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OPINIONPoliticsMay 21, 2024

There’s a silver lining to the Ministry of Education job cuts

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Quality teachers back on the front line can only be a good thing. 

One of the difficult things we teach in senior English classes at secondary school is the development of an idea. This involves deepening your argument, without instead “going sideways” and merely adding examples while repeating the same idea in different words. 

We look at the listicle, the lowest of low-brow journalism, in which a writer presents a numbered list of facts without links or explanations. This typically results in the “sideways” problem and a shallow argument.  But embroiled as I am in complex bureaucratic eduspeak, I find myself resorting to the list form.

1. Quality teachers back on the front line is the silver lining of the life-shattering employment terminations currently happening at the ministry. We haven’t considered enough as a nation the opportunity cost of taking strong, successful teachers, often heads of department, away from their colleagues and students. Students would notice a bigger difference from a better teacher than from “refreshed” curriculum documents and changed assessment details.

2. The National Party could be showing us that we overvalue endless tweaks to the way we describe what and how we teach and assess. It’s taxing on teachers to implement, and on the students affected by the doubt and uncertainty as the changes occur. It results in a lost focus on quality of practice.

Heads of department have to run inductions for their teaching staff from materials that are scant and undeveloped. On one occasion last year, I heard that many heads who spent the weekend or evening preparing for the teacher-only day were wrong-footed when the ministry changed the details the night before they were designated for delivery.  

We know the ministry employs good people, that their work feels purposeful to them, and that they work hard with formidable intelligence – but how necessary are the changes to assessment and curriculum documents? How much better than what is replaced? For example, the mantra of the new curriculum, currently in “draft form” (which means it’s accessible and you can use it, but you don’t have to and it might change) is “Know, Understand, Do.” What wonderful things to champion in our classes, but have students ever not been required to know, to understand, and to do? It’s a new description of exactly the same things we did before – but we bow before the emperor and tell him his new clothes look better than yesterday’s ones.   

Senior teacher aiming at her elementary students while wanting to hear the answers to her question.
The best place for a teacher is in front of the class. (Photo: Getty)

3. Shhh, don’t tell anyone, but the three curriculum documents I’ve taught in 25 years aren’t really what teachers base their lessons on. The English curriculum, for example, doesn’t mention the words “write” or “paragraph” or “novel”, but those are the things my students are expected to know and understand. (And do – heaven forbid we forget that!)

Teachers match what they are teaching to what’s in the curriculum document as much as plan from it. We teach what we were taught, what seems necessary as the world changes around us, what’s important to our locality, what we’re passionate about, what works with our classes, and most of all, what’s going to be in the assessment.  

We all know how to justify what we do by referencing curriculum documents, and so do our heads of department. Except for an aspirational focus on Māori knowledge and ways of teaching and learning, the curriculum refresh is remarkably similar to the previous document. It would have been better to work on implementation of the existing curriculum. 

4. The National Party could be providing an environment in which there is less arbitrary change to assessment and curriculum documents. Each of these tweaks requires schools to change procedures, and in mine, certain members of the principal’s team look delighted each time they have worked out and can tell us exactly what is now required of students, most recently, for example, in the new NCEA co-requisite exams, introduced over the last two years. 

Rigid, arbitrary rules are often counterintuitive and unpredictable. One example of this in the current NCEA framework – which has always recognised competencies through discrete units of assessment – is the rule that no student can be awarded any credits for any assessment unit they pass unless they have passed the literacy and numeracy co-requisites. Some of which have failure rates over 30%. 

Couldn’t there be a world where teachers find challenge and reward in the classroom instead of curriculum and assessment administration? Facebook group pages for teachers are full of questions by careful, well-meaning professionals about the required response to an assessment specification. Why are the standards so unclear? Is this the best use of time for teachers who would otherwise be getting on with teaching what they know and love about their subject?

5.  Does minister Erica Stanford know how many classes lose their teacher during the year? The ministry should give a 10% bonus to anyone who completes the year teaching all the same classes they started with, instead of taking up a new role at the ministry or a different responsibility within the school. The total effect of students losing their class teacher must be quite big across the motu. It takes weeks for us teachers to get to know our students as individuals, especially those with something they’re ashamed of (usually not being very good at the subject and needing help) and weeks more to gain their trust. Then we need weeks together to centre in on the gaps in learning and make the learning occur.

One change to a school management position, such as a new principal, causes a domino effect of changes through senior and middle management positions as careerists shuffle up the line, trading class contact hours for administration responsibilities. Each appointment disrupts a class, which either receives a different teacher or waits with relievers for the new appointment.  

There is an opportunity cost to teachers taking up positions in the ministry or going into new positions in schools during the year, and that is the continuity and quality of the students’ classroom learning. Staying with your class the whole year would be in line with the relational teaching championed in New Zealand schools. 

Was this more than a listicle? If we studied this article in class, I’d ask the students if it developed an idea or merely listed a series of points. I’ll leave it up to you, reader. But following the ministry cuts, it’ll be good to have those teachers back, and we might not miss the work they would have been doing had the cuts not occurred. 

Keep going!