"They were requiring we show care, but there was no requirement for them to show the same level of care by funding for care."
I think it is important that we “name the beasts” or the elephants in the room. It is time that we in the teaching profession actually tell our stories and give our perspectives so that we are not simply seen as naysayers and negative blockers, but as deeply caring, intelligent people who have real concerns and issues to raise and discuss. However, it is difficult to raise these issues without the risk of offending some people. Hence, I want to make a disclaimer. To my friends at the Ministry – I know you are caring and wonderful people who are also at the beck and call of other forces bigger and higher than yourselves. You are only doing the job expected of you. It is not my intention to offend or in any way “out” you; rather, to simply tell my experiences in the hope that together we might find a pathway forward to a sustainable future for education.
In my first LinkedIn article “A sustainable future in education”, I drew attention to the very concerning state of schooling as it currently is. I questioned how much longer education can be founded on the sacrifice and goodwill of its employees. It was both gratifying and horrifying to read the stories some people told in their responses to the article. Gratifying because the article struck a chord (over 73,000 clicks to date). But horrifying because of the level of distress educators are experiencing (“I’m out at the end of the year. I can’t do it anymore. I’m done.”).
My article raised an urgent issue, but did not provide any answers. Some readers have asked a valid question, “Now that we have named the ‘beast’, what do we do about it?” And, “How do we bring back the balance without feeling that we are either doing less of a job, or denying our family our time?” Contained in that second question is the “sticking point” - the very reason change will be so difficult.
Few of us are accepting of, or happy with, providing the children in our care with less than equitable educational opportunities and outcomes; yet doing so takes everything, and having given everything, we still fail. It is this continual guilt and failure to achieve their aspirations for students that makes the teaching profession (and other caring professions) both defensive about its performance (because it can never be truly successful) and yet so easily “put upon” and manipulated. This has been brought home to me many times over the years when I have reached a point where I have felt the need to stand a student down. The following tells the story of a typical situation experienced by principals – not of any one particular situation.
The situation represented a serious safety risk for students and teachers and I felt that we needed some space to put a comprehensive safety plan in place before the child returned to school. I spoke to one of the student’s ministry support team about the stand down option and the person questioned whether this was in the best interests of the child. My answer was probably not – especially if stand down as a consequence wasn’t likely to work as a deterrent, but it would give us space for a reasoned response. I then spoke to the Ministry about it and was told that though a stand down was clearly warranted in the situation, I should think about the long-term impact on the child. This stand down would remain on the child’s record, and could impact the ability to get into private schools, for example, later. If I continued with the stand down, I felt that my commitment to care of the child would be in question.
When that kind of an argument is used, and you already feel guilty because you are doing your best but it is nowhere near meeting the needs of the student, it is easy to be “guilted” into doing something other than what you think is the best course of action overall. Of course, I don’t want to negatively impact any child’s future; but I have competing and conflicting responsibilities – to all students as well as to each individual student, teachers and parents. It is this that makes educational leadership so challenging.
Anyway, an agreed way forward was arrived at – keep the child at school and use interim response funding to provide necessary support and supervision for the child. Knowing the child as I did, I put the interim response funding application together and it included a range of responses to meet the holistic needs of the child – including academic – for a short period of time, while a more comprehensive approach would be established. I did this because I assumed that the Ministry’s duty of care was the same as they required of me – do what is in the best interests of the child – and that based on this they would fund it. But they didn’t – their duty of care wasn’t the same. They wanted us to keep the child at school, but they were not prepared to fund a sufficiently comprehensive response that truly met the needs of the child and kept everyone else safe. At this point, I felt trapped and naïve. The Ministry had driven my response by “guilting” me into a particular plan of action, and now had fallen short of providing the wherewithal to carry it out in the best interests of the child and the school. They were requiring we show care, but there was no requirement for them to show the same level of care by funding for care. Suddenly school staff were scrabbling around to find the resourcing and implement the plan; and most of the cost of a positive response, which was genuinely in the best interests of the child and school, fell largely on our already stretched resources. When all was said and done, we had been left holding the baby.
I have long been understanding of the fact that there is only so much money to go around and that the Ministry cannot afford to fund everything. However, the funding schools get is even more limited; and yet somehow we are expected to take that funding and stretch it in ways that are fiscally impossible. The numbers simply don’t add up. While the Ministry can say this is all they have to give; as schools, we are expected to keep making our resources stretch as far as our commitment to care and equitable outcomes for all students requires. Then, when we cannot make it stretch far enough, we might be hit over the head quite publically in the “league tables” or by the Education Review Office for not performing to expectation. No wonder many schools are stressed and depressed. To have an ethic of care and a big vision for learning, be continually asked to do more than resourcing reasonably allows, and then punished when you fail, is a recipe for the ill health of a system.
Everywhere I look, expectations are ramping up – Education Review Office, National Standards, Education Council, Communities of Learning, Innovative Learning Environments and personalisation of learning. I do not disagree with what the government is trying to achieve (though I do question some of the strategies and approaches) - there is certainly plenty of room for improvement in our sector and our profession - but schools must be resourced to do it. Change (and what we have currently is change upon change upon change) is hugely costly on resourcing and energy. Not that we are looking for it to be easy – just sustainable.
And once again, I realise I am part of the problem. In the type of situation I described, I allowed myself to be “put upon,” made to feel guilty and as a result took on more than our school is reasonably funded to do. Senior leaders gave up time that they didn’t have to provide supervision and support, and teachers missed out on release time intended for growing their professional capacity. “So,” once again, “the urgent drives out the important; and the future goes largely unexplored”. I do not in any way begrudge the resources we have spent on supporting students to remain at school. What I begrudge is that the Ministry controls the purse strings, says this is all they can give to show care, but as schools we are expected to keep on giving even though the bucket is empty.
So back to where I started with the question: how do we bring back the balance without feeling that we are either doing less of a job, or denying our family our time? I am not sure that we can unless the government begins addressing the sustainability of education and funding schools for the duty of care it expects. If the government won’t take upon itself the responsibility to fund for the outcomes/future it wants, then the only way we are going to shift this imbalance of power and responsibility-taking is by saying, “No” (and cope with the guilt that we will experience when we utter that simple but empowering word).
I am not a business owner responsible for funding the resourcing of its employees to do their job – though I often act like it. I am an employee - of the Amesbury School Board of Trustees; but in reality of the Ministry of Education and New Zealand Government who hold the power to resource, to determine expected outcomes and to judge outcomes (that is an article for another time). It must be the responsibility of the employer who holds the power and the purse strings, to provide the resourcing that enables employees to do the job that is required of them. When that is not provided, employees should say, “No.”
Even as I write this, I feel the anxiety twisting in my stomach: will I actually be able to say no? Possibly not. But then, as long as I am part of enabling the problem, how will things ever change?