Why are teachers used as targets?



The 2013 school year has now concluded and teachers are heading off to well deserved breaks. It’s timely, then, to cast an eye over how teachers fit into the world of schooling under the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). New Zealand, as the ‘johnny-come-lately’ to GERM, is following overseas trends, especially those from the usual Anglo-Saxon suspects. Note that this following of overseas policies is in stark contrast to the leading role that NZ education had up until 1990. To be fair, I doubt that Hekia Parata, her government colleagues, and the Ministry of Education, have an indepth awareness of the full GERM agenda, especially given the government’s lack of understanding of just about any issue. Ideology over evidence; slogans over informed policy.

One trend is very clear – the imposition of GERM based policies requires the downplaying of teaching as a profession. The main weapons used to achieve this are the continual attacks on teachers for not raising achievement and the introduction of ‘big stick’ policies to make teachers lift their game. This runs from the extreme of hiring and firing teachers based on their classes’ performances in national testing programmes, to performance pay based on the same criteria. Teachers can’t be held accountable for the impossible.

While these sticks haven’t yet arrived in New Zealand, you can rest assured that should National win the 2014 election, we can expect moves in this direction fairly quickly. The framework to enable this has been developed in the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT) database of children’s achievement against national standards, and which will include links to their teachers. While PaCT is not yet compulsory, we can ignore Hekia Parata’s statements that this will never be the case. Too much has been invested in PaCT for it to remain optional. If the election goes National’s way, we can expect two things – there will be a new minister of education (due to the incompetence of the present occupant), and PaCT will become compulsory.

So, the question is “Why is it necessary for GERM to destroy teaching as a profession?”

There are a number of possible answers to this. The first one, the most obvious one, is that teachers are highly educated professionals who are very skilled in helping children learn. Anyone who claims otherwise is just showing extreme ignorance. Who is best placed to point out the pitfalls in the standards based education movement? Who is best placed to point out that the biggest impediment to children’s learning (outside of meddling politicians and business people who have no understanding at all) is the socioeconomic backgrounds of the children? Who sees hungry, poorly clothed, and ill-housed children, lacking in life experiences, coming to school every day? Who better to really see the effects of poverty on children? Teachers of course.

For GERM type policies to be implemented, the teaching profession needs to be silenced. We could equate GERM to the emperor with no clothes, and teachers to the boy who points out the obvious that others refuse to see. Destroying the status of the teaching profession is crucial to this movement. As I’ve said many times, the present government’s education policies have nothing to do with education in its richest sense.

I’m not sure, as things stand today, whether I’d encourage anyone to consider teaching as a career. Why should anyone want to paint a target on their chest so that ill informed politicians, media and others, can take pot shots? If the present trends continue, this will only get worse. As for being a principal, even more so. Employment dependent on school’s national standards results? Happens overseas…..

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Running concurrently with the need to attack the teaching profession, is the need to silence the two education unions – the Post Primary Teachers Association (secondary teachers) and the New Zealand Educational Institute (pre-school and primary teachers.) The unions, naturally, bring the collective voices of teachers together, and, contrary to the right wing spin, are motivated to enhance the learning environments and opportunities for children, as well as ensuring the status of teachers is suitably rewarded. These unions are well placed to also point out the nakedness of National’s education policies and so are a threat.

While so far both unions have succeeded in retaining their membership and collectivity, it’s no secret that National led governments have been trying to destroy this ever since the Employment Contracts Act of 1991. The unions’ strength comes from the very high membership. I don’t have the figures but I would conjecture that over 95% of all teachers belong to their union. The power of this solidarity is a threat to the government. Attacking (blaming) unions for problems with children’s learning is a common ploy overseas, aimed at distracting attention away from the real issue – inequality.

A more extreme reason for destroying teaching as a profession is to be found in the USA. The multinational corporations who are working to mine profits out of education have this vision of a future where children will primarily be taught by networked computers, with human interaction restricted to providing assistance as needed and ensuring all children are on task. I’m not exaggerating. There are already moves in this direction through an organisation called the Khan Academy, where online video lessons are provided for children to follow. The acknowledged educational expert Bill Gates (yes, he of Windows blue screen of death fame) has called the Khan Academy ‘the future of education.’ In educational slang, this is merely a version of ‘chalk and talk;’ there’s nothing radical about this at all. Educationally, this method of instruction is garbage, and will kill children’s desires to learn very quickly.

However online instruction through video or computers appeals to economists (those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing) as it means huge savings in teacher salaries. Who needs teachers when computers will do the work? Who needs economists may be a better question.

There’s nothing immediately imminent about the use of this kind of schooling in New Zealand. However, the trends can be discerned, as internet learning networks are presently being established. While there is a place for online instruction to provide tuition where teachers are not available (such as specialist subjects in remote secondary schools, or in correspondence schooling), it is not a valid means of educating the masses (the rich will take care of their own).  How do you fancy having your kids/grandkids taught through videos or computers?

