"We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 - 1945)
In Canada, according to a friend of mine, being a teacher entitles you not only to a 'good' wage, but also free dental care, eye care (including cost of contact lenses), medical care and massages. But don't go trying to get a teaching job in Canada- they're hard to find. Being a teacher has prestige, social standing and is considered a more than acceptable career choice.
Here in Britain yesterday a quarter of a million people protested in London about the Government spending cuts. Almost every week for the last few months our head teacher has been outlining another thing the school will have to do without or do itself in the coming financial year. Some schools are having to take desperate steps. Last week for us it was careers advice, the week before cuts in Teacher Assistants/Aides. Two staff members recently quit after time off on stress leave, I can think of at least another two who should be on leave, but are turning up each day because, like so many, the fact that they care is still getting them out of bed in the morning. It is my experience that this kind of situation is the rule, rather than the exception in most schools in England AND New Zealand.
So it was refreshing to see on Friday the former CEO of what I consider to be one of Britain's least environmentally and socially responsible supermarkets chains speak out in favour of higher teacher salaries. Sir Terry Leahy argues that instead of freezing teacher salaries as planned in September, the government ought to make the higher pay of teachers a spending priority.
“We want the profession to have higher standing in society. It is more than just pay, but pay is part of it. You want it to be a profession that the best and the brightest want to go into.”
Sir Terry Leahy. From here
Yes, I couldn't agree more and it is great to see someone from the corporate world coming out in favour of government spending in education, even if he does centre his argument around economics rather than the benefit to humanity. However, one thing caught my attention:
Asked about his spell advising Gordon Brown’s Labour government on education policy, he said: “It was easy to give advice on education because unlike other areas of social policy the answers are relatively straightforward.
“Perhaps they (the Government) knew those things but focused rather too much on target-setting and there were perhaps too many central bodies seeking to impose performance standards rather than actually working on simpler first principles that empowered schools to teach.”
Now, putting aside some of the fundamental flaws in the institution of education and schooling for a moment, there can be found some straightforward solutions. Being quite opinionated and occasionally passionate about this topic, I have had many a conversation with teachers (and others) about what, given an unlimited budget, could make schools better equip young people. Smaller class sizes, more non-contact time, greater wages and recognition for teachers usually stand out. These solutions are so uncomplicated that is frustrating to think how easily these issues could all be solved.
But all the answers aren't simple. I have often sat at my desk at the end of a school day, or over a drink at the end of the day, or (far too often) waking and mulling it over at 3 o'clock in the morning, feeling frustrated that I don't know how to help a class learn effectively, or how to help a particular student get through a situation. If you believe, as I do, that we should measure schools on the quality of young, informed, participating citizens it develops, then there is no clear quantifying examination or study guide to lead towards this.
Currently the greatest pressure on my teaching is to ensure that my pupils meet their grade targets. They are given by the school free breakfast study sessions, study kits, close mentoring and every six weeks I have to send a new gradecard to their parents. Yet my class of a dozen 'bottom set' fourteen year olds don't have the social skills to sit in a room with each other for 50 minutes without yelling abuse at each other, crying or getting close to physical confrontation. They are actually wonderful young people but they don't know how to listen to each other, complement each other and, worst of all, they don't have any belief in themselves as valued members of the school community. They are often told (by myself included I'm ashamed to say) to simply behave and stop talking to each other.
It's hard to find someone to blame. I work with teachers and some school leaders who are incredible passionate about these young people and the frustration lies in not having the resources or emphasis to help them. There is clearly a missing factor in Terry Leahy's argument because the debate seems to be centred around the economic costs of miseducating our young people, more money will equal better teachers, will equal better schools, will equal a more profitable economy. It's hard to articulate what it is that's missing, but I think we could start an intrinsic belief within government, within society in general that young people matter more than anything else. Nothing economic should take precidence over our teaching and nurturing of them.