In his book ‘Bullshit Jobs’, David Graeber makes a simple and startling point:
‘In our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it…. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble… It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to simply vanish.’
Let’s just sit with that thought for a moment.
All right. Now I’ve got a story for you. In 1991, at age 12, I placed upon my mother a burden of shame so great that she still cringes when she thinks about it.
She had to accompany me to the local intermediate school where we went to do sewing, cooking, woodwork and metalwork. She stood next to me as I apologised to the four teachers of those classes for flooding the sewing and cooking rooms at the school.
I had plugged up the sink in the bathroom between the two rooms with toilet paper, turned on the taps, walked out and boarded the bus back to my own school. I think I had an accomplice, but shame has burned her from my memory.
Both of my parents were mortified. My father, a man of the law, wasted no time in pointing out that what I had done was criminal vandalism and on reflection, was probably disappointed that his previous attempts to set me on the straight and narrow had failed. He’d once marched me into the store manager’s office at our local supermarket after I tried to steal a packet of colouring-in pencils by smuggling them out in my pinafore pocket. I was busted at the check-out. By Dad.
I arrived in Mrs Hunter’s classroom at the beginning of the Year of the Vandal and immediately realised I’d met my match with this teacher.
She was tough, a proper disciplinarian; if you misbehaved, you got detention, which usually involved writing lines. If you talked too much, you got sat up the front. After spending a fair bit of time doing those things, I realised that being a smartarse wasn’t getting me very far and for some reason, what Mrs Hunter thought was starting to matter.
I think she knew something about me that I hadn’t quite figured out and she seemed determined to make me realise it. She stopped being an obstacle to classroom domination and started being someone who made me feel confident about being myself. I’d always loved music and drama and it was under Mrs Hunter that I really threw myself into it. I auditioned for the school play and was cast as the Wicked Witch of the West. I sang in choir and played clarinet.
The thing is, I came from a good home full of love and had every opportunity a kid in the 90s could ask for. My parents had done nothing to deserve the tiny vandal that walked amongst them. I wasn’t a bad kid. I was smart but bored and insecure. I did stupid things to try and fit in. I was a kid who was a bit lost and Mrs Hunter helped give me a sense of self. Many other teachers joined her as I progressed through school. I was lucky. I had both teachers and parents who made colossal investments in my wellbeing.
Imagine I didn’t have that. Imagine I didn’t have the opportunities I had. Imagine I didn’t come from a home that was comfortable. Imagine I didn’t have parents who were able to provide me with the necessities of life and more. Imagine I had bigger problems than being mouthy, bored and insecure. Imagine I was one of the 295,000 children now living below the poverty line. Imagine if the only people who could intervene in my life were the people kids spend the most time with outside the home. For most kids, teachers will have a huge influence on their lives. Some teachers may even be the interventionists who save their lives.
This week primary, secondary and area school teachers are set to strike after negotiations with the Ministry of Education continue to stall over teachers’ pay and working conditions.
Now it is our teachers who are in need of an interventionist.
That person, Education Minister Chris Hipkins is unhappy and on the defensive about what he’s currently put on the table for a workforce widely acknowledged as under-resourced, underpaid and overworked.
Speaking on the AM Show on May 8, Hipkins said
“The feedback that we’re getting from parents is that they do want to see teachers being paid more, but they also want to see us fixing mental health… they want to see more money going into health generally, they want to see us fixing the housing crisis that we’ve got around the country, they want to see kids lifted out of poverty.”
I have a suggestion for the minister. While you search for solutions to the problems inside the giant cans of worms you’ve commendably opened, why not try and start stemming the tide of people leaving one of the professions that could assist with some of those problems in the short term? How many interventions would be worth the extra money, minister?
It was the minister after all who, in 2016, said ‘Figures that show teachers’ wages have grown the slowest of all occupations is at the heart of the current teacher shortage’.
Despite your recent suggestion that this is not a problem that can be fixed overnight, it does seem to have a simple solution: pay teachers more. Invest now, for the sake of our future.
On May 29, the day of the strike, and in the name of Mrs Hunter, my mum and countless other educators who invest in the present for the sake of the future, I will stand in solidarity with teachers.
Theirs is not a bullshit job.