Saturday, 1 June 2019

What do teachers make?

What's the 'real oil' with these teacher strikes? As a member of the teaching profession for 40 years I've been thinking about this question, and what I see is not a pretty picture.

We have now been through 35 years of right wing free market ideology. The 'benefits' of the free market began to impact significantly on western economies in the 1970s as economist Milton Friedman began his crusade in pursuit of the free market. I well remember using his landmark television series 'Free to choose' with countless classes of Year 12 economics students.  It was the ideology of the day, and it made so much sense.

At the time his arguments seemed to be pretty powerful, and they significantly influenced the policies of the governments lead by Margaret Thatcher (UK) and Ronald Regan (USA), and ultimately the work of Roger Douglas in our fourth Labour government elected in 1984.

The argument was that we should have less government and more 'free market' (where the free market was the sum total of the individual choices of buyers and sellers). Friedman argued (amongst other things) that governments are not well equipped to make decisions for individuals, and that in fact we got the best outcomes for society if we allow the individual to make her or his own choices.

How is that connected with considerations of current industrial action by teachers? The free market view is that all workers are paid what they are worth, and the market will determine that 'worth'. All prices are the result of agreement between buyers (in this case, schools, and the Ministry of Education) and sellers (teachers).

However the view is flawed at such a fundamental level. Any student of economics should be able to tell you that markets only work effectively if a series of basic assumptions hold true. Amongst others, the market model assumes:

  • There is consumer sovereignty (that is, buyers have total control over what they do)
  • There is perfect knowledge (so everyone knows EVERYTHING they need in order to undertake a trade)
  • All resources are perfectly mobile (not just geographically, but also in terms of what they know and how they might be used.. in labour terms, they are meant to be able to undertake any activity
  • There are a large number of buyers and sellers, so many in fact that the actions of no one buyer or seller is able to influence the market.
There are others, but that's enough to be going on with. This is called perfect competition. In the context of the real world, this is clearly a load of nonsense. There is actually only one buyer in the state sector, for example, and that is the Ministry of Education (this is called a monopsony.. only one buyer). But even if every school were totally independent in this regard, there are still not sufficient buyers to make that assumption true.

Now how is that meant to work?

Take a parallel example. Let's say we are thinking about widgets. If there is a shortage of widgets the price goes up. This brings more widgets into the market, and reduces the quantities that buyers want to buy, bringing the market to equilibrium with fewer widgets selling at higher prices.

This does not and cannot happen with teachers. The industrial bargaining model prevents prices from moving freely, and you cannot simply conjure up more teachers.

And then there is the argument about 'performance pay'. which I heard raise its head again. 'Ah well, you see, we should be able to pay teachers in relation to the results they produce'. They should be paid in relation to the results they produce.' This argument is so bizarre, I struggle to see how any right thinking human being can continue to consider it, unless of course we understand that those people completely fail  to understand the complexities of education. There are so many impacts on learning outcomes, so many of which are beyond the control of schools and teachers.

Those that know me know that I do NOT accept deficit theorising, the view that we can do nothing because all these things are beyond our control. We make a difference because we focus on the things we can control. Perhaps the biggest flaw with the performance pay argument is that education outcomes are the result of collaborative activity, not the work of one single teacher. So whether it's the school culture driven by the Principal and senior leadership team, the work of each and every individual teacher, the amazing welcome each student gets as she or he passes the staff member on duty at the gate, or the staff member working at the reception desk, or benefits from the fact that the toilets and classrooms are well maintained by a fantastic group of property care specialists. All of these things impact on the educational outcomes that come from the school. So whose performance do you think can be separated out and paid accordingly?

So where does that leave us? It certainly destroys the free marketeers' arguments about the supposed worth of teachers. What's more, it denies the fundamental impact of good teachers on society as a whole. Their 'output' is not a series of widgets that people then buy. Their output is the fundamental fabric of society, the very humanity of us as people, our ability to create a caring world AS WELL AS our ability to be productive units in some economic machine. Yes BOTH are important.

What do teachers make? George Schultz put it so well:

Image result for snoopy cartoon what do teachers make?

The worth of teachers is to be found in their caring, their humanity. All schools need the same fundamentals to be successful, and this begins with the need for strong positive caring relationships. Schools need people who can empathise, people who can connect with the wide range of tamariki, of rangatahi, that society produces. Those relationships are built over the 6 hours of the school day, AND over happens way beyond that time. They happen with the teachers who spend their nights away giving children that senior geography trip, they happen with the teachers who leave their own families behind to take students to the theatre, or the calculator or maths competition, the kapahaka competition or the choral festival, the outdoor education camp in the mountains or the basketball game on a Tuesday evening.

