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Teaching – the Most Important Profession

“It appears, therefore, that of all secular professions, teaching is the most profoundly important…” “of all these professions teaching is the worse paid.”

You might be surprised to find the person who said that wasn’t a teacher or indeed a union member. He was, in fact, a politician.You might be even more surprised to find these words were spoken in July 1945 by the Leader of the Opposition, Robert Menzies, to the Australian House of Representatives.  Menzies was to become Prime Minister from 1939 to 1941 and became Prime Minister again from 1949 to 1966.  Of course, 1945 is a long time ago, and Australia is not New Zealand, but his comments are surprisingly prescient.

What struck me about his wide-ranging speech was what he said about the qualifications, status and remuneration of teachers.

The task of teachers, Menzies said, is one which brings them into close contact with students for hours each day during the most formative years of their lives.  It is a task, he remarked, that if performed well, can do more to produce good citizens “than all of the acts of Parliament ever passed”. Menzies compared the role of the teacher to the roles performed by doctors and engineers and lawyers.  And because the teacher helps make good citizens, he elevated the role of the teacher.  “It appears, therefore, that of all secular professions, teaching is the most profoundly important”, he concluded. Menzies went on to observe, though, that teachers enjoyed “the least recognition in a social sense” and that “of all these professions, that of teaching is the worst paid”.

He then set out a case for insisting on high qualifications for teachers and argued that a community that was aware of the supreme importance of its educational system would insist upon the highest qualifications for teaching, and would reward those qualifications with adequate remuneration and proper recognition. These sentiments are strikingly similar to the actual role the Education Council is playing some 70 years later.

Our function is to elevate the status of teachers so that in time our profession will be perceived as on a par with lawyers, engineers and doctors and remunerated accordingly. I believe teaching can be both a vocation and a profession and that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, indeed they are interdependent.So just how is the Education Council going about achieving this goal? I’ll outline three fundamental areas we’re working on right now.

Getting the Basics Right

First, we’re working on getting the basics right. We’re starting from the ground up and asking a fundamental question: what does a future-focussed initial teacher education system look like? What do teachers need to be equipped to meet the challenges of the modern world of teaching and learning? Our understanding of how people learn best is changing. So how will our training of teachers reflect this new understanding? Teaching is much more complex than it has ever been and educators need to understand the social nature of learning, diversity and difference, the role emotions play and the role the way we live plays in the way we learn.

We need to redesign how we recruit, select and educate the profession as we prepare for our future of learning. Society needs to have greater confidence about the quality of our graduates. So we need to re-evaluate assessment, approval and monitoring of programmes alongside appropriate entry requirements. We must make sure the right people enter the profession.

Developing Leadership

Leadership is another key plank for the Education Council. We need a “profession led system that doesn’t just reproduce the status quo.” 1We are developing a Centre for Leadership Excellence to enable leadership for ongoing improvement, innovation and transformation. We want to open up new ways for our profession to support and enhance learning. We want to build capability across our sector and our education system. We want to build a connected, cohesive and adaptive leadership cohort – first through Communities of Learning but later on across our profession.

The centre will enable and strengthen a professional leadership community to develop its own leadership needs and priorities. Importantly it will be professionally led – and ground-breaking. We will enable and support the development of a leadership community of practice, and advocate for the kind of professional learning needed by our leaders.The centre will support leadership across our profession – it will be the sum of the parts for work already done by building on that work. It will be more than cluster based.

Speaking Up and Out

Our profession needs championing and the Education Council’s role is to do that. We’re doing this by presenting strong and cogent positions on issues affecting teachers and our sector. Advocating on behalf of teachers on government policy, submitting on bills and lobbying with key influencers to ensure the critical issues affecting our profession are well understood.We all know teachers – we’ve all been taught. Parents are teachers and teachers are parents. We are inter-related and inter-connected. We are the community. We want society to place more value on the role we play and to recognise that role through seeing our profession as one of high-status and not a solely a vocation.We can’t do this alone. Our profession must also champion itself. It must demand the highest of standards and behaviours. It must set a high bar for itself and stick to it, and sometimes push the bar higher.

The Education Council’s role is to catalyse. We can’t do it alone and we should all be working hard to elevate the status of our profession.I’m glad to come across Menzies’ speech. It got me thinking. I hope it gets you thinking too.

(Jan Robertson University of Waikato 2015)

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