Peter Lyons: Attitudes to teaching out of touch


Fuss over an exiting football coach hard to swallow when an academic teacher offers more to classrooms.

Kevin Fallon was paid to coach  yet many academic teachers would get no extra pay for taking a  team. Photo / APN
Kevin Fallon was paid to coach yet many academic teachers would get no extra pay for taking a team. Photo / APN

Kevin Fallon gets dismissed as a football coach at Mt Albert Grammar and it makes the national news. If a top physics or maths teacher was to leave a school due to frustration, it would be of little news value. Our attitudes to education and the importance of quality teachers is still colonial in nature. It is little wonder we appear to be lagging behind other countries in educational achievement.

Sporting success has become the hallmark of a quality secondary school in recent years. Sports academies, staffed by semi-professional coaches, have become commonplace, particularly in urban areas. This is partially due to the blurring in comparisons of academic results between secondary schools. NCEA data makes it difficult to directly compare the academic performances of schools. Many high-decile schools have adopted alternative qualifications such as the Cambridge International Exams. This makes direct comparisons of the academic results of schools even more difficult. So schools have reverted to other methods to advertise their desirability to potential parents and students. These techniques include state-of-the-art facilities, access to the latest technology or sporting prowess.

Politicians have responded to the proliferation of other qualifications in our schools by stating that parents and children should have choice. This has made it harder for tertiary institutions to rank students for entry to restricted-entry courses such as medicine. Academic qualifications are a form of currency. They must have absolute credibility otherwise they will be undermined as a measure of achievement. NCEA has always struggled to meet this standard. This hasn't been helped by allowing other qualifications in state-funded schools.

Access to quality teachers is seldom an overt means of advertising for schools because of the difficulty of proof. But there is a further problem here that is seldom acknowledged. We really don't value quality teachers.

Fallon is a very good football coach, but an outstanding physics or maths teacher is likely more valuable in the difference they could make to their students. Fallon may produce the occasional professional footballer but a quality teacher could make a greater difference in the career paths of more students.

I have taught at tertiary and secondary level. I have trained teachers in my subject areas. The people I taught in this capacity generally entered teaching for altruistic reasons. They wanted a job that provided a sense of meaning. The problem is that those who are really good at teaching generally have other options. They are people who would succeed in any occupation. These people often become frustrated and leave. Occasionally they move into management. Often they learn to satisfice. Satisfice means learning to do the best you can without striving for absolute excellence because the return for the effort is simply not worth it.

Several years ago, I took time off from classroom teaching to study for a masters degree. I was given the opportunity to do some private tutoring of overseas students. I was told that the minimum charge was $70 per hour. As a classroom teacher I had been giving my time away for far less than this hourly rate.

Management in schools urge teachers to give service in taking after-school activities, extra tuition classes or weekend sports. It is doubtful that many doctors or lawyers or accountants would respond positively to such utterances.

Fallon was paid to coach football at Mt Albert Grammar yet many teachers at the school would have received no extra pay for taking a sports team. This is the fundamental dilemma of teaching as a profession. Unless teachers recognise that they are providing a valuable commodity in the classroom which must be their core role, they will continue to be underpaid and under-appreciated as a profession. The flipside is they also need to be more accountable in their performance in the classroom.

In the lead-up to this election, Labour has said it will pour money into reducing class sizes and increasing the number of teachers. National has said it will take star teachers and principals out of their own schools to sprinkle their magic dust on underperforming schools.

The reality is that we need to make teaching a proper profession that is attractive to our best and brightest and provides a career pathway that keeps the best in the classroom and keeps them motivated.

Quality is far more important than quantity.

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

- NZ Herald

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