Peter Williams: Give the teachers more money - but they'll still want more

Opinion 13/06/2019

Are we due to get some progress today from the Education Minister about the teachers pay negotiations after his big meeting with them a week ago?

He said he would make an announcement late this week. And if the latest Newshub Reid-Research poll is anything to go by it seems a clear majority of Kiwis think teachers should be paid more.

More than two thirds - that’s 69.1 percent of New Zealanders - support a pay increase for teachers, while 24.2 percent said no.

When you consider the numbers I’ll give you shortly, the results of that poll are quite extraordinary.

But a picture has been painted - mainly by the unions - to show that more money in teacher’s pockets will fix this problem. But the issue here really isn’t money.

A pay increase won’t fix teachers’ woes.

Give them more money and they’ll still want more.

And this is because the real issue isn’t better pay, but the conditions they find themselves in.

This needs fixing. Teachers - so they keep on telling us - are overworked and under-resourced. Burnout is the issue and it is real.

A 2016 report from the New Zealand Council for Education Research found that 52 percent of teachers worked between 11 and 20 hours outside class time - taking them up to at least a 50-hour week. And about a third said they had so much work they felt they weren’t performing the best they could for their students.

Last month a Bay of Plenty teacher penned an open letter to Chris Hipkins, the Education Minister. And she made it very clear that money isn’t going to solve what she calls “our education crisis.”

Sarah Lean said working conditions are such that the mental and physical health of teachers is in crisis.

They don’t have enough time to complete the required paperwork.

Teacher workload has grown exponentially over the years but without recompense. Expectations are increasing and teachers need access to better support to help them meet these expectations.

There’s also a teacher shortage, and we saw that at the start of this school year. Just 10 days out and we were 850 teachers short across the country. There’s been a reduction in the number of trainee teachers and on average new teachers are quitting within the first five years.

But it’s hard to believe that just the money is driving them away.

Because after all, the offer from the government to take a primary teacher’s base starting salary to $52,429 a year - and that is more than this country’s average annual personal income. A high school teacher starting out will make nearly $56,000 in their first year.

So the new offer will take every teacher above the country’s annual average salary. By the time a primary teacher has been in the workforce for 10 years, they’ll earn a minimum of $83,000.

Just as a reference point, a website called payscale.com says the average salary for a journalist, that’s every journalist across all media in New Zealand is $48,000 a year, and most of them have at least some form of tertiary training.

So don’t say teachers are poorly paid.

If every one of them is making more than the average income, they are among the country’s highest income earners. But what can the government do to make teachers happier?

How about the behavioural and learning difficulties they have to face these days? It might be overstating the real numbers, but it seems like every child has some sort of mental health or learning issue.

So what’s the real answer to fix that issue?

I reckon it’s more teacher-aides. To be clear this isn’t my idea - it comes from the teachers themselves.

Tauranga teacher Sarah Lean has made it very clear that teacher aides in every primary classroom will solve our education crisis. And I think she has made some rather good points.

In fact, everything I’ve just outlined above is something that she has tried to address with this Government, and I don’t think she’s had much luck.

Chris Hipkins, until last week anyway, wasn’t listening.

Sarah believes teacher aides would provide both educational and emotional support to students alongside teachers. They would help reduce workload – burnout would decline – and time spent working with students individually would increase too. What’s not to like?

The work-life balance for teachers is out of equilibrium and the reality is no amount of salary increase is going to fix this.

And if you speak to a teacher and ask them what they would rather - a pay increase or a full-time teacher-aide in their classroom? I’m pretty sure I know which one they would choose.

Sarah sums this argument quite well; “Until the government acknowledges the true nature of the education crisis we will continue to see proposals that scratch the surface of how we can move forward.”

We hope that since he first met face to face with the unions last week, Chris Hipkins has been listening.

Peter Williams is host of Magic Mornings from 9am to midday.