Welcome to the teaching profession

Maurie Mulheron

The new school year has started. The first school development day has come and gone and the tasks of meeting new classes, learning the names of the students, organising resources and becoming acquainted with new colleagues have begun.

Despite the hot weather, the invariable playground duty roster glitch and the queue at the photocopier, the start of a school year has its own excitement. Excitement, but also a little nervousness for those students starting at a new school.

But new school year nerves are not restricted to students. Even seasoned teachers feel some apprehension as they walk to their first staff meeting. Perhaps we should spare a thought or two, at this time of year, for the teachers who have just begun their career.

How were they welcomed into the profession by federal politicians and sections of the media?

During January, they would have seen announcements that the curriculum they were preparing to teach is to be "reviewed" even before they get a chance to teach it. Well, actually, before anyone in NSW gets a chance. They would have read that a self-promoting extremist and former Liberal pre-selection candidate is to lead this "review".

They must have thought that the teaching profession has an interesting approach to intellectual rigour and evidence-based research given that the "review" team had already denounced the new curriculum as thoroughly inferior before the "review" had even begun.

Perhaps the young teachers would have heard echoes of the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “Sentence first — verdict afterwards”.

They would have heard Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne attempting to scuttle the Gonski funding model designed to give them the resources they need to close the gap.

And just as they were mentally preparing for the year ahead, they would have heard the same politician recycle tired, conservative dogma around "independent public schools". Upon hearing this they must have whooped with delight. The solution to improving student outcomes — no, not greater resources but changes to school governance!

In a pincer movement, the tabloid media added their voices to the welcome to those entering the profession. Hysterical headlines across many pages devoted to "out of control" violence in public schools. It was clearly a political decision of senior News Ltd executive to run this line as there was a NSW version in the Daily Telegraph (“Teachers powerless to control kids”) and a Victorian version in the Herald-Sun (“Class war: teachers push for security cameras”). Same script, same emphases, different casts.

For those who are just starting their career as a teacher, allow me to take this opportunity to welcome each of you to the profession.

Public school teachers know the vital role they play in society. We foster critical thinking so as to prepare young people to take up their role as educated, caring and committed citizens within Australian society.

We reveal our history so that children and young adults may understand the present and shape the future. We provide an understanding of science and mathematics to encourage rational thought rather than reliance on dogma and doctrine. We teach them about their bodies, their health and their wellbeing. We turn them into performers, artists and poets. We introduce them to the literature and the writers who have helped shape our understanding of the human condition. We work with the young person’s mind and their hands so that they can design and build. We explore, alongside them, continents, oceans and space. We give them confidence to compete on the field.

We teach. To do that effectively, we design a curriculum that allows us to use a common language and develop an effective pedagogy.

We also instil in our students the values of excellence, cooperation, acceptance and integrity.

Teaching is hard work physically, emotionally and intellectually. But it brings its own kinds of rewards that are beyond measure: a child’s smile, a question answered, a breakthrough moment.

We teach for a better world.

For this reason, teaching will always be a profession that powerful vested interests will want to control. It is also why teacher unions are so important, not just to advance the economic interests of teachers, but to shield teachers from political attack as they carry out their work.

The day before school went back, the legendary US folk-singer, Pete Seeger, died, aged 94. Seeger is arguably one of the most influential musicians of modern times who inspired millions across the world to pick up a guitar or a banjo or to join a choir or write a song.

Each week, for the last few years, he would wander down to his local public school and teach songs to the kindergarten class. He regarded this as much more important work than his performance alongside Bruce Springsteen at Obama’s Presidential inauguration.

Having written a musical biography about Pete Seeger, I had a chance to visit him at his house in Beacon, upstate New York.

At some point, Pete was at his kitchen sink, with his back to me and he asked me why I was in the USA. I answered that I was attending a meeting in Washington of teacher unions from around the world. He replied something about the importance of unions, or so I thought. I didn’t quite hear him and I made some feeble comment about unions being important. Grabbing a tea-towel, he turned around and faced me, “Yes, but what I said is, we need teacher unions to help this planet survive.”