Graeme Aitken: Teaching lacks status and appeal

Teachers can change lives by inspiring pupils and giving them a love of learning.Picture / Getty Images
Teachers can change lives by inspiring pupils and giving them a love of learning.Picture / Getty Images

The Herald reported this week that teacher graduates are having a struggle to find employment.

While Ministry of Education figures show vacancies are at their highest since 2010, some graduates are still not immediately finding fulltime work.

This is the result of several factors including an over-supply of teachers and a drop in school rolls.

Like other professions such as law and commerce, teaching is now a competitive career path compared to previous conditions that practically guaranteed employment.

Experience elsewhere suggests this is likely to increase the perception and status of our teachers.

In Auckland at least, there are also clear signs that the demand for teachers is increasing. Statistics NZ notes the region's population is likely to grow by a third, from 1.5 million to 1.97 million, by 2031, accounting for 61 per cent of the country's population growth.

That may seem like a long way off but it's worth recalling that Statistics NZ figures show Auckland's population has increased by an average 22,600 people a year over the past five years.

Schools in Pokeno and Tuakau on the Auckland periphery have recently spoken out about bracing themselves for the spin-off from Auckland's population growth.

That means more families are moving to the Auckland region, more houses are being built, existing neighbourhoods are growing and new ones are being developed. More schools will need to be built to accompany them.

The Education Minister recently announced three new schools were to open, including Ormiston Rd Primary School in South Auckland with a predicted roll of 700 pupils next year.

All of this points to the chances of getting a teaching job in Auckland continuing to improve.

We also need to look at our attitudes to teaching to try to raise the status of the profession.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing a teacher who had applied for a study scholarship. At the end of the interview he was asked by one of the panellists why there were so few men in teaching.

His answer essentially was that his love of the job was not matched by the general perception of its value. It lacked status and appeal.

This does not apply only to men, it is a common perception that deters both sexes. And yet it is a perception that was denied by the person in front of us and the other applicants we had interviewed - all passionate about teaching and young people, all wanting to achieve even more with and for their students, and all articulate, confident and intelligent.

In the same week I attended a remarkable musical and dance performance, an interpretation of the 1980s by children aged 5 to 10. The performance filled the school auditorium for five nights as parents, grandparents and the community came to watch a professional and engaging performance full of colour and creative talent.

It was not just a celebration of artistic endeavour; it was history come to life. The children were not just learning in the arts, their hearts and minds were engaged in learning through the arts. It was also witness to the power of teachers and teaching.

The whole performance was scripted and choreographed by teachers. These same teachers had engaged the community in costuming and set design. What these teachers showed was the inestimable value of teaching - engaged children, involved parents and a participating community.

It is anathema that a profession that can achieve such important goals is not held in the highest regard.

We commonly hear teachers talk about the stress, the difficulties, the long hours, and the lack of appreciation. While these are features of the profession, what worries me is the impression these messages create in those who might be considering teaching as a career.

The messages obscure the experience of changing lives, of inspiring and being inspired, and of communicating a love of learning.

The enduring joy of working with young people, their remarkable talent and skill; and the almost unique capacity of teaching to change lives for the better is the story that needs to be better and more often told.

A low-status profession? Hardly. It is the finest work that anyone can do.

Professor Graeme Aitken is dean of education at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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