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More than thanks? Teachers change lives

A teacher-friend recently said she’d got some dirty looks for wearing her “More than thanks” T-shirt in Macquarie Street in the CBD.

“People wonder why there’s a teacher shortage,” she groaned. “It was once a caring profession but the government and bureaucracy are killing it. Real wages are falling – and, for the responsibility and out-of-hours slavery, it’s extremely low pay.”

Covid-19 has significantly added to the challenges faced by already over-extended education systems and teachers throughout the world.

But there is still an element of society that thinks teachers just don’t do enough.

“Remember when former Morrison government minister Stuart Robert lashed out at ‘dud’ teachers?” asks Nicole Mockler, Associate Professor of Education, University of Sydney, in a piece for The Conversation. Or when the then acting education minister said the “bottom 10 per cent” of teachers “can’t read and write” and blamed them for declining academic results?

These slurs were more than just sensational headlines or a politician trying to get attention, Mockler argues. In fact, she says, the way teachers are talked about in the media has a flow-on effect to how people feel about becoming a teacher, and how current teachers see their place in the community.

Mockler’s new book examines how teachers have been represented in the print media in Australia for the past 25 years. In her world-first study, she examined more than 65,000 media articles from all 12 national and capital city daily newspapers, including all articles that mentioned teacher and/or teachers three times or more.

“When you look at the harsh criticism and blame placed on teachers,” she says, “it’s no wonder we are not attracting enough new people to the profession and struggling to retain the ones we have.”

Mockler notes three key findings from her research that are critical when it comes to the way we think and talk about teachers and their work.

We are fixated on “teacher quality” – “Teacher quality” is a way for politicians to place the blame elsewhere when they should be committing to addressing the root cause of these problems: inadequate and inequitable funding, excessive teacher workload, unreasonable administrative loads, or teachers being required to work out of their field of expertise.

Teachers’ work is made out to be simple (it’s not) – Teaching is relentlessly difficult, and while not everyone needs to understand that – in the same way not everyone needs to understand exactly how to conduct brain surgery – we do need to pay some respect to the 300,000 or so Australian teachers who navigate the profession every day. Just because the complexity may not have been evident to us in our 13 years as school students doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Teacher-bashing is the norm – “I found stories about teachers were disproportionately negative in their representations. I did find ‘good news’ stories in my research but they were outnumbered by articles that focused on how teachers, collectively and individually, don’t measure up.”

Mockler says that, as we consider what to do to improve teacher numbers in Australia, we need to think about the way we talk about teaching and teachers in the media.

If all people hear is that teachers are to “blame” for poor standards and they should be finding their demanding, complex jobs easy, this is hardly likely to encourage people into the profession. Nor does it give those already there the support and respect they need to stay.

Australia celebrates World Teachers Day on the last Friday of October each year. But why not also thank teachers this week for the important role they play in our communities and for the positive impact they have on the lives of students.

Bestselling author Sally Rippin (page 3) tells us teachers are often subjected to soul-destroying criticism and unfair expectations – but a dedicated teacher can impact a child’s future.

“Teachers change lives.”

They deserve more than thanks for this, of course. But saying thank you is a start.

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