For everyone Whose side are you on?

  • By Adam Voigt
  • This article was published more than 11 months ago.
  • 31 Jul 2023

It seems we just can’t get past our love affair with ‘wars’ in education. A case in point is the so-called ‘reading wars’. I’ve spoken to several teachers who are genuinely anxious about which side of this debate they feel they should fall on.

It simply isn’t productive or useful for our teachers to be forced into choosing whether they’ll become a lifelong card-carrying ‘whole language’ devotee or a synthetic phonics zealot as though they’re choosing a football team.

The same applies to our experience of teaching overall. And yet, this is where we now find ourselves when discussing the teacher and principal workforce crisis. The current pressure, even on early career educators, to decide whether to belong to the “teaching and school leadership has become unbearably torturous” camp, or the “teaching is still a truly rewarding and fulfilling gig” camp, is palpable.

Similar binary battlefields are littered across the educational landscape, and they demonstrate little more than our collective inability to engage with complexity and ambiguity. As teachers, especially, we should be better than that.

The only winners in such debates are those already holding all the cards in the form of power and money. The losers – collateral damage, if you will – are educators and our students.

As the little girl in the Old El Paso ads so eloquently puts it when choosing hard or soft-shell tacos: “Why not have both?” Now, this is a kid we should be listening to.

Articulating that the working conditions of teachers are worse than ever does not mean saying that teaching is without its rewards.

We need to be better than picking a side, then arming ourselves with only the studies and statistics that soothe our own self-selected bias. If we can’t engage in a decent and detailed conversation about one segment of a school’s program, how will we tackle the core issues looming as existential threats to education in Australia?

Sure, mainstream media outlets love the eyeball-attracting headlines inspired by those who prefer leaping to binary extremes. And publication of hysterical opinions incites enough public gaslighting, strawman arguments and generally uninformed outrage to keep these outlets satisfied until the next outburst.

By singling out members of the public with heated opinions at either end – usually based on arguments about the education of their own children – the media promotes a political motivation rather than an educational one. When what we really need, collectively, is a debate that moves more people away from blinkered self-interest to a place where we can have a sensible discussion about the educational experience of all of our kids.

In other words, we need to talk about the big issues – education funding, workforce shortages, and respect for the profession – with the calm and rational approach that feels safe for all members of the profession and the public to join in.

I sincerely acknowledge that transforming the debate about funding our schools, paying our teachers properly, and resourcing all educators in a way that ensures high-quality schooling for every Australian, is not going to be easy. Worthy pursuits rarely are. But, as a start, we need to adopt the mentality of every teacher who enters any Australian classroom and be the adults in the room.

Anyone who wants to make us choose between loving and hating the job is more interested in the spectacle of a car crash than in helping to prevent one.

Articulating that the working conditions of teachers are worse than ever does not mean saying that teaching is without its rewards. Teachers should not be made to feel guilty for voicing the fundamental tensions within the job. Experiencing challenges, and advocating for more equitable learning conditions for your increasingly impoverished students, does not mean you can’t also revel in the little wins that teaching provides every day.

Speaking about the gap between public expectations and the available resources – a gap that has been widening year on year – does not equate to talking down the profession. As I see it, anyone who wants to make us choose between loving and hating the job is more interested in the spectacle of a car crash than in helping to prevent one.

It is undeniably insulting to be told to “calm down” in our quest to highlight the real and tangible factors preventing young people from entering the profession and exacerbating the exodus of experienced folk. And I get that rarely in the history of people being told to “calm down” has that had the effect of calming down anyone.

But, with the future of our education system on the line, could we find the strength? Could we find the strength to put our arguments in a logical, sensible and ethical manner in the places where people might listen to us? Whether in a café, pub, car park or group chat.

Could we adopt the Old El Paso approach and find ourselves cheered by a throng of sombrero-wearing supporters for innocently pointing out the obvious? That teaching is both wonderful and exhausting. That we and our students definitely deserve better, and yet teaching remains one of the most worthwhile professions there is. Then we all might have the chance to benefit from an exemplary public education system.

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