Since COVID-19 entered our lives in February last year, the AEU has continued to advocate for our members’ professional interests, support members with individual cases, negotiate agreements, and campaign for a better deal for members and for public education more broadly.
AEU members do one of the most important jobs in the world. No country can flourish economically or socially without giving every child the best possible start in life, and that can’t happen without the high-level skills, knowledge and commitment of all those working in our education sectors – kindergartens, schools, TAFE and adult provision. And yet, we are one of the few professions that has to endure relentless public commentary about how we should do our jobs.
Instead, what we actually need is the time and space to do the work we are qualified and trained to do. To be given the professional trust to educate our students, without constant interference.
Even without the instability wrought by COVID-19, across all our sectors we are seeing an increase in burdensome regulatory requirements; constant assessment, data collection, analysis and reporting; endless accountability and admin; department reviews and surveys; the need to jump through hoops to get funding and support for students with additional needs; and growing expectations regarding student welfare. All this, on top of the core and most important work of preparing, planning and educating the young people we work with to help them realise their full potential.
What is the point of stretching education staff to breaking point in ways that are actually counter-productive to delivering good educational programs and outcomes for students?
We risk losing one of the most important aspects of education: the sheer joy of teaching and learning.
It is just not acceptable for the state government and other employers to keep relying on the goodwill – and excessive unpaid overtime – of its employees to meet their workload demands, especially when far too much of that workload relates to these additional administration and accountability measures. The result is stress, burnout, and far too many excellent educators leaving the profession. As one young teacher recently said in an interview for Network 10’s The Project: “I refuse to be part of a system that looks at a child and only sees a test score.”
All this comes back to a lack of professional trust and respect for the work that our members do, no matter their role. The more complex our jobs become, and the more responsibilities we are expected to take on, the less time we are given to concentrate on the things that make a real difference: collaborating with colleagues, undertaking professional development, developing teaching strategies, and giving students the individual attention needed to help them succeed.
And, in all of this, we risk losing one of the most important aspects of education: the sheer joy of teaching and learning. When I was teaching, one of my favourite ways to help students grapple with maths concepts was through hands-on activities such as cooking; or, in science, approaching problem-solving through forensic investigations, or workshops with local farmers to find solutions to environmental problems. That opportunity for innovation, or for utilising the particular interests of the students you’re trying to engage – and sharing our enthusiasm for learning – is starting to disappear.
In his regular AEU News column, teacher Travis McKenzie writes about his six-year-old daughter’s excitement at the prospect of another period of lockdown because of the exciting activities they were able to do at home. It made him realise the impact on teachers and students alike when “there are so many barriers restricting how spontaneous teaching can be that we run the risk of becoming automatons in a joyless machine”.
We all know accountability is important – and there is a place for education departments, employers and governments to implement changes to address systemic issues. But these must be made in collaboration with the people who actually work with students daily. Rather than constantly forcing staff to adopt the latest government or consultant’s thought-bubble, we need to be given the time to help lead the way on the best ways of improving our education system. And this professional trust has to come from every level if we are to see a real and sustained cultural shift in how we work, and in the way that work is perceived by the broader community.
If education staff were supported to use their professional judgement, their knowledge and creativity to lift student results, I’m certain we would start to see a very different, and far more positive, picture. Not only would we achieve better outcomes for our students but, in the process, give our members the best shot at achieving a better work–life balance and real job satisfaction – and maybe even bring back the fun of teaching and learning.