Why are we so bad at under paying teachers so well?

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17 March 2023

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From an early age I knew that teaching was an exhausting job and that it would take whatever you were prepared to throw at it and then some. So why is the New Zealand government under paying teachers what they are worth?

Image above sourced from RNZ / Nick Monro.

My mother started teaching on the first day her last child (me) started school. Together we’d leave the house in the morning racing along the footpath with our bags clanging at our sides. Hers was a giant string bag she’d knitted, mine was a tiny suitcase with a butt hinge metal closure. Her school, the local state one, mine the Catholic one further along the road. We left the house early in the morning but very rarely went home together.

Some days I would wait for her in her classroom reading in the ‘reading corner’ while she put everything back in order. If there were staff meetings I wouldn’t wait around. When she finally did get home she often needed a sleep before making dinner. Sometimes another sleep after dinner.

My father too was a teacher and he supplemented the poor pay with part time work. Like many others, my parents worked long hours outside of their normal workday, including weekends and evenings, to write reports, and prepare lessons. I have memories of waking up in the middle of the night and finding my mother kneeling on the living room floor surrounded by teaching plans. When the school holidays arrived I watched my parents recuperate as though they had been ill. 

But If it was hard work then it has clearly got so much worse since. Five years ago at the age of fifty and after a career doing other things, I decided to become a teacher. Inspired by the idea that I could work outside of the commercial world, for the public good. Yay, noble me!

When I told a friend that I was going to train as a teacher he was impressed. Being a criminal lawyer he knew that intervention at an early age is crucial and who else but teachers have that access?. As the New Zealand educational pioneer Sylvia Asthon Warner once said “in a classroom it is possible to meet an unpatterned person” to change the course of someone’s life before ‘life’ intervened.

I had spent years working in other jobs and I’d like to think I was no slouch when it came to stamina but I found teaching intense, exhausting and astonishingly underpaid. I was not prepared for the reality of overcrowded classrooms, lack of resources and worse-  the professional loneliness. I was never going to be able to hack the hours and the stress.

I finished my training disappointed that I didn’t have what it took and more annoyed that what it took was not necessarily what a good educator needed to excel at. If it was hard work back in my parents day, clearly it has only got worse since.

Yesterday tens of thousands of teachers and school support staff in primary, intermediate and secondary schools went on strike.  Growing class sizes, dealing with students’ mental health problems and exhaustion are just some of the reasons along with demands for better pay.

I saw first hand the hours teachers worked. If you didn’t start by 7am it meant you were struggling to be on top of the day. It was impossible to do the job well and not work weekends and in the evenings. If I woke in the middle of the night it was to worry about a work plan. A lot of people I know employed in the commercial sector have these kinds of work related demands placed on them. It’s not unusual and it goes with a salary package, maybe a phone, possibly a car.

The starting salary for a teacher is less than $50,000, the top of the scale is $86,380. To give some context around this, in Germany a starting salary of teaching is NZD $84,000 and the top of the scale is NZD $120,000 and since we’re looking, the highest paid teachers in the world are in Luxembourg, where the average annual salary for a full-time teacher in primary education is approximately NZD 144,000.

According to the Ministry of Education, more than 80% of employed teachers are women. And yes there are studies suggesting this is a contributing factor to the low pay scale in New Zealand.  As a job that could potentially change so much about the way we live, why do we  not see it as the most important cog in society’s wheel and pay accordingly? Why are we under paying teachers so much?

The first Teachers Strike in Aotearoa was in August 1994 for reasons of poor pay and because the government was undervaluing and under appreciating and under paying teachers.

Neither of my parents marched. My father had suffered burn out before he met retirement.

It remains to be seen whether the government’s response to this week’s strike will be enough to address the issues raised and make a genuine difference but it has certainly started an important conversation about the value of teachers in Aotearoa and figuring out how to stop under paying teachers.

Related article: Cool for school: How to prepare your kids for their first day

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