What Three Kiwi Teachers Had to Say About The Strike, Their Profession and The Future
Last week, more than 50,000 teachers across New Zealand took to the streets on strike to demand pay rises and better working conditions following unsuccessful negotiations with the government. NZ Educational Institute (NZEI) president Lynda Stuart told an Auckland crowd, which police estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 people, that the teachers were willing to strike again if necessary to win better pay and conditions. “We have come too far not to go further,” she declared.
I spoke with three Kiwi educators who are living through the ordeal to learn more about their fears, feelings and hope for the future.
“With the protests last week and the extensive coverage about issues of pay disparity and working conditions for teachers in New Zealand, have you felt a sense of camaraderie between you and your colleagues?”
Pania, Secondary School Teacher, Decile 4: Absolutely. We know what we’re worth and what our colleagues are worth, so it’s not about what we deserve as individuals but what we deserve as a collective. I can guarantee you that most teachers aren’t just teachers; they are also required to coach a sport, be a part of a school group, cultural practices, umpire sports games, manage teams or dance groups – all of these things happen outside of the classroom, outside work hours, sometimes on the weekends or late at night. I understand that there are many professions that require overtime, but usually their pay reflects this. My students often ask me, “Miss, do you get paid for coaching? Or if you do extra hours?” And they’re shocked when I tell them my salary is fixed. What has been so encouraging is the joining of our secondary school union with the primary school union! That really shows the need for change to happen – primary school teachers are tired too.
Simone, Secondary School Teacher, Decile 3: One hundred percent. Teachers are all facing the same issues and are struggling to do their job and do it well. There has been a unified determination to not only be heard, but to be listened to. I felt pretty proud to be a teacher walking up Queen Street in Auckland on Wednesday. It was an amazing display of solidarity.
Kelsey, Secondary School Teacher, Decile 6: I have felt a strong sense of unity with my colleagues. No one wants to be striking. No one can afford to lose a day’s wage. We’d all certainly rather be at school teaching our students. These things are reminders that we are all in this together. We are all fighting for what’s fair.
“Have you spoken with your students about the protests? What was that conversation like?”
Pania: A lot of them are really empathetic about the work we do and many of them are happy to have a day off (they’re teenagers I don’t blame them), but I do think a lot of them don’t fully understand why we are protesting. I have tried to be as present as possible within the school community, not just in a teaching capacity, but through sport and cultural groups which has allowed me to see students in a different light and them see me in a different light also. The students know that without the support of their teachers in other realms of school, the activities that they’re interested in become non-existent because there is no one to champion it for them. If you are truly committed to teaching, you will do anything for your students and they can tell if you care or not: students are the greatest bullshit detectors in the world.
Kelsey: I spoke with my Year 12 students the day before the strike to see if they understood what it was all about. They were able to identify that teachers were asking for better pay, better support, and better working conditions. I was impressed. When I told them how many hours I work, and what this works out to as an hourly rate, they were shocked. Last week was a biggie, as it is report season, and I worked 80 hours, which works out to be approximately $9.30 per hour. On a good week, I work 55-60 hours. I also talked to the students about their Year 12 Dean, who is beyond-words amazing and totally dedicated to her students. She commits so much of her time to supporting the academic and emotional needs of her students. As we see more and more students suffering from anxiety and depression, as well as complex identity issues, her role has become increasingly important. I told my students that she only gets around $75 a week on top of her salary for doing her Deaning work, and they were outraged! They see how much she does for them and they realise that this does not equate. The Dean position is totally under-appreciated by the government in both a financial sense and in terms of how much release-time accompanies the role.
What specific actions would you like to see the government take to improve the living and working conditions of teachers? For example, do you believe that primary and secondary school teachers should have pay parity?
