I have long supported the idea of a strong Teachers’ Council – of the teachers, for the teachers, by the teachers – as a way of empowering the profession. But then maybe I was idealistic in denying political realities – as the principal funder of our schools government is always going to be intimately involved. The tax-payers’ dollar is at stake.
Nearly 97% of our schools are state schools. Teachers have long enjoyed autonomy in their classroom in the sense they chose the resources and teaching method to deliver the curriculum. But prior to 1989, especially in primary schools, they were very much under the control of central bureaucracies. Tomorrow’s Schools was an attempt to move them from that dependency to greater self-sufficiency. Teachers know their task is to try to move their charges along the same path. They know it is difficult. They know it takes time. They also know it operates best on a system of trust.
I saw a Teachers’ Council in this light. I was impressed in a visit to the United Kingdom in 1994 with the Scottish Teachers’ Council. It had teeth, was representative and was responsible. So I looked forward to the formation of our own Council and was delighted when it was legislated into existence to be interim director in the transition from the old Teacher Registration Board. The Council came into existence on 1 January 2002.
Life suddenly became extremely fraught. The old board had responsibility for ensuring teachers were suitably qualified, competent and fit to teach. Now there was a larger council charged with professional leadership. Although goverrnment had given a transition grant of extra funding teacher registration fees had been held for several years. We were operating on a shoe-string
There were unexpected pressures from left field. Police vetting of non-teaching staff proved tricky. The office was flooded with queries. Differing legal advice didn’t help. For example the Auckland Catholic education office had a plumber on call if one of their integrated schools needed help. The Ministry’s legal advice was that each individual school had to check that plumber. The Council’s own legal advice was one check would suffice. That sounded common sense to me so I followed it. At your peril I was warned. The sky didn’t fall in.
After a distressed call from a principal – the police search had revealed the school’s beloved caretaker had committed a quite serious offence in his adolescence – and the trustees were demanding his removal I decided to cope with the queries by setting up a help-line. Three young women were appointed. I saw them basically as a conduit between the police vetting officers and the schools. I knew they were very busy but to my surprise and horror about three weeks after they started I became aware that they were giving advice on all sorts of issues. I knew the loneliness of the long distance principal but to have these three whipper-snappers giving counselling advice was a bit hair-raising. Now it all seems a storm in a tea-cup as the system has settled down.
The rotation system of the old Board had ensured continuity. Grass-green, Council members lacked those memory-banks. The first meeting concentrated on a statement of aims but in the second there were several discipline cases. Erratic would be the best adjective to describe member’s reactions. I realised I had a tricky educative role until the discipline tribunal was formed.
Basically I planned to see two things through. One was to improve the financial situation. Registration fees had to go up. Council members were unhappy at the prospect. Teacher reaction would be negative. My argument was that the Council had increased responsibilities. To undertake its legislative requirements it needed extra staff. I carried the day eventually as members accepted the inevitability. There was as anticipated an outcry from teachers.
The other was to arrange the election of the three teacher representatives. That arranged I retired. I was finding the job stressful and felt it needed someone with fresh energy. I was also beginning to have symptoms of my muscular degeneration but at the time I thought that was the onset of old age. The Minister’s Office rang asking me to stay on longer. I said no, it was time to go. So in August I retired for the fourth and final time.
It was a good way to end a career in education - doing something that I believed was important and necessary and that I had the capability to do.
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