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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyNovember 8, 2023

Why an ‘amazing’ but ‘dying breed’ of teachers is on strike today

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

With their collective employment agreement negotiations at an impasse, early childhood education teachers around the motu are striking for the first time ever.

“We’re an amazing breed,” says Tessa Dunleavy, head teacher at Devonport Community Crèche, “I would challenge anyone to teach, and to look after, 10 two-year-olds.”

Outside next to the sandpit there’s a slide, which is about a metre tall. Two toddlers are pushing Tonka trucks around the sand, while another one digs at it with a plastic spade. In front of the slide, a young girl moves wooden blocks on a miniature wheelbarrow. Sam* runs up to us and grabs Dunleavy by her denim shirt. “I’ve got a hole in my shoe!” 

There are still more little students playing with water to the left, inside playing with toys or reading books or simply running around everywhere. Colourful paintings are hung up to dry, a child mows the astroturf with a plastic mower, and another fills up a bucket of water with a hose.

But that was yesterday. This afternoon, the Devonport Community Crèche and about 100 other early childhood centres around Aotearoa will be quiet. There are no kids and no teachers, because they are on strike. 

Their union, NZEI Te Riu Roa, says the current system is broken, and that more government  funding is needed for non-profit community-based services. During the latest round of negotiations for the Early Childhood Education Collective Agreement, they were unable to reach an agreement with Te Rito Maioha, the body that represents employers. Their requests were for more funding to support better teacher:child ratios and more experienced and qualified kaiako. 

Last month the members voted to take industrial action, the first ECE teachers have ever taken in New Zealand. Union ECE representative Megan White, from Capital Kids cooperative childcare centre, says, “we are not taking strike action lightly. Both we and our parents know that the ultimate answer to this crisis lies in the government’s hands.”

Tessa Dunleavy, Head Teacher at Devonport Community Creche, and one of her students. (Photo: Supplied)

Speaking from in the playground, Dunleavy says that Early childhood education teachers have been at the “beck and call” of different governments and changing policies so much that the profession lacks stability and support. In the lead up to the 2020 election, the Labour Party promised them pay parity. A plan towards it was introduced in 2022, and furthered by the 2022 Budget. The plan started January this year, but there are concerns that no systems are in place to maintain parity long term. It could easily all be over with a new government.

Dunleavy has been in it for 40 years, and says that negotiations with the Labour government have only been a small part of their fight. This was a culmination of “a lot of work over 20 years” from the union and teachers to achieve pay parity. That means children who were Sam’s age when they started the fight are now 24-year-old adults. Dunleavy thinks equitable education should be beyond the left or right-leaning politics of the day, and instead an unquestioned foundation of society. At the moment, the Devonport Community Crèche can’t plan beyond December, because they don’t know how much funding they will, or won’t, be receiving.

Scenes from everyday life at the Devonport Community Creche. (Photos: Supplied)

Still, the children at Devonport Community Crèche are lucky, they’re from a well-heeled suburb. Here, there are five teachers and 25 children, but this is only possible because parents can afford to contribute to the cost. Currently the government only funds one teacher for every five under-two-year-olds, one teacher to 10 two-year-olds, and one teacher to 10 three-year-olds. Many centres operate with only this funding. Dunleavy believes these ratios are not only “impossible” but also “actually dangerous”. In May, the union surveyed 4,174 ECE teachers, and 90% of them agreed with her. Many of them said with these ratios, their job is reduced to “basic care” and “crowd control” rather than teaching and learning. 

Proper attention is important when kids are this small. Te Whatu Ora puts it simply: “The first 1,000 days of a child’s life lay the foundations for their entire future.” A crèche or other form of early childhood care is often a child’s first home away from home. It is here that any behavioural or social issues can first be noticed and addressed – and it would be hard to notice and address issues with 10 two-year-olds to keep an eye on. 

The issues at ECE don’t stay at ECE. They grow up. They progress into school, where Dunleavy thinks they could cause learning and social difficulties. She says that since Covid, the centre has been seeing an increased number of tamariki with specific learning needs, another reason more teachers are needed.

Aside from there not being enough funding to hire more ECE teachers, there’s also a severe shortage. In May, almost three quarters of providers were unable to find qualified staff to fill roles. The conditions of the job mean it’s not exactly sought after. After four years of tertiary study, ECE teacher’s salaries begin at $46,000 annually. Because of the workload, many work extra unpaid hours. Dunleavy feels like she is part of a “dying breed of professionals”. The crèche hasn’t had any student teachers come to do a placement in the past year, and the majority of their teachers are approaching retirement – Dunleavy is 60. She’s worried about what might come next. “It will be interesting to see if they [the National Party] listen,” she says. 

In the reading area, a little boy starts crying. Someone has dropped a book.

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