Feed the mind

Without adequate wages we won't be able to entice top people into the education sector at any level. These people aren't baby-sitters who just look after our children for eight hours a day - they are "feeding the mind" and there can be no more important job in our economy.

Here are a couple of terms you may have heard before.

“Let the market decide” and “If you pay peanuts you get monkeys”.

Far be it from me to go on at length about the rewards of a career extending beyond mere money — successive governments have crushed that belief — and let me point to a few problems that these two adages have introduced into our economy.

Take teachers for example. Teachers are, if you will, the engine room of our economy. They are one of, if not the largest, contributing factors to any child’s upbringing alongside parents, peers and the media. (If you think the media shouldn’t be listed, just ask any nine-year-old to list the Pokemon characters by name and see what happens.)

I would hope parents do their raising of children out of love rather than future reward — retirement commission ads aside. Peers help out without realising it and often against their better judgement. Only teachers are tasked with this job, assessed on their progress, tested and expected to be professional about the whole arrangement. Good teachers start work early in the morning, are on duty during lunch when the rest of us are actually eating, work through into the evening marking papers and preparing lessons and despite the obvious drawcard of lengthy holidays seem to spend a large portion of those golden days at the office getting things organised. They give up their weekends for sports teams, orchestra practice and the like.

A friend of mine studied history at university, ended up with a masters degree and spent a further year acquiring a teaching diploma — a total of six years. He is passionate about New Zealand’s history, sometimes to the detriment of his social life, would willingly give up his weekends for the school play and would, I think, make an excellent teacher — the kind of person who would stand out in your memories of school as someone who actually made you think.

He’s employed as a researcher for a Wellington company and has no plans to go back to the classroom because, quite frankly, he can’t afford to. Fiscally, it would be a mistake for him to go back to teaching because he’s getting paid far more than he could hope to earn as a teacher.

As a nation we’ve been trained to look at the bottom line, at the cold hard facts of life and to think of our lives not as citizens or residents but as consumers and producers of wealth. My friend has let the market decide, and it’s said: “We don’t value teachers enough to pay them a competitive wage”. It doesn’t make sense for my friend to go back to teaching and that’s appalling.

Not everyone is going to come out of school and go on to tertiary education and a high-paying job, but that’s not the point. If they don’t value learning and education it’s that view which gets passed on to their children and we end up in a downward spiral. It’s a slippery slope and part of the solution, as I see it, is having the right people in the right jobs in the first place. Already Otago University is saying it cannot see a way to reverse the current trend to lower student numbers — when I was studying full-time in the late 1980s there was nothing government could do to stop people going on to tertiary study.

That brings me to the second phrase at the top of the page — without adequate wages we won’t be able to entice the top people into the education sector at any level. These people aren’t baby-sitters who just look after our children for eight hours a day — they are “feeding the mind” and there can be no more important job in our economy. If you won’t look at it from a humanitarian or social point of view, look at the cold hard numbers. Without a highly-trained workforce we cannot attract foreign investors of the kind we want into New Zealand. Without people who love learning we cannot build that trained workforce. Without teachers willing to go that extra mile for our kids, our future is looking more and more uncertain and I for one don’t want a bar of it.

Once upon a time politicians were paid around the same amount as nurses, teachers and police officers. The Higher Salaries Commission decided we need to pay MPs more or we’d end up with a nation run by chimps. We wanted to entice people into the profession so we paid more to get the best business minds, lawyers, accountants and so on to jump to the most public of services. Perhaps that’s an idea whose time has come.

Paul Brislen is a regular columnist and reporter for Computerworld.

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