Tomorrow Victoria’s public teachers will be taking strike action in unprecedented numbers – estimates are in the vicinity of 40,00 teachers across the state, with additional backup from their support staff. I will be there to cheer them on, in part because our campaign was supported by their union (the Australian Education Union), but even more because, with no originality at all, I believe that robust, high quality, publicly funded, equitably accessible health and education are the foundation on which our future is built. Our greatest, most valuable asset is the next generation – and that means we have to fight to ensure that they are as well equipped as possible for their lives ahead.
Henry Adams famously said “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Most people who love learning can identify the teachers who had a significant impact on them – I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a number of great educators across my life, including the memorable and inspirational Ian McAuliffe in primary school, Phillip Reed and Heather Jackson at secondary school, June Cabena during my nursing training, and Lynn Gillam at university. From each of them I learned things that influence the person I am, the way I teach others, the way I learn, what I’m interested in, and the direction I choose to take my life.
Like nurses and midwives, teachers are underappreciated by a public that often thinks our work is menial and easily performed, and by governments who know better but don’t allow that knowledge to be reflected in policy or pay. If it were up to them the bulk of our essential, professional work would be performed by aides, overseen by the highly educated, skilled women and men who comprise our professions.
Perhaps this disrespect is why, despite pre-election promises by Ted Baillieu that our teachers would be “not the worst – not the worst-paid, the best-paid teachers in Australia” and a declaration from Victorian Education Minister Peter Hall that “we see no reason why [Victoria’s teachers] should not be paid the highest in the nation,” EBA negotiations between the state government and Australian Education Union (Victoria) are going nowhere.
Instead of the 8% pay increase that would see Victoria’s teachers have pay parity with their colleagues in WA, the government’s offer is 2.5%, half a percent lower than inflation. Anything higher is only negotiable in return for productivity gains – and for the government this means performance pay.
In theory rewarding high-achieving teachers sounds like a great idea – it acts as an incentive, rewards those who work hard (or are fortunate enough to have the intelligence or aptitude to get better results with the same effort), penalises ‘dead wood’ staff, and makes it easy to identify those staff ripe for cutting when you want to trim numbers.
I’m not a teacher, so I don’t know the details of their concerns, but here are mine, using health care as a model and based on what would happen in my profession should such a policy be introduced:
First and foremost, how do you decide what constitutes “high” (or even adequate) performance? Every hospital is different, in terms of catchment area (the population it serves), which affects not only the age and of patients but also their nationality, comorbidities, socioeconomic status, education level and capacity for investment int heir own care. That means very real differences in outcomes for the same condition. For example – type 1 diabetes can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious and potentially fatal state. At my (inner, eastern) hospital, fewer than 10% of DKA presentations result in an ICU admission; at a colleagues hospital in the western suburbs, that figure is closer to 25%. Nurses at the second hospital have poorer outcomes but aren’t poorer practitioners.
Within each hospital are different wards, with equally marked population variations – a short-stay elective surgical unit has higher turnover than a stroke ward, where patients wait for rehab and high level care beds to become available; comparing bed throughput doesn’t tell me which nurses are better.
In nursing, as in teaching, the outcome of my patient’s care (or student’s progress) is multifactoral – I have control over the care I deliver, but I have no control over the resources available to me to improve that outcome, over the state the patient’s in when my care starts (both in terms of what happened before my shift started and regarding the life they had prior to admission), or over the very many other people involved. In health care those people include medical and allied health staff, all with their own sets of interventions, assessments, priorities and plans. There are often directions from them for me to follow, with no diminution of my own duties, nor additional facilities or resources to deliver them.
Don’t get me wrong – I make a difference to my patients. But basing my financial recompense not on the subjective effect I have, not on the skills I bring to bear, the experience that allows me to detect critical change fast than I can identify why, the education that informs my decision-making and communication, but on the outcomes of my patients, devalues what makes me a great nurse.
I have an annual appraisal, which demonstrates my continued growth, education, development, and achievement of mutually agreed goals between my manager and I. This is not the same as performance – it does not compare me with my colleagues, it does not force me to compete with my colleagues, and is used not to reward or penalise me but reflect my progress and map a path for the year ahead.
In lieu of objective, measurable criteria, under the Premier’s proposed measures for teachers, not only my salary, not only my job, but my very career would be dependent on a combination of factors over which I have no control, and the theoretically objective assessment of my manager. My current manager? I’d be happy with her assessment. But I’ve had managers who really, really didn’t like me, and I suspect my recent union activity’s made me somewhat unpopular with higher management in my network. I’d be lying if I said I’d have been as active if I suspected my job, let alone my career, could have been on the line.
For teachers, the government’s proposition would see an EBA that would sever the collegiate environment essential for great teaching, an Agreement that would increase an already over-causalised profession, conditions that would see ‘poorly performing’ teachers lost (with no agreement on how performance is to be assessed)… With no other recourse available to them, Victoria’s public sector teachers chose to once again demonstrate the depths of their commitment to their profession, their colleagues (current and future), and to the education of our children – on which our future depends.
Tomorrow Victoria’s public sector teachers will take unprecedented strike action. I supported them in June, I will support them tomorrow, and I will continue to support them for as long as it takes. It’s unfortunate that this government seems to need the same lesson repeated several times before it learns. As with nurses and midwives, despite a demonstration of the commitment of members to an equitable EBA, government negotiators have not been prepared to reach agreement. I hope that this time the Premier, the Health Minister and the government listen.