A Sustainable Future in Education

I've had an experience, which has really got me thinking. Recently we advertised a job for a fulltime teacher to provide release for our teachers. Imagine our surprise when we began looking through CVs and realised this was the strongest pool of experienced teacher applicants we have had in a while. The first question we asked our top contenders was why they would want a position like this. Their stories were identical. They had been full time teachers for a number of years and they were simply tired and worn out. They still loved the idea of working with children, but they also wanted a life outside of school. Teaching had become all-consuming with the growing demands on teachers and now they wanted to expand their interests and learn some new, very different skills. These teachers had clearly been highly committed, very capable and deeply professional and now they were just plain exhausted and could not face the thought of continuing on that treadmill for years to come.

Let's look at it. Our teachers generally spend between forty-five and fifty hours per week at school. They arrive at 8am and leave around 5pm, often later. They barely stop for lunch or morning tea and they generally have two fixed meetings a week after school. That leaves a maximum of seven hours per week at school during the working day (including one hour funded release) for meeting with parents, collaborative and organisational meetings with colleagues, coaching sessions (either receiving or giving) and then planning and preparation to meet the needs of every student, marking students’ work and giving useful feedforward in a range of curriculum areas, student profiles, working on priority student plans, analysing data and evidence of learning, writing up their teacher inquiries and the myriad of other things that teachers have always done or are now expected to do.

Not only has the job become much bigger than it has been in the past and impossible to achieve (let alone do well) in a 45 – 50 hour week, but the level of mental effort and cognitive demand has increased significantly. The demand to personalise learning and meet the needs of every student requires much higher cognitive functioning than previously; yet the high teaching workload, continual interruptions, multitasking and collaboration make it impossible to find the “space” to function effectively at the cognitively higher level. All of this is causing cognitive overload.

I am an ardent supporter – no, activist – in the drive to meet the needs of EVERY student. Because if we are not committed to, and consciously making decisions to, meet the needs of every student, then we will be making decisions (albeit unconscious) about who will succeed and who will fail in our classrooms. The ONLY choice we have, once we understand this, is to ensure that our programmes meet the needs of every student. It is this understanding that drives me on.

However, I realised as a result of that recruitment experience that in spite of the unquestionable “rightness” of my cause and my undeniable commitment to equity in education over a long period of time, the education sector is in very challenging circumstances and I have been part of the problem. As a baby boomer and part of the second wave feminist movement, I grew up understanding “sacrifice”; and I have worked increasingly hard in support of equitable outcomes for all students - not sacrificing my family for the cause, but sacrificing my own needs and desires and my health and wellbeing. There have been many, many others like me. What I suddenly realised is that our current education system has been built on the goodwill and the sacrifice of educators like me; and what we have created is nothing but the illusion of change because what we have created is not sustainable in the long term.

My generation ran homes, raised families, and worked all the hours that our jobs and families required of us. We saw the need to do education better and as new requirements, directives, approaches came to the fore, we could see they were better for children and so we implemented them, working harder and harder to hold it all together. But in just a few years, we will be retired and education will largely be in the hands of a different generation who don’t want to live their lives as we have done; and why should they. They want it all – a meaningful job, a family they spend quality time with and they want to have leisure time – time to do things for themselves. They want to travel and take advantage of opportunities and not just during school holidays; and they will not stay in a profession that does not enable this. They are self-confident enough to leave and build a career elsewhere.

I’ve had a big wake up call. In a moment of time, I realised how at risk education is if our working conditions do not change dramatically and quickly. I think about all the millennial teachers on our staff and how different they are from me; and how I have struggled to understand them. I have bemoaned the fact that though they work hard, they will not sacrifice as I have done. I now realise that we have built a house of straw that will fall down when it is no longer propped up by the goodwill and sacrifice of its workers. In our desire to serve our students, we have allowed successive governments to put more and more onto us than they have been entitled to do. Education must no longer rely on the goodwill and sacrifice of its employees. It needs to be resourced realistically for the job that is required. In general, teachers should be able to work a 45-hour week, and not feel duty-bound to work all the hours under the sun.

The point is that when education is in different hands, as it will be very soon, I worry about what will happen to it, unless the government steps up and realistically assesses what it takes to do what it is demanding of schools and bases its resourcing on that.

My son, who is in his twenties, is a network engineer, gets paid almost as much as I do as a principal, actively tries not to work more than a forty hour week, and may get time in lieu if he does. He gets to travel, has had a personal trainer paid for by his company and has received bonuses. Others early in their careers are earning more than a teacher at the top of the scale, but required only to work six hours a day, five days a week because their employers believe the shorter working day will be more productive.

What are we going to do to keep Millennials in teaching? The world has changed and education can no longer be founded on the sacrifice and goodwill of its employees. Education must reinvent itself as a sustainable undertaking. This includes resourcing realistically for the job that is required - to achieve equity. If we don’t, the straw house will fall down.