Deborah Coddington

Deborah Coddington is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Deborah Coddington: Teachers have lessons to learn on polite behaviour

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Teachers' attitude towards National ministers has been poor. Photo / Janna Dixon
Teachers' attitude towards National ministers has been poor. Photo / Janna Dixon

As soon as we have a National education minister the ugly face of teacher unions appears.

Those old enough will remember Lockwood Smith having to escape out some bathroom window from a marauding mob of union delegates after one particularly hostile meeting.

Last Monday we saw the rude reaction Anne Tolley received after delivering a speech to the primary teacher union's annual conference in Christchurch. Each time she mentioned certain words, grim-faced members waved their placards.

When she'd finished they refused to clap but just sat there, a recalcitrant, mulish, badly-behaved audience. At her car she was shouted at and hassled.

The teachers might well have valid grievances - and are probably justified in feeling hard done by - but this was a concerted, pre-planned co-ordinated attack on another human being.

These teachers were determined to undermine, humiliate and belittle someone they invited on to their patch. Sure, they disagree with the Government's policy but does that give them licence to be so ill-mannered?

Do they give parents the cold shoulder if they vote National? If guests are invited into schools and they support National Standards, do they get the silent treatment?

When students behave this way, the Education Review Office is on a school's case before you can say bullying policy.

Are these union delegates proud of their discourtesy? And since one of their squabbles with the minister is about standards, can they please answer this question?

Why is it that at primary level national standards just won't do at all, but at secondary level national standards - NCEA - are great? Is there a magic switch which is flicked?

Nonetheless, National's problem with education is it doesn't have a philosophy, or vision. It's just trying to fix the problems created by Labour.

Take early childhood education. National inherited a loopy policy from Labour. That Government decided no one was fit to educate the under-5s unless they had a degree in early childhood education, thus writing off 99 per cent of all parents.

What a smack in the face for all of us who've read What-a-Mess every night, spent hours teaching littlies to tie shoelaces, played Incy-Wincy-Spider, and repeatedly sung Never Smile at a Crocodile to deter car-sickness.

Under Labour, the more fully-trained staff a centre hired, the more government funding it attracted, so of course we had a budget blowout. Over five years, funding went from $428 million to $1.3 billion and no one knew if that was an investment in quality pre-school education or just taxpayer funded baby-sitting.

But National shouldn't just cut the budget to save money. According to Ross Penman, a former Early Childhood Council president, public investment in this sector, based only on the benefits to the child (and their later success) provides a return of $7 for every $1 invested.

And let's not just talk economics. In terms of brain development, what happens in a child's first five years is more important than any period after that. By the time children go to school, the brain is closing down unused circuits.

What about the parents, released into the workforce, paying taxes and GST, because of access to quality childcare services? It's a win-win.

Centres don't have to be fully staffed by teachers clutching their degrees. Just because someone waves the required certificate doesn't automatically make them an expert on educating the under-5s. If that were so, we'd mandate for all parents to pass the same test before they gave birth.

There are qualities like experience, wisdom, common sense and, yes, good manners when it comes to teaching students of all ages. I guess they don't matter so much today.

On the last Sunday in August I flew from Queenstown to Wellington. In the plane was a secondary school trip. Behind me, in earshot of the students, two teachers were discussing with glee the minister's recent "dealing to" at a South Island school. The male teacher thought it funny that her name rhymed with Wally.

If this is the level of intelligence we have to accept, no wonder good teachers are leaving the profession in droves. On that note, isn't it time we had some national standards for teachers?

- Herald on Sunday

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