I recently enjoyed watching this talk given by New Zealander Dr. Kerry Spackman. I find his work very interesting because as a kind of Renaissance man, he understands society from different perspectives and has written compellingly about the complexities of what it means to be human, from each individual’s subjective reality (from the perspective of a neuroscientist) to the wider structural dynamics of society (as a philosopher). Oh, and he can earn up to $20,000 a day coaching elite athletes. And he led the All Blacks to their last World Cup win. Also, some of his writing on the human condition got me through some dark times. So, yeah, when he talks, I listen.
As a ‘big picture’ thinker myself, I was intrigued by the vision he puts forth of how society can better function. While it’s too complex to repeat here in any depth, he highlights the ways in which contemporary capitalist society is messed up – the giant gaps between rich and poor, the inequalities and injustices this fosters. He also bemoans our lack of moral education (not to be confused with religion). I have been particularly drawn to his thoughts on education as an institution because I agree with many of his observations and ideas.
Back to his talk. In response to a question about how education in New Zealand can attract the best people, he relays an anecdote about being a teacher many years ago at one of New Zealand’s most prestigious and poshest schools.
“I think our teaching profession is grossly undervalued. I really do. When I was young I had a couple of years teaching at Auckland Grammar School, physics and math…I couldn’t sustain more than two years. It’s a tough job to do well. It really is.”
(And really, if someone with his incredible capabilities and educational pedigree had such a hard time at one of the best schools in the country, how is it for those working in schools where kids come to school everyday hungry and without any books.)
This is the part I like:
“If you take a society like the Greeks, who were at the top? The philosophers, the teachers were the most valued people in society. They were at the top. I look at the money paid to doctors and the money paid to teachers. Completely different. And yet, for me, who has the most impact on society? Who, if they’re really skillful, does the best job? For me, it’s teachers. A skillful teacher doesn’t just teach Pythagoras or the capital of Australia. A skillful teacher awakens a sense of passion and enthusiasm in their students. The curriculum is cluttered. There is pressure to meet all sorts of objectives. I understand all of that.”
He also writes about this theme in one of his books which is about the nature of truth and reality.
“We definitely need to reward successful teachers and give them higher status in society than we currently do. It is the old story: you get what you pay for. And if we don’t value our teachers as highly as our sports stars or medical doctors then it should come as no surprise to us that the moral health of the next generation is going to be poor.”
In his talk, he concludes that:
“A billion dollars is spent on jails. Just jails. Imagine if we had a billion dollars for teachers, what we could do?”
Also, no rant about education or teachers would be complete without mentioning Finland, a kind of educational utopia.
As one Finnish expert wrote in the Washington Post:
“Finland is not a fan of standardization in education. However, teacher education in Finland is carefully standardized. All teachers must earn a master’s degree at one of the country’s research universities. Competition to get into these teacher education programs is tough; only “the best and the brightest” are accepted. As a consequence, teaching is regarded as an esteemed profession, on par with medicine, law or engineering. There is another “teacher quality” checkpoint at graduation from School of Education in Finland. Students are not allowed to earn degrees to teach unless they demonstrate that they possess knowledge, skills and morals necessary to be a successful teacher.”
This would go a long way to improving the state of the teaching profession in NZ where many teachers burn out after five years or the really talented, capable ones reach their pay cap quickly, and are lured by more prestigious and lucrative careers.
Anyone who has had to wade into the murky depths of education data relating to student learning, teacher effectiveness etc. knows that it is far too messy to be able to make any solid conclusions. There are too many variables and what works in one setting doesn’t usually work in another. South Korea looks good on paper, but students are under immense stress to perform and achieve in this hyper-competitive society. To the point that there are spats of suicides every year by young people who buckle under the stress or fear disappointing their parents.
Perhaps if we got our education system right, we wouldn’t need all that money of for the jails.