Teachers’ pet peeve: poor pay

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.” A famous quote attributed to numerous writers from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw to American author and journalist H.L. Mencken.

Teachers hate it, of course, because there’s a tiny bit of truth in it. Some people go into the profession because they can’t do anything else, or haven’t tried to do anything else, and schools always need teachers.

I was thinking about this today when I was listening to ABC Radio in Sydney, with Wendy Harmer and Angela Catterns, discussing the latest work stoppage in the state with the NSW Teachers Federation President, Bob Lipscombe. He said many older teachers will be leaving the profession, and NSW will need 20, 000 new ones in the next few years … leading to a possible teacher shortage.

Why the industrial action? Well, the government is offering a 2.5 per cent wage increase, a cappred rise for all state public sector workers passed into law earlier this year.

Anyone who has faced a class in any school in the world will know this is not enough. Despite reports to the contrary, teaching was not meant to be easy. It’s a 24/7 stressful job with two months holiday every year, when most teachers have to think about what they are going to do in the next 12 months. During working weeks, they do lesson plans at home, mark papers and make up tests, while they often spend weekends coaching their students in sport or extra-curricular activities and also getting through more paperwork.

And in a post GFC world where parents are working long hours to pay the rent and myriad bills and keep the family fed and clothed and the kids with pocket money, a 2.5 per cent wage rise is unlikely to help cover any of the above, or more importantly, attract new teachers to the profession.

Many students are no longer sent to school by their parents with strict instructions to pay attention to their teachers and be a good boy or girl. They answer back, and in some cases, react with violence to their teachers. Controlling a class is something teachers learn, but seldom does it come easy.

It’s a test all teachers have to pass. I taught in the famous black community of Harlem in New York City in the late sixties and early seventies, and there were many days when I thought I’d never make it to the final bell. My best mate, James McCausland, used to pick up the New York Daily News in the morning, expecting to see a picture of me on the front page — either having been killed, or worse, having killed someone. They were violent times in the Big Apple.

One of the reasons I was in Harlem was to avoid going to Vietnam. If you taught in a disadvantaged area, you received a deferment from the draft. Harlem, like parts of the Bronx and Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, was certainly disadvantaged. I had decided I’d rather teach black kids in Harlem than kill Vietnamese kids in Vietnam; quite a few of my colleagues — young white males — at Wadleigh Intermediate School felt the same way. As Richard Nixon bombed Cambodia, and a number of unemployed youths wandered school corridors, the city was forced to close the schools for a few days to end the protests. I had invited several of my friends who had served in Vietnam to come watch me teach. They said to me after the school day ended: “Tom, at least they gave us a gun.”

But there were wonderful African-American teachers at the school: Ed Plummer, a friend of the famous black author, James Baldwin, who taught mathematics and helped run a program to get some of his students into prestigious prep schools and then on to top universities; Doris Brunson, a fabulous English teacher, who helped found the program with Mr Plummer and won awards for her contributions to education (here’s an article about her and the program from the NY Times in 1987 http://nyti.ms/tPgTVX); Walter Crane, another maths teacher who assisted with the program; and Ken Chevers, a keen science teacher who taught me more about discipline than any Marine Corps drill instructor. They were just a few of the teachers who were the real heroes of Harlem. And I know they weren’t paid what they were worth. But they were dedicated and most were still there when I went back to pay a nostalgic visit to the school in 1982.

I mentioned this to then Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister, Tony Abbott, who came in to Sky News for an interview in 2008 during a parliamentary break, just before he was about to pay one of his annual visits to Cape York to help teach Aboriginal kids as a volunteer literacy tutor. I told him it was good that he was going up there, but the real heroes are those who stay and teach in remote communities, where it’s hard to keep good teachers. I’m sure the experienced teachers in Cape York are not getting paid anywhere near what they are worth.

It’s ironic that the Remuneration Tribunal released its final determination today of salary rises for politicians and public servants, which gives a hefty hike of $45,000 to Federal backbenchers, in exchange for losing some of their perks. The Tribunal President, John Conde, said it was important Australia paid its politicians well enough to attract and retain people from all walks of life in the Parliament. Isn’t it also important that Australia pay its teachers well enough for the same reason — to attract and retain them in our schools?

I remember coming to Australia forty years ago when there was a teacher shortage in New South Wales, and the pay wasn’t very good then. It certainly wasn’t as much as I was getting in New York City, but things were much cheaper then: 18 cents a middy of beer. Boy, were they the good old days! But I was young and single, and I needed a job. I even got a settling-in allowance, which was sorely needed, since my mate James and I had $68 between us when we arrived — and we knew no one in Sydney.

I loved teaching at Cabramatta High School in Sydney’s western suburbs, but I eventually got back into the media, with the help of James,  who was then working for The Australian. Money was not a big factor, but it helped, and a lowly subeditor’s pay was much better than a teacher with 3 years’ experience. Even now, I’m sure a teacher’s job would be low on the pay scale against most other positions. No $45,000 wage rises for them!

Our children get the education we pay for, and given the present remuneration for teachers, they are likely to be shortchanged. Isn’t it about time we paid teachers what they are worth?

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