Peter Lyons: School dreams turn to nightmares

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Teachers' initial enthusiasm quickly tempered by harsh reality of dull curriculums and crammed classrooms.

In the idealised Hollywood world, the super teacher never seems to have more than 15 students. Photo / Getty Images
In the idealised Hollywood world, the super teacher never seems to have more than 15 students. Photo / Getty Images

I went into teaching for the holidays. I can remember sitting in a circle of new trainee teachers at college on the first day, stating our reasons for being there. When I expressed mine it met stunned disbelief.

I was admonished for my inadvertent cynicism. I am one of the few from that intake who is still teaching. I generally still enjoy it.

Before embarking on a teaching career I did a number of jobs in both the private and public sector. In the most recent, I was a senior instructor at Outward Bound in Australia.

This involved spending months on end in the bush with officer cadets from Duntroon military academy. Their conversation around the campfire often consisted of describing the possible exit wounds of various calibres of small arms fire. Teachers' college was a marked improvement in conversational discourse.

My induction to the classroom was shaky. My knowledge of economics was rusty and my board work was Picasso in style. I had a dread of becoming the type of teacher that I had experienced in my own schooling. This had ranged from strict disciplinarians to ineffectual doormats with little in between.

For most new teachers a fear of the loss of control is paramount. Sadly, in times of stress, old role models re-emerge.

As with many beginning teachers I wanted each lesson to be a dynamic, unforgettable learning experience. The harsh realities of indifferent learners, crammed classrooms, dull curriculum and inflexible timetables soon tempered my ambitions.

In the idealised Hollywood world, the super teacher never seems to have more than 15 students in the class and they all seem willing to remain seated and indulge in meaningful discussions.

Teaching is as much about stamina as intellect and creativity. Few teachers launch their careers with the stated ambition of being dullards in the classroom.

In my teaching career I have worked with many wonderfully generous and outstanding teachers and administrators as well as some incompetent and ineffective types. This is the same in any occupation. Unfortunately, teaching suffers from the contempt of familiarity that brain surgery or dentistry does not.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the job is the collegiality. Most people do it to make a difference rather than for monetary gain. One of the downsides is the inflexibility of our education system and the realisation that, as a society, we fail to fully appreciate the extreme importance of learning as the essence of a good life.

Politicians of all persuasions pay lip service to ensuring a quality schooling system. It is not their fault. They are saying what we all want to hear.

We have tried competition between schools, major reforms in curriculum and assessment and more recently, nibbling at the edges with charter schools.

In my time in the classroom the overriding aspect that has struck me is that it is an extremely personalised occupation. You can throw all the iPads, textbooks and smart boards at it but it ultimately comes back to people and relationships.

Charter schools are not going to suddenly unleash a cohort of super teachers who were denied by the rigours of conventional avenues into teaching. It is a strange job where every day you hold a mirror up to your own mood and motivation in interacting with, and motivating others. Some days you get it wrong.

Unless we decide to make teaching attractive to our best and brightest and ensure conditions that retain them, if they are good at it, most other reforms are superfluous.

Greater accountability for teachers and their managers would also need to be a feature of such a system. It would involve a massive cost to our society, not just in funding. It would also reduce high-calibre entrants available to other occupations.

There is little point in lamenting international rankings in educational achievement if we are going to only tinker with the system.

Demanding that teachers work harder or subject themselves to greater accountability will be of little consequence.

If we are serious about the importance of education, we need to make the hard decisions in resourcing. This will involve major systemic and attitudinal changes.

Our attitude to education is still colonial in nature yet our world is globalised. The quality of education for our young will be a key determinant of our future individual and national prosperity.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom and has written several economics texts.

- NZ Herald

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