Anyone who thinks computers and online videos will be replacements for skilled teachers has absolutely no understanding about how children learn.

Part of the process of attacking teachers is to minimise their qualifications, and so we now find six week training courses to prepare teachers (aping similar programmes in the USA). Regular teacher education is a four year course, followed by two years practical, in order to gain full registration. And they think that this can be replaced by six weeks? How would you like to treated by a doctor with similar fast tracked training?

However Hekia has thought of the problems with ensuring that fast tracked graduates are able to attain their teacher registration, and so she plans to replace the New Zealand Teachers Council (membership partially elected by teachers) with her own hand picked group (no elected members). While her usual verbiage obscures the reasons for this, there is no doubt that this is yet another way to downplay the professional status of teachers.

And so it goes.

Not withstanding all this nonsense, the reality is that teaching children of any age is a very skilled and very demanding job. Anyone who argues to the contrary is showing that they have no idea at all of what being a teacher entails. I venture to suggest that there are very few ex-teachers, who have moved on to other professions, who reflect back on their teaching lives as easy. It’s a common saying amongst teachers that they’d love to put ignorant critics in front of a class of kids for a week or longer, and see how they’d cope. While I’d love to put these ignoramuses in a classroom, the damage to the children’s learning would make this rather unethical. But it sure would be fun to watch……

Working with children, seeing them grow and develop to reach their potential, is extremely rewarding. This is why teachers put up with the nonsense that comes from meddling governments and ignorant commentators. It is also extremely demanding, both in the full-on involvement that comes with working with 30 or so children for six hours each day, and in the unseen hours of preparation and other paper work (including ‘keep busy work’) that needs to be put in before and after school hours, as well as in weekends and term breaks.

By the end of the school year, teachers are exhausted. From November onwards, a teacher’s life is a blur of end of year reports, paperwork, national standards rankings, meetings, as well as beginning the planning process for the following year. Added to that burden are children who are also worn out (learning is actually hard work) and tired of school for the year. The opening of swimming pools (in schools fortunate enough to have a pool) is a real blessing!

It’s only too easy for outsiders (those who’ve never taught or worked in schools) to point at all the so-called holidays. I refused to call the two week breaks during the school year ‘holidays’ as they most certainly are not. Most of the time is spent recovering from the previous term – it takes until about Tuesday of the second week to recover, and then a day or so later it’s time to start planning for the coming term. It would, in fact, be more accurate to consider these breaks as sick leave. Remove these breaks, as various governments have suggested, and the outcome will be significant numbers of teacher breakdowns.  The only break that counts as a holiday is about four weeks from late December to late January.

Having said all this, I wish all teachers a very pleasant and restful holiday. Forget about school for a few weeks and live life as a normal person. Enjoy the rest. You deserve it.






  1. I’ve been a teacher for 20+ years and was on the PPTA National Executive for 8. We have fought off the insidious attacks of “performance” pay, the view of schools as competing businesses and the assumptions about teacher worth before, but they keep being repackaged and coming back. Strangely enough however, when I reveal my not too many people tell me that they would like to be secondary teacher! Most acknowledge that it is hard and know the worth of teachers. I try to be upbeat, though – teaching is exhausting, but it is also creative, innovative, exciting, personally engaging, makes a difference and is a job one can be proud of. And, yes, thank goodness PPTA and NZEI remain strong (your guess of 95% is in the right region). This is in no small part due to the level of professional engagement and leadership offered by these two organisations.

  2. “On the nail” Allan. Unfortunately the nail is one of the many being driven into the teaching profession by Parata and her acolytes. Like SUZ R, I am/was a secondary teacher of nearly 30 years service – not servitude. I believed in my worth until the gNats (expanding on Labour’s Rogernomics), pursuing right wing, already discredited, “educational” ideology from the USA, destroyed and finally closed my school.
    In order for this to happen compliant, politically appointed, unaccountable bureaucrats (except to their Minister) were needed to populate the Ministry and career driven “Yes Minister” principals to unquestioningly implement these failed ideologies in their schools. Our staff room/PPTA Branch rigorously opposed any change that could not pass the baseline test of: “Did it improve the learning environment of our students?” If not, send it back with an invitation to think again. Unfortunately PPTA (and we once had one of the strongest, most innovative and supportive Branches in the union) seemed oblivious to the agenda our new principal had and the battle was lost and later, the school. Sometimes I weep for the worth of what was lost as politicians played with teachers and students lives.

  3. The root causes of the “tail” of educational underachievement are the same as for the differentially worse health statistics among the poor in this country. I note that nobody blames the medical profession for the sick people flooding into hospitals, yet they happily blame teachers for the “tail”. A lack of critical thinking and analysis, obviously.

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