TAFE & Adult Provision Still learning after all these years

Craig Jones. Photo: Meredith O’Shea

Celebrating 40 years of service at a TAFE institute is a rare and impressive milestone for any teacher. Melbourne Polytechnic teacher Craig Jones has managed something even more extraordinary, however, by commemorating that milestone three times. Five years ago, he was presented with his first certificate. A couple of years later, he was presented with another. This year, he’s just applied for his third.

“It’s become a bit of a joke,” Craig says. “When I got the second one, I told the CEO and director of personnel I would tell them when I’d actually been there for 40 years.”

In February 2020, that auspicious occasion arrived (although he’s yet to receive certificate number three). The confusion arose from Craig’s now unorthodox journey into the profession. Having studied electrical engineering at university on a teaching studentship, Craig trained to be a technical school maths and science teacher before, on graduating, he found himself billeted to the TAFE system.

At that stage, Collingwood TAFE – now Melbourne Polytechnic – was providing training for the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, preparing workers for life within the (then state-owned) power industry, designing vital equipment such as poles and wires.

“I’ve never had a problem with being able to admit that I don’t know everything.”

While it’s now common for TAFE teachers to come to teaching after a career in industry, in 1980 Craig suddenly found himself teaching students who were often his age or older and who sometimes knew more about the subject than he did.

“I’ve always been pretty laidback,” Craig says.

“I’ve never had a problem with being able to admit that I don’t know everything. When I first started, the final-year students knew more about the power industry than I did because they’d been working there for two years. I had studied and I did industrial experience in a telephone exchange, but that was not working for a power company.”

That lack of practical experience has, perhaps oddly, become more of an issue over his 40 years of teaching, as TAFEs have shifted their emphasis in teaching towards competency-based training. Given the specific expertise required by what has, post-privatisation, become a smaller and more scattered industry, it can be hard to find someone who has both the knowledge and the hours served – and who also knows how to teach!

“We started off running a program that could be done by somebody who was permanently in the TAFE system, because we taught engineering principles in the 80s,” Craig says. “Yet, with competency-based training, the requirement to have somebody who could not only teach the principles but teach the practical application as well has meant that you can’t do that divorced from the industry. There are not enough hours of delivery required to justify the time it takes for a highly qualified industry specialist to become certified to take those sessions.”

“When TAFE teachers taught students, we gave them a whole lot of knowledge that they could then go back to work and apply in so many different ways. Now we give them just enough knowledge to be able to do that specific task.”

Despite his wealth of experience as a teacher and expert in his field, Craig isn’t sure he himself would be able to apply to teach the course he has written and rewritten under the current rules.

“I spent 10 years travelling around the country chairing the Technical Advisory Committee and was also a member of other committees, developing training packages. I had them all fooled, thinking I had years of experience working in the power industry. Eventually I told them I hadn’t and they said, ‘But you know it all!’ Well, yeah, I’ve learned it from outside.”

As well as making it difficult to find teachers with the right expertise and experience, leading to an increased and uncomfortable reliance on casual staff, Craig feels the narrowing of assessment to focus on the practical application of knowledge and skills has done a disservice to students.

“In my view, it diminishes what students are actually capable of, because when TAFE teachers taught them, we gave them a whole lot of knowledge that they could then go back to work and apply in so many different ways,” Craig says. “Now we give them just enough knowledge to be able to do that specific task.”

“I lived through the era when people were saying you only applied 10% of what you learned at university. But your 10% is different to somebody else’s 10%. You left university prepared to go into a whole range of different areas.”

“I moved from electrical to mechanical engineering. As always, I studied and learned everything along the way.”

As with TAFE, the industry has changed dramatically over the past four decades. Privatised power companies have downsized and new technology means that fewer employees are needed. Craig puts his longevity at Melbourne Polytechnic down to a willingness to adapt – and to keep learning.

“I moved from electrical to mechanical engineering. I actually moved into the IT department first and I taught the subject areas within that which were relevant to my experience. As always, I studied and learned everything along the way.”

It also helps that, as AEU union rep, he’s built a strong working relationship with those in charge.

“I think that management like having me around because they know that I’m running the union in a conciliatory and consultative fashion. Sometimes I worry that I may be too compliant and they like me too much,” he laughs, “but I’m very proud to work for Melbourne Polytechnic.”

This year, Craig has become more involved in the union, taking up a post on the branch executive council. Having always been an active member, he enjoys feeling part of something bigger.

“I remember being at the Athenaeum Hall in Melbourne when we had really underestimated the number of people who were going to turn up. They were just everywhere out in the street. 

“That’s when you see that the union is actually stepping up and hitting the mark – when we understand what the members want and we’re giving them a way of campaigning to achieve it. That’s a good feeling.”

AND ANOTHER THING… 10 QUESTIONS FOR Craig Jones

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… Ears. You can’t teach well if you aren’t listening to your students. 

The most important things to leave at home are… Outside concerns and distractions. Teaching is too intense to be done well if you are not fully there.

The best advice I ever received was… Believe in the goodness inside everyone, until they prove otherwise.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… There will be things that make it hard to maintain your enthusiasm. Don’t let them win and this will be the most rewarding job you can have.

My favourite teacher at school was… Let’s just say all of them!

The people I admire most are… Those who care about other people, and don’t spend all their time thinking about, and looking out for, themselves.

The music or book that changed my life was…   Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins.

In my other life, I am… A dad. You only need to be with me for a short time before you’ll end up hearing a story that starts with: “My daughter…”.

If I met the federal education minister, I’d tell him… Australians still believe in their TAFE system, despite all the damage you’ve done to it. We might need to go back to go forward and make it again the world-class system that we all can be proud of. 

The most important thing the union does for its members is… Be there. So many things that go wrong for members can feel overwhelming when you are in the midst of it, but the union is there to provide the support and calm advice to help get things back on track. 

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