Why politicians must listen to teachers on school reform

Why politicians must listen to teachers on school reform

Earlier this month, a global report revealed an increasing deterioration in teachers’ working conditions over the last three years, with 84% of teachers surveyed saying their salaries had decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report speaks to the plight of many teachers here in Australia who point out that soaring workloads, low pay and alarming stress levels are causing a growing number of staff to leave the profession, thus exacerbating teaching shortages in several states.

According to Pasi Sahlberg, a professor of education policy at the University of NSW, the solution should be a no brainer for governments.

Earlier this year, Professor Sahlberg published a book, titled: ‘In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish Way to World Class Schools’. In the book, he points to research showing that education systems which treat teachers as trusted professionals adjusted better to pandemic disruption.

However, in an interview with The Educator this week, Professor Sahlberg cautioned that any meaningful change in this respect is unlikely to come without “concrete deeds”.

“While many people expect that the harm the ongoing pandemic has done to schools and heroic responses by teachers will eventually raise the status of our teachers and strengthen trust in schools, this will not happen unless there are more concrete deeds to build that trust in teachers in the long run,” Professor Sahlberg told The Educator.

“Schools have seen how governments are reluctant to make any decisions regarding public health during this pandemic without relying on the best available knowledge of health experts. It seems like teachers continue to see these same governments undermining expertise and professional wisdom of educators in policy directions and forthcoming education reforms.”

‘Trust-building is evolution, not revolution’

Professor Sahlberg says distrust in teachers is deep and turning the course requires concrete changes that teachers and many other experts have asked to make more time available in schools for professional collaboration among teachers, improving physical conditions for productive teaching and learning in schools, and pay teachers as other professionals with similar training are paid for their increasingly complex work.

“Those who want more trust-based education culture should realise that trust-building is evolution not revolution,” he said.

“We all should know that trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback.”

Professor Sahlberg says that if this issue remains unchanged, there will be “long-lasting, unseen ramifications” for the Australian education system.

“What we have learned from all successful education systems around the world is that their way to success is built on trust-based collaboration with schools in all matters regarding teaching and learning, not on confrontation with the teachers,” he said.

“Distrust that occupies the vacuum when trust is gone can have long-lasting unseen ramifications on teaching and learning.”

Professor Sahlberg says these include worsening teacher shortages and inexperienced teachers filling the void.

“Teachers will be leaving the profession early as too many teachers currently do, it will continue to be difficult to find qualified experienced teachers to replace these early-leavers in many schools, and more young people will perceive teaching as low-trust job and they choose another career instead,” he said.

“I have seen myself by living and working in a high-trust society how empowering trust in teachers can be by getting the best out of each of them in their work. I have also witnessed elsewhere the dramatic harm the absence of trust can have on efforts to improve education.”