I’m sure many of you watch the current affair programs that frequently report on falling standards of education and how teachers aren’t what they used to be. One report was about some test from 30 years ago that was given to current students, none of whom passed. The report then claimed that our education system was in decline. I hope you are astute enough to realise that this sort of journalism is extremely biased and in no way represents the real picture. One thing I learned at university was that, with clever writing, you could prove the sky was red if you got three or four people to support you and shout loudly enough in a crowd.

It may be the case that some students failed the tests. I guarantee that I could find just as many students who would have passed these tests. I wonder if the TV stations would be so quick to report that. Also, I make the point that education has changed markedly over the last 30 years. How many of the parents who passed the tests 30 years ago could pass today’s tests? Do they know how to download from the internet, put together PowerPoint presentations or create blog sites, comment on environmental issues? We get so bogged down on things our children can’t do, we don’t see all the things they can do. Education, technology and society have all changed and will continue to change. The fact that some students failed a test 30 years old is a good thing in many respects. It shows that we’re not bogged down in the past. If they’d gone back 100 years most of us would have failed the tests. How many of you would pass Latin or Commerce or be able to pass a hand writing test using a quill pen?

These subjects were commonly taught in the ‘old days.’ I have been in education for 30 years, as a parent, teacher and now, as a principal. I can assure Joe Public that we have a very high standard of education. Don’t be fooled by poor, biased journalism.

Another point to consider is, as Richard Slaughter pointed out in one of his addresses, that a prep teacher today has no idea what sort of jobs their students are likely to go into in 12 or more years because the world is changing at an exponentially rapid rate. Simply preparing students for university or a trade is no longer good enough. Also, teachers of yesteryear ruled with fear and punishment. Today, teachers must be psychologists and pharmacists, dishing out medication instead of the cane or strap. Teaching is a far more complex profession today.

Teachers used to command respect, but now they are commonly derided by politicians and the media, simply because teacher bashing is the thing to do if you want to drum up public support. Politicians bag teachers because it deflects their own accountability. They’re not doing their job so they blame the schools. Many facts, not mentioned by these political fact benders, need to be stated and highlighted to counteract the negative stereotype emerging for today’s teachers.

Teachers of yesteryear had the syllabus spelled out for them in detail. They knew exactly what to do and when to do it. Their biggest technological challenge was a spirit duplicator, whereas today’s teachers need to be competent in many forms of electronic communication. Today’s teachers have a huge level of accountability and are asked to go way beyond the handful of subjects taught in the past. Today’s teachers are openly criticised and scrutinised by parents as well as politicians. This did not occur in the past. Today’s teachers walk a litigation tight rope and, as I mentioned in a previous article, they need to negotiate a mountain of paper work just to protect themselves from being sued. It’s no longer good enough to say you are doing something. Now you have to provide documentary evidence. Yesteryear’s teachers didn’t have to contend with a generation of parents who are clueless regarding their children’s discipline and who don’t set boundaries and who don’t back teachers when they have problems at school. Parents of yesteryear accepted responsibility for rearing their children whereas today’s parents want or need to work and expect others to raise their children for them. Who heard of child care 30 years ago?
I concede that teachers of yesteryear may have had better literacy skills. I rarely need to highlight corrections in reports done by teachers my age (50 years or older) whereas the grammar and spelling of young teachers make me wonder if they studied English at all at high school. But this is a reflection of pedagogy, not falling standards.

When I graduated as a teacher we were into Donald Graves and the belief that, by simply exposing children to books, they would learn to read and write by osmosis. We now know that this doesn’t happen and it was never what Graves intended. The academics got it wrong.

In his book, Horace’s Compromise, Theodore Sizer describes the situation in America where people are embarrassed if their children go into teaching and will often lie by saying, ‘they’re only doing this until they find a job.’ In Australia, too, teaching is in need of a public relations face lift. Apart from holidays, teaching is not an attractive profession. When you compare the salary and career opportunities of other university faculties you can see immediately that teaching simply doesn’t compete. Also, in the state system, at least, you have to go bush for a few years before getting a job in the city. How many other professions have this prerequisite? I believe that a lot of people go into teaching because they can’t think of something else or because they can’t get into something else. When I enrolled in the 1970s, teaching required the lowest entry pass of any faculty. I suspect this is still the case. I know the majority of teachers have a genuine calling for the job, but I know a lot who fit the mould of ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’ We need to make teaching degrees worthwhile and give them the status they deserve. You don’t necessarily need to have the highest IQ or Year 12 pass to be a good teacher, but it would be nice to know that people in this category would consider teaching. It would be great to have teachers from a variety of backgrounds.

Final thought – Years ago I bought the best Makita drill that money could buy and it served me well. However, as new attachments were invented I started to use the drill for other tasks besides drilling holes, e.g. sharpening stone, polishing cars, nibbling, grinding and even water pumping and drill bit sharpening. One day it just blew up. It’s still one of the best drills you can buy, but when you overload it, don’t expect miracles. Our teachers are great, but these days they are just overloaded with jobs other than teaching. The standards are the same. Only the tasks are more numerous and complex.