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Penalising part-time teachers is a gender pay gap issue

High school teacher Amy Paulussen says that paying part-time teachers less for equivalent work than their full-time counterparts is evidence of how the gender pay gap has sneaked into the state sector.

I recently returned to teaching. I’m not going to lie, with all the teacher-shortage and work-load-untenable news stories, I was daunted. And I’ve been relief teaching for a couple of years, so I couldn’t even tell myself this was all media sensationalising, catastrophising, politicising – I was under no illusions that returning to teaching would be a walk in the park.

I took time off, as many do, after my son was born. And then a job opportunity took my husband to France, and by then I was pregnant with number two. Three years later we returned with middling French, a taste for Bourgogne, and dangerously expensive cheese habits. We had two pre-schoolers by then, and while my husband slotted back into his old job with remarkable ease, I was in a completely different situation to the one I’d left just a few years before.

In Paris, I had started taking my writing seriously, and I found an incredible community of writers. I wanted to find, or replicate, that kind of community here at home. I threw myself into the local writing scene and ended up doing a heap of volunteer work. I was chairing a committee, running events, putting together newsletters, picking up kids from kindy, making playdough, reading poetry, submitting my manuscripts to literary agents, picking playdough out of the carpet, picking up a little casual relief teaching work, reading, reading, reading, writing some more, moving house (again, but that’s another story).

And then my youngest started school. It was time. Time to put a dent in the mortgage. Time to stop slogging my guts out, working for nothing (well, for the love of writing, but ANZ don’t clear those cheques). Time to get a regular paid gig. And I missed teaching. Writing was fun, but not my natural forte; teaching had always come easily. Hard work, sure, but it’s a good fit for my personality, my skills, my interests.

I like spending my days with teenagers. I’m serious. I actually love it. I know a heap of stuff that is useful to my students, and I’m great at breaking it down into bite-sized chunks. I like that I can help young people out, and see them learn and grow and tackle tasks they used to shrug off as too-hard, out-of-reach. Teaching is my jam.

But full-time teaching… maybe not. Evenings marking and weekends planning and extra-curriculars and meetings and parent-teacher interviews. I don’t want to lose touch with my wonderful writing community, even if I’m no longer running things. On top of full-time work, when exactly would I have time to write? When exactly would I see my children?

A part-time job was the obvious choice. Relief work wasn’t all bad, except for the phone calls at seven in the morning. “Can you do relief today?”

“Love to! See you soon.” Then scrambling to arrange someone to pick up the kids from school. Because regular child care isn’t an option without a regular timetable, not to mention a regular income.

But part-time gigs in secondary schools are rare. Discouraged even. And there’s a reason.

Warning: Here comes some dodgy math…

A full-time secondary teacher works 20 contact-hours a week. Twenty hours in a room with students. They get paid for five school-hours of non-contact time. This is when they’re supposed to do marking and prepare lessons. On top of that are meetings, extra-curriculars, PD, duty, reports, conferencing with parents, phone calls home… you can imagine how it quickly sneaks up to well over 40 hours a week. But in theory, teachers are paid for 25 hours a week.

Teach for 20 contact hours; get paid for 25.

But for part-timers, non-contacts are unpaid. A part-time teacher gets paid for their contact hours. And that’s it. That’s all folks.

To be clear, I knew all this going in. I was offered a choice of full or part time (few are so fortunate!) and decided part-time was the best thing for the immediate future. I wanted to see if I could handle the jandal, juggle all the different roles I have. And I’m not the sole breadwinner. Financially, for one year, we can take the hit. But so much for leaving behind volunteer work and taking up a good old-fashioned paid job.

Well, except old-fashioned is exactly what this is. The majority of part-time teachers are mothers (or grandmothers). The reason they’re part-time is that they have children to look after. They are doing more than their share of the childcare and housekeeping, and full-time work is more than they are able, or want, to juggle.

And that’s fine, that’s their – our – choice. Part-time work is great. It should be an option. Not forced on those who want full-time work, but for some it’s the best option.

But what’s the justification for not paying part-time teachers their fair share of non-contact time?

“We can’t afford it,” I’ve heard said. We being the government, the country, the tax-payer. Afford in the sense that we prioritise other spending. Other things are more important than pay parity for women. Surprise, surprise.

I’ve always thought I was rather lucky. I work in the state sector, meaning my pay bracket is tied to my level of education and years of experience in the profession. There’s no room in this wonderful system for gender discrimination.

Oh, but would you look at that? We have found a way to sneak a gender pay gap into the state sector.

We have a crisis. We can’t get enough teachers. Class sizes are erupting. Schools are desperate. We’re flying in Canadians, frantically trying to get them up to speed before parents start complaining that their children’s teachers don’t understand NCEA.

And yet New Zealand likely has hundreds of qualified and experienced teachers – mostly women – who aren’t returning from parental leave, who are leaving education. They want work-life balance, whether it’s childcare related or not. And part-time teaching, which might have been the solution they’re looking for, is systematically disincentivised. Lop ten grand or so – a fifth of your salary – off the top and wouldn’t you think about switching professions?

Yes, we need to tackle workload issues for full-time teachers. And yes, class sizes should be smaller. And of course, teachers should be paid more. Not to mention all the support staff, the carers and teachers’ aids without whom we could not possibly do our job (most of whom earn less than a living wage). All of these things would help, right across the board, but those are some big fish. It’ll take time to cook ‘em through. And while I’m hopeful this government’s already turned on the grill, the part-time teaching issue is, by comparison, a precooked sausage. Ten years ago, the Ministry of Education recognised this as a pay equity issue. It’s well-past ready to serve.

According to the PPTA the issue has been argued for over 16 years, with no movement. In June of last year a pay equity case was lodged with the Employment Relations Authority. Still, nothing. Meanwhile, schools can’t get enough teachers.

Pay all teachers their point-share of non-contact time. We can make part-time teaching a worthwhile option. We can snuff out a sneaky gender pay gap – and hopefully singe its lousy veneer of pragmatism. We can take this small step toward solving the teacher shortage. It won’t fix everything, but it will invite qualified and experienced teachers to return to education – and stay for the long term.

Amy Paulussen is a high school English teacher, published poet and unpublished novelist.

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