In 2004, I began my dream job: teaching professional writing and editing at TAFE. My classes were small, my students came from every walk of life and every age group. We created a small community of trust and growth and confidence.
I was a casual teacher, which meant that my prep and correction (including the huge amount of reading involved) was included in my hourly rate. I didn’t mind so much; I was young, and my partner had a job. It was only a problem if I was ill, or it was Christmas. For me and all the other sessionals, summer holidays represented three months without any income.
Then, in 2007, my partner got sick and lost his job while I was pregnant with our daughter. My coordinator encouraged me to write to HR and request to be made ongoing. I did so: a long letter outlining all the professional experience I brought to my role, my love of the job, my belief that I was doing good for students who were often vulnerable, had fallen out of structured education, had complex mental health issues or caring responsibilities.
I received a brief missive advising me that the institute had no obligation to make me permanent, but they would give me a 0.6 contract for a year. This felt like heaven! Personal leave! Annual leave! Long Service Leave! But the begrudging nature of the letter palled – I didn’t feel valued; I had simply made a big enough fuss.
TAFE is nothing without its teachers. They are its prime resource, its substance, its raison d’etre.
Eventually, I gained permanency – helped by successive AEU-negotiated agreements that made it more difficult to keep long-term staff in precarious employment. By then, though, the funding landscape of TAFE had changed. The state government (under John Brumby) created what is known as ‘contestable funding’. In this new ‘marketplace’, TAFEs were no longer guaranteed government funding, but were in competition with private registered training organisations.
For students, this meant previously low course costs became unaffordable. The number of funded hours for delivery was cut, enrolments dropped, and every year was a desperate attempt to keep our course running. Restructures disrupted collegiate relationships, CEOs came and went, programs were discontinued and staff made redundant – as happened, finally, to me. TAFEs were in the red, and the prime focus of upper management became meeting the bottom line.
So many of the things that gave me job satisfaction evaporated. But what was most insidious was the way marketing and managerial language crept into our thinking about our students. People – often young, often susceptible – became mere numbers. Meanwhile, TAFEs said goodbye to admin assistants, and all their work fell to teachers. Many – particularly those in the trades – struggled with this extra burden. What took their admin assistant ten minutes to complete took them hours.
I’ve seen members disciplined for repeatedly failing to satisfactorily complete unit plans so complex that George Orwell would turn in his grave. All in the name of ‘compliance’ – a punitive approach that has no useful place in education.
Middle managers were brought in who had no experience in education, no understanding of the holistic aspects of teaching and learning, no appreciation of the significant amount of pastoral care teachers provide while keeping on top of an increasing load of paperwork, assessment, and class preparation.
Things are slowly improving. The AEU has secured better TAFE funding. But the damage has been done to teachers’ sense of value and morale. Jumping ever higher hoops, they are anxious, worn out, and tired of being at the bottom of the pecking order.’
TAFE is nothing without its teachers. They are its prime resource, its substance, its raison d’etre. They are its goldmine. Without TAFE teachers there is no TAFE. Despite a love of teaching, too many are contemplating a return to industry. And it’s our students – our future – who will suffer.