigrating teaching and teachers

By Melanie Ralph

Published on ABC 22 Mar 2022. Link here:

This term in Queensland, teachers have navigated a further wave of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, followed by devastating floods that have left many families without a home. Beyond Queensland, teachers across the country have summoned a kind of Sisyphean strength over the last two years to support kids up what feels like a steepening mountain.

Against this backdrop, you’d think that community and media sentiment in favour of teachers would be at an all-time high. Alas, the noise of teacher scrutiny, criticism, and ridicule seems louder than ever.

Last week, acting federal education minister Stuart Robert made a bold entrance to his new role by referring to public school educators as “duds” who “can’t read and write”. To thank us for our efforts, he claimed these dud teachers are “dragging the chain” of our education system.

Replacing Alan Tudge indefinitely, Robert has some big shoes to fill. But he seems similarly committed to mirroring Tudge’s negative, at times hostile, attitude towards the very people he purports to represent. Recent criticism has also been directed at beginning teachers or those still studying, as well as at the very institutions that train them, in the final report of the federal government’s “Next Steps: Report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review”.

It seems that the actual arrival of what used to be called the “looming” teacher shortage (newsflash: it’s already here) has not tempered the tongues of the back-seat teachers — namely, politicians and journalists.

If politics has the pub test, education has an equivalent — let’s call it the tuckshop test. Frankly, many of the proposed solutions frequently suggested to “fix” education just don’t pass it.

For instance, the Grattan Institute suggests we offer “high achievers” $10,000 “cash-in-hand scholarships” to study teaching. Upon graduation, recipients would be required to work in a public school for “at least several years”. But what happens to these teachers when the carrot disappears? What message do we send the community about teaching if we can only coax people into serving time with the “duds” in public schools by means of cash bonuses?

In the “Next Steps” report, a suggestion to alleviate workforce shortages is to encourage “the community to nominate teachers and school leaders for an award in the Order of Australia”. Somehow, I doubt that a nomination for this award would have made any difference in the decision of 10,000 teachers in New South Wales last year to quit.

Then there’s the proposal to wave more money around in the form of $40,000 to $80,000 a year extra to become a “Learning Specialist” or a “Master Teacher”. Mind you, these reforms have failed many times, would entail a “competitive recruitment process”, and would be limited to miniscule quotas. As the saying goes, the rising tide lifts all boats. Reforms that aim to financially motivate individuals for their “quality teaching”, rather than lift the collective standards for all teachers, assume that teachers can be extrinsically motivated by carrots to achieve better results.

Of all the supposed solutions, respecting teachers surely must be the most cost-effective. Given that the first recommendation of the “Next Steps” report is to “raise the status and value of the profession to inspire more people to become teachers”, it seems odd that Stuart Robert would be so hostile towards teachers.

Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace knows this, and was right to call out the “boys club” rhetoric of Robert as “outrageous, inaccurate, and an insult to hard working teachers across Queensland and Australia”.

Unless we start celebrating teachers and emphasising the positive aspects of the teaching profession — instead of publicly denigrating it — then the teacher shortage will only increase as the public perception of the profession will become damaged beyond repair. Negative commentary diminishes the prestige of the role and therefore deters would-be teachers from even registering. Can we blame them when so much reporting is unrelentingly critical? If we want to inspire people to pursue teaching, we need inspiring representations in the media.

I’ll start. This term, I’ve seen teachers work with the student wellbeing committee to run a sausage sizzle to raise funds for flood effected families. I’ve seen a coordinated effort between staff and families to donate uniforms to those who lost everything. I’ve seen teachers spend their own money on chocolate treats for the class on a Friday arvo to lift student morale. Online, I’ve seen teachers mailing books and stationery to schools in flood effected towns.

And all this without a cash bonus in sight. Now that passes the tuck-shop test.

Melanie Ralph is an actual high school teacher who works in an actual school.

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