Add to that the increasing complexity of the teacher's job. Children and their needs are becoming more complex, and teachers are all too often starved of the support resources that our children need. Most weeks, as a Principal, I face the challenge of how to meet the needs of children that the system starves of support. We live with the hope that this week's budget announcements may mean that our children can better access the mental health support and resources they need. When I see colleagues break down in tears of frustration as support is denied the children they try to support, when I see colleagues breaking down in tears of fear at the thought that this lack of resources puts these young people's lives at risk, I know we have sat quiet for too long. I have sat quiet for too long.

This is not an 8 hour a day job, 48 weeks of the year. It is definitely not a 6 hour a day 40 weeks of the year job, as some would suggest. 12 weeks holiday a year? Don' t make me laugh. Everything that happens in the classroom for 5 hours a day had to be planned and developed outside of that 5 hours a day, assessed outside that 5 hours a day, with feedback given to students outside that 5 hours a day. It often happens at ten o'clock at night as teachers sit with their laptop on their knees, having put their own children to bed, or come home from that sports practice or game that had to happen in the evening because there are not enough hours in the 'normal' school day for them to happen, or not enough court space for them to play on before 5pm.

Teachers care, just as nurses, police, and other social support professionals care. Yes they get paid, yes they do this as a job, but trust me when I say this is not and never has been a job you do for the money. People work in education because they want to make a difference, and because they CARE. However, because of their implicit drivers they also need to be able to do that job well, and frustration has never been higher.

Teachers' industrial action is partly based on the need for better remuneration. The shortage of teachers tells us that the money is not enough.  But it is also driven by their innate desire to do the right thing for our learners and whānau, driven by the moral imperative of trying to enable every child to be the best that she or he can be. Actually, we are ALL better off if this happens, even if we are amongst the more privileged in society.

To those who say, 'hey if you don't like it, go and find a better job', I say 'imagine what would happen if we all did that'. The strike last week showed the chaos caused if 50000+ teachers were NOT in our schools. I feel angry when I see responses to strike action that simply support the view that schools are little more than free child care. Schools, and therefore teachers, are the basic driver to social and economic progress. If we take the long view that our 2019 'wellbeing budget' espouses, NOTHING is more important than education because it is the driver of improved social and economic conditions for us all.  It is THE best investment a government can make in society.

To those who say teaching is a 6 hours a day, 40 weeks of the year, job, I say please come and join the queue of people fighting against each other to get into the profession. Oh wait, there are no queues? Oh.. doesn't that tell you something? If this was such a well paid profession, if this was such an easy ride, if the conditions were so good, people would be falling over themselves to get in.

They are not!!!

I regularly struggle wth the teacher shortage. It is NOT invented, it is real. Young people (in fact all people) are turning away for teaching as a career option to such an extent that we cannot find good teachers. Recruitment has become a competitive exercise. The net result of this must be that we create winners and losers in society. Remember that these winners and losers are our children before you go in to bat for competition.

What do teachers make? They make a difference, that's what they make. In fact, they make THE difference. An investment in teachers is the most important investment that we can make in our future. This is worth fighting for, because it is our future. It is the future for our children, and our children's future.

Robin Sutton
Te Huruhuru Ao o Horomaka Hornby High School


  1. What I love about your post Robin is that you see this every day. Your post is not extreme - it is real. I left principalship 13 years ago and if I had stayed...I think I would be dead. Seriously. The work that teachers, principals and schools undertake is critical, complex and challenging. You, and others like you, do this work because it matters more than anything. The expectations are huge, the support is lacking. Kia kaha my friend.

  2. Well written with defined arguments that run deep. I was two years into teaching when the Lange Government took office and remember the huge drive towards free market ideology and deregulating New Zealand .What has been made clear is that the teachers role has expanded hugely and so has the role of Schools.Addressing social equity and the critical, complex and challenging issues today's New Zealand puts in front of young pupils is a responsibility teachers have to accept as part of their profession.
    Well done Robin

  3. yes! yes! yes! Great words, wisdom and teachers do make THE difference :-)

  4. Clearly and convincingly argued. Thank you, Robin, for articulating it all so well.

  5. ..So very true Robin. I have a Daughter who has been a teacher all her life and I know the many hours she puts in after School in mind boggling.

  6. Excellent post. Clear, convincing arguments. More people, especially media and government need to read this

  7. GREAT post Robin, love the passion that exudes from it. Love the clear links to the reality of the job as well as the big picture. I hope you are well ;-)

  8. Thank you for writing this Robin, so well put

  9. This article would make great reading in the press. I overheard someone complain about teacher striking in a cafe the other day. I did not say anything but thought... "mate you clearly have no idea"

    Awesome reading Robin enjoyed the economic lens.

  10. Thanks for sharing your thinking Robin, as usual, you are on the money! We need to keep pushing back against failed neo-liberal ideology and a market approach to education, keep up the great work!