Our teacher organisation leaders have failed us, and continue to fail us. Over the Tomorrow’s Schools years, teacher leaders have spent more time counteracting my arguments than opposing the parts of government policy that needed opposing. I have mainly been included as one part of a generally inchoate opposition. Our teacher organisation leaders just couldn’t, it seems, hold the idea (or didn’t want to) that the neoliberal philosophy obviously dominating economics had now enveloped education, with the main prime indicator being the exclusion of teachers from genuine education decision-making.
Most teacher organisation leaders have lacked the philosophical depth, tactical skill, and moral courage to carry out their roles. A major and recurring behaviour of teacher organisation leaders has been to act like lions when Labour was in and pussy cats when they weren’t. Most saw their position as to stay put in Wellington to engage in a busy round of office-based meetings instead of as a platform to defend and promote central education ideas. NZEI needs a radical restructuring, a new secretary, and to withdraw from the Labour education committee (you are not good for each other); and the NZPF executive needs to gain control of their districts which are now mainly an opportunity for the principals concerned to showcase their loyalty to neoliberal education policies to vocational advantage.
In 1990, in Developmental Network Magazine, I set out the three principles to guide the teacher organisations (indeed, all of us in education) and three supplementary ideas:
- The education of children is problematic and value-laden. For the integrity of the education system, the various groups within it need to be free, willing, and able to argue and even, at times, obstruct the ideas and actions of other groups. There never has been and never will be a set of aims and related processes that have met, or will meet, the needs of all children within a system, or be agreed to by all those within it.
- Power should be shared throughout the education system, and various checks and balances be in place to stop it becoming too concentrated. It is only in this way that children will gain some protection from the vagaries of educational and political ideas and the human drive to control and dominate. The powerlessness of the young, the fact of them being young, makes school-children tempting targets for those who want to turn schools into battlegrounds for competing visions of what society ought to be.
- Teachers are unsettled by the possibility of curriculum and administrative ideas being able to be passed quickly down the hierarchical chain without those ideas requiring teacher involvement at all stages of their development. The best ideas for education come from teachers and those close to teachers. The part of the education system that is important to teachers is the part close to them. The part further away has the capacity to do much harm, but little capacity to do much good. The nature of the education system should be to protect teachers from hastily conceived ideas – no matter their potential benefits. Good ideas are only good if the process for their development has been good. The last thing teachers want is the kind of efficiency that has someone in the hierarchy having an idea, and then using the chain of command to force it on them without due process.
And the three supplementary ideas:
- That the role of schools is to respond to aims – collaboratively-set aims
General educational aims, social and moral aims, curriculum area aims, should be set as a result of wide-ranging discussions at the national and local levels, then made available to schools to respond to in ways that suit them.
And, within schools, while boards of trustees should have a say in the ways that are worked out, and parents as well – it is the classroom teacher in association with the principal and other teachers who should feel most in control of what is to happen.
The government should have a major role in setting the scene, but it is the teachers and children who should be acknowledged as having the major parts in the actual performance. Government legislation and regulation should not reach down, whether directly or indirectly, to the details of how Mrs Jones takes her reading with her new entrant class. Neither should it reach down by other means in the form of imposed standardised testing.
This has not been the Kiwi way – and because it has not, New Zealand primary schools are some of the most successful in the world, an inspiration to the rest of the world.
Trusting teachers – giving most power to those who actually bring it all together may not fit with some of the administrative theories in vogue, but it is the way schools work best.
New Zealand primary teachers have never let New Zealand society down.
This does not mean, of course, that teachers should not accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The case being made is that they are and should be responsible, but it should be in relation to general aims, not to professionally demeaning constructions like behavioural objective bits and pieces.
Having teachers responsible for what they do in relation to aims, rather than, say, behavioural objectives, may make it more difficult for politicians, bureaucrats, and academics to control what teachers do – but it will ensure New Zealand primary schools continue to be highly satisfying and successful places for children to learn in.
- That there isn’t anybody who knows
Principals and teachers should stop looking over their shoulders to check out whether they are doing the right thing – there isn’t anybody who knows. This is especially so when there is so much inexperience, ideological intemperance, or amateurishness amongst those in positions of political, academic, and bureaucratic power.
As well, it is an expression of the value-ladenness of education – of there being no ‘right’ way for all situations, all children, all teachers. Which means it is the people who are closest to the action and who have to bring it all together – the teachers and principals – who are likely to be closer than anyone to knowing.
Saying this does not mean that teachers and principals should not listen to other voices. It means, rather, that in listening to others they should, first of all, be allowed to be confident about what they know in themselves.
From this confidence should result more discernment by teachers and principals in what they take out of what they hear, and a greater willingness to act decisively on any useful ideas agreed to.
In relation to school leadership and organisation, the message in this for principals is that the answers to their leadership and organisation questions lie mainly within themselves and their teachers; that state service commissioners don’t know; neither do academics, consultants, bureaucrats or overseas experts. Many of them have never been there, or wouldn’t have survived if they had. Others are making it up as they go along, or getting it second-hand from irrelevant or out-of-date business administration manuals.
- Under the present philosophy no nationwide curriculum initiative will succeed
No nationwide curriculum initiative has succeeded under the present philosophy and none will succeed. The official curriculum has been superseded by national standards, ministry regulation, and education review office indicators and decrees. Any curriculum initiative no matter when or where comes loaded with unworkable and undesirable features. The only way it can be made to work is if teachers feel free enough to colonise it, but teachers, as an outcome of the present philosophy do not feel free enough to colonise it, are not freed enough to colonise it. And so under the present philosophy it is not teachers who colonise curriculum initiatives (and the curriculum generally), but the bureaucracies.
And so all those decades ago, I set out my ideas but, it seems, only on the sands of time – existing now only as vague memory in the minds of a loyal few.