Pania: The ratio of students to teachers needs to be increased, we need better infrastructure for schools to teach at the required level and we need an accommodation supplement for Auckland teachers. A lot of the union are on the fence about the accomodation supplement because some teachers don’t think it’s fair, but the reality is that 80% of teaching jobs are in Auckland so naturally there is more demand, however if you are spending almost 50-60% of your income on rent or a mortgage then Auckland teachers are handicapped. Pay parity is such a difficult concept to navigate because what is the measure for success with students? Is it their achievement? For example, I taught a level three health class which had one exam at the end of the year. I taught those students and did extra classes with them until I was blue in the face, but some of them just didn’t show up to the exam. That contributes negatively towards the overall achievement average despite the fact I had done everything in my power to ensure those students were well prepared. I also believe that there needs to be more support for our at-risk students, Maori and Pasifika students especially. They’re the ones we are failing the most and I believe there are some deep-rooted, systematic issues that contribute to this.
Kelsey: We need more release-time to do our job, and less administrative bullshit. We need pay that reflects the incredibly complex, stressful, and time-consuming work that we do. For me, it’s about the conditions more than the pay, though both are important. I, along with many other teachers, have to sacrifice my physical and mental health, and my social life in order to do my job. I am not, nor do I ever want to be, the kind of person who does the bare minimum (and I feel like I would be doing the bare minimum if I only worked the 40 hours I am paid for a week). Our rangatahi deserve better than that.
“Is there anything else you would like to add about your job, career, or the protests?”
Pania: Last year, at the age of 27 I became the Head of Faculty for PE and Health, where I looked after thirteen staff. Adding to this, I was the youngest HOF they had ever had, and I was younger than 80% of the dept. I was extremely proud of this achievement and worked so hard that year because I didn’t want to stuff it up or have people use my age or sex to blame my potential shortcomings. I was able to commit so much time to the job because I had no children and my fiance was living in Japan. This meant I didn’t feel guilty about working long hours because I had no one waiting at home for me. But it was hard to maintain the work required as HOF and still do the work needed to teach. Although I had two hours of non-contact time, I often stayed at work until 6:30pm every night to complete work. It upsets me to say, but at times my teaching suffered because I was trying to keep up with HOF work. I still taught three classes, two of which were doing NCEA and one junior class. There were literally not enough hours in the day to complete everything I was responsible for. But for many teachers this is the only way we can make more money as our salaries hit a threshold which is about $74,000. I have since taken leave from my job so that I can move to Japan and live with my husband, and I seriously don’t think I could return to this profession if things were to remain the way they are now.
Simone: I worry about our wonderful beginning teachers and how long they will last before leaving the profession. I worry for our students future. I’ve been teaching for 10 years now and the workload has significantly increased in that time. We can’t just teach anymore – we do so much more than that and are not being paid accordingly. Our non-contact time is eaten up with admin tasks instead of lesson planning and preparing resources. We cannot be the best for our students if we do not have the time to adequately prepare for them – unless we bring our work home, as so many of us do.
Kelsey: As this was my first strike, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it was such an incredible experience to be a part of. It was emotional and exhilarating. Everyone I spoke to about issues with my job UNDERSTOOD me, and we revved each other up. We marched with pride; pride in the essential work that we do, and pride in our students. The public have been so supportive and it has been incredibly heart-warming, however,I did receive one message yesterday in response to one of my social media posts about the lack of time teachers have to do their job and still maintain a personal life. It said, “Serious? You have (the equivalent of) 1 year off every 5 years.” I found this ignorance so insulting – I shouldn’t have to defend or justify my profession but I do feel like teachers often have to. Holidays aren’t for the teachers, they are for the students. Teachers get non-contact time, like school holidays, to mark and moderate assessments, complete administrative work, research new material (as an English teacher, this might involve reading five novels and watching several films), planning units of work, thinking creatively about how to make learning fun when you’re restrained by NCEA assessment, attend professional development courses, work on our teacher inquiry, and collate evidence that we meet the registered teacher criteria. Currently, our goodwill is being exploited.