Are Teachers Undervalued?

educateI 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?”

Indeed.

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.

An Ugly Truth

sadstatueTwo friends brought to my attention the tragic cases of sexual violence that are currently making headlines in New Zealand. Writer and human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott has summed up the issue on her blog:

If you are reading outside New Zealand, the short version is that this week one of our TV news shows broke a story about a group of teenage sexual predators who, for the past three years, have been boasting on Facebook about  ‘roasting’ drunk and underage girls. They call themselves the ‘Roastbusters.’ I looked up what ‘roast’ means in urban slang. It means multiple males having sequential sex with a single female…As I said, there was a reason I was afraid to get drunk at rugby parties when I was a teenager. That is rape culture and I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve been. But it’s not inevitable.

Drawing on her extensive work in documenting cases of violence against women in Afghanistan, Elliott goes on to compare how the rape culture in New Zealand is not so different. She talks about her own personal experience of growing up a teenaged girl in small-town New Zealand and how she always had to be careful and never take risks with drinking too much or wearing “provocative” clothing, because it was likely one of the boys she socialized with would take advantage of her, and if something did happen, it would be her fault. She talks of how the police have shied away from taking any consequential action, despite being privy to information that would suggest there have been many miscarriages of justice in sweeping these now very public cases under the rug while insinuating that the victims were asking for it. Finally, she concludes that:

What we are missing is the courage to be honest about how ugly some parts of our beloved country and culture really are, the courage to own the part we all play in letting this go on, and the courage to speak up..to take action where and when we can…So I’m starting here. Because rape culture is pervasive, but it’s not inevitable.

While Elliott’s exploration of this is more personal, University of Auckland academic Nicola Gavey published an article on sexualpoliticsnow.org.nz that probes into the roots of this occurrence and how the culture at large has come to normalize sexual violence and misogyny. In her own words:

I have become more and more convinced of the connection between sexual violence and a wider cultural tolerance of misogyny. Sexual violence and gang rape are not new. But something seems different about the narcissistic performative nature of these violations. That they are sometimes filmed and distributed, or gloated about, on social media. That the boasting is so open, online for anyone to see, is made possible by communication technologies that weren’t around even 10 years ago. Different kinds of behaviour become possible. That these boys and men use this technology without any apparent sense of caution for the repercussions – not only for their victims but also for their own reputations later in life and their chances of getting caught – suggests that cultural norms are changing with the technological possibilities.

Both these commentators have written so powerfully and concisely on this topic that I don’t think I can add much that hasn’t already been said. However, I do want to add, in the vein of Elliott whose title for her piece resonated with me (‘There’s a reason I was afraid to get drunk at rugby parties’) that many of my friends were victims of sexual violence as teenagers. Some of these girls were early bloomers with an appetite for experience which was taken advantage of by older men who should’ve known better than to ply a fourteen year old girl with alcohol, drag her outside and then rape her. Other cases would be less black and white in the face of the law – girls whose beloved boyfriends get carried away and demand and force sex despite their partners’ protestations. In fact, recently a friend in New Zealand told me about her experience of date rape with a boyfriend from years ago and said, ‘I’ve heard it from so many other women – it’s so common it’s not even talked about.’ Part of me was shocked to hear this, but part of me wasn’t surprised either – after all, some of my friends have told me similar stories about their own experience with men they knew and trusted. I hope the culture can change. After all, in the 1950s, it was socially acceptable for men to go out and get drunk then come home and beat their wives. Now I would hope that such behaviour would be duly punished and would-be perpetrators would think twice. To paraphrase Elliott, rape culture might be pervasive, but it’s not inevitable.

Homesick & homeless

tunnelbeachIt’s my guess that most people feel a sense of belonging and community where they live. While they dream of taking exotic vacations to faraway lands, they don’t actually want to move their life to a new place. Growing up on an island at the end of the world in which I could see the pacific ocean everyday from the front of our house, I always felt a sense of wanderlust, a curiosity of the world beyond my neighborhood, city and country. And that is why I have traveled so much, to explore these worlds. To immerse myself in other cultures. Of course, there are downsides to this, one of them being that although I don’t have a strong sense of home (I don’t feel it here, I didn’t feel it much there either), I do occasionally get pangs of homesickness for the wonderful (in hindsight and from thousands of miles away) place that I grew up in.

As the colorful autumn foliage in Seoul fades – the patches of red, yellow, orange and green become duller, sprightly lambs are frolicking about and butter-colored daffodils are blooming in New Zealand. People are braving the icy waves for their first swim of spring, planning their annual summer hiking and camping trips and drinking beer outside in bare feet. I miss walking down to the beach near my mother’s house, swimming in the hot salt water pool. Drinking chai tea at one of the esplanade cafes. I miss being able to walk from one end of the main street to the other in twenty minutes. I miss the public library, the art gallery, the restaurants, the cafes, the fresh air, the rolling green hills, the pristine beaches, my laid back friends who want nothing more than to be happy. Yet, I know that those things would not be enough to make me happy there.

My friend sent me a song, somehow knowing how I felt. It’s by the Kings of Convenience, whom I had never heard of before (further proof of how uncool I am). The last lines of ‘Homesick’ say it all:

Searching boxes underneath the counter
On a chance that on a tape I’d find

A song for
Someone who needs somewhere
To long for

Homesick
Cause I no longer know
Where home is