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Teach Your Children Well

‘Teach your children well’, the lyrics of the 1960s song went.

But in 2002 we’re having trouble. Trouble we have not seen in public education since perhaps the controversy which surrounded the moral issues of the late 1970s, the release of the Johnson Report and the teaching of sex education.

But even then, there were plenty of teachers, the job paid relatively well, was seen as a profession, and provided reasonable satisfaction and prospects for those who saw it as a career. No more—especially in secondary teaching.

I got into teaching, like many others, because I liked kids and wanted to make a difference. Over the fifteen years I worked in both primary and secondary teaching I saw a number of gradual but very important changes. I no longer teach, but the concerns remain, not just for former colleagues, or children, but for the wider consequences of what’s going on.

As children from broken families become an ever-growing proportion of students, schools have become our saviour. At the same time however, the curriculum has become thoroughly politicised, knowledge has been wrenched from its content-specific moorings to become technocratic and skill-based, and teachers have become assessment-driven bureaucrats.

Their only clout has rested in strong-arm and articulate unions. But the PPTA is itself now in disarray. And against the first principle of organised labour, it is a house divided and at odds with its usually supportive neighbour, the NZEI. There’s also been a falling-out with the Labour Party, and even students are protesting. Is there a warm, reverberating chuckle coming from the spirit of Muldoon up yonder? It is nothing short of incredible that the Labour-led Government is at protracted loggerheads with members of its core constituency.

Amidst union cheers we heard Labour in 1999 vowing to crush the Employment Contracts Act, restore good faith bargaining and industrial harmony. In teaching it hasn’t happened. It’s worse.

Helen Clark’s own words to the Labour Party Congress on May 18 were premature. She said: “I’m pleased to see the settlement reached with the secondary teachers, and I thank those on both sides of the negotiations who worked for that result. Teachers do have the respect of this government…we all know that education and skills are the path to a life of hope and prospects, and not a life of despair.”

But the Prime Minister is now strangely silent on this issue, which is unusual. She is known to quickly cover ministers when they get into a tight spot; Tariana Turia comes to mind, as does Mr Mallard and the damage control over his comments when New Zealand lost the right to host rugby’s World Cup. In response to Mr Mallard’s comments on the use of a beer bottle, she said, “Trevor was acting like any red-blooded rugby fan”.

We would, however, need more than a few soothing words to settle this crisis. We reap what we sow. The present crisis—more like a haemorrhage in full public view—is focused on the new qualification, the NCEA, but in essence, it is much more than this. There is serious internal bleeding as well.

Not too long ago schooling used to occur in a context which understood and supported the family. The emotional cradle of a stable two-parent home provided the building block upon which formal instruction could successfully occur. Home and school largely held and promoted the same values. Teachers were as much an extension of the home and parents as they were paid professionals and civil servants.

A reasonably coherent and shared morality underpinned the curriculum and when there was a need for discipline, it was reinforced by the values taught at home, and sometimes administered at home as well as at school.

As family breakdown grew, so this ethic eroded and schools were forced to pick up the pieces by developing more of a pastoral and guidance role. Some have been forced to provide breakfast for students so they can start the day with a full stomach.

Educators have tried to juggle teaching and learning with increased administration and an ever-expanding social-therapeutic role. In most cases they have coped remarkably well. But there are limits. It is not surprising some are struggling to handle issues a trained guidance counsellor would have faced 20 years ago.

No wonder teachers react when the insatiable demands of something like the NCEA are imposed upon them. Here’s something else they are expected to do and there are only so many hours in a day.

We don’t need more assessment. We need more cohesive families and a belief that education isn’t just about skills and the ‘Knowledge Economy’. Who we are, not what we can do, is a critical truth lost in the present debates on education. Re-establishing realistic limits about what education can and can’t achieve for a culture, and prioritising accordingly, would be a good start.

Despite what the Prime Minister says, education cannot, on its own, create for us “the path to a life of hope and prospects.” We need something a lot more basic and relational than that.

We need strong families and a shared ethic to create hope and confidence in the future.

Michael Reid is a senior researcher with the Maxim Institute,
a research and policy organisation in Auckland and Christchurch.

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