By Elizabeth Beattie
in Education HQ
Don’t drop the phrase “quality teacher” in earshot of Jane Caro; she’ll school you.
The rapid talking, op-ed extraordinaire whose recent, feisty appearance on ABC’s The Drum clocked up an impressive 1,497,494 views, saw the author address both the unreasonable pressures placed on teachers and the way the education system is failing educators and students.
The clip is worth watching; “Simon Birmingham, with your new set of performance standards, that’ll drive more teachers out,” she says cocking one finger at the camera and raising a stern eyebrow.
Caro is no less fiery in person; impassioned by her unabating concern for the way teachers are treated, the way students from low socio-economic backgrounds are being disadvantaged and the financial disparity between public and private schools, she’s not one to mince words.
“My disgust at that basic injustice and unfairness powers me on,” she says in her chatty, conversational way which somehow absolves the sting of her statements. It’s this charming, albeit blunt manner that has seen Caro colloquially bestowed the title of ‘public school defender.’
“If I can help I’m very pleased to. Someone’s got to speak up, someone’s got to help, and you know the really scary thing? It’s the bleeding bloody obvious,” she says.
“I think teachers do an incredible job, they’re incredibly important and I’m kind of disgusted by the way our society treats them...I see a real parallel with my fight for public schools with my fight for feminism because I often think public schools are like women, they’re expected to do an awful lot more but they’re given no credit for it, and they’re paid a lot less and private schools are like men, they’re expected to do hardly anything but if they lift their finger at all we go, ‘oh my god, they’re magnificent, give them a medal! Here, throw some more money at them’.”
Zingers aside, funding is just one area Caro feels change does needs to be implemented, after all, improvement requires funding, and funding requires political muscle.
“Money matters because it [has the potential to] create a good learning environment and when kids who attend a local public school walk past some of the publically subsidised palaces that are also called schools ... the message we send them, clearly and unequivocally is their learning doesn’t matter. We don’t care about their learning, and their future. That is the message that is sent, and that is the message that is received,” she explains, adding that she’s sick of public schools “getting the spiky end of the pineapple.”
“Gonski gives a pretty good template for, not perfect solutions, but at least a move in very much the right direction, the fact that the Liberal Party and the National Party are turning their back on it, for reasons of, I can only imagine ‘we didn’t think of it first’, is outrageously disgusting, it’s a kind of political vandalism.”
Caro first became aware of the friction between public and private education while she was still at school; her parents’ involvement with Defend our Government Schools (DOGS) sparked an early interest in both schooling and injustice. She recalls, “Their fight was very much at its height when I was in a public high school, it probably had an effect on me.”
Overall her school experience was a positive one, crowded with memories of friendships and encouraging teachers.
These relationships have endured. Caro notes with sadness that some of those same school friends banded together many years later to buy a wreath for one teacher who passed away from cancer.
“I went to public school, my husband and [I] sent our children to public schools, and our grandson will go to public schools, so I owe public education big time, I even got a free university education, so everything I am, New South Wales public schools gave me. I’m the kind of person who likes to pay it back,” she says.
It’s also the future of other children, particularly those who come from poorer backgrounds that Caro wants to see challenged; she is personally “galled by the arrogance and the perpetuation of generational privilege.”
“I’m a bit of a truth teller, I say what I see. I don’t like hypocrisy and there’s an awful lot of hypocrisy about education … Education creates the future. If you want to see what the future will be like, go and look into our school. I’ve got children; I’ve now got a grandson, the future matters to me. I don’t think it’s looking particularly healthy … If I can [challenge] that by speaking up on behalf of public education and teachers, then I will,” she says.
It’s not only the way the education is hampering students’ opportunities and experience that needs to be changed, it’s also the way the profession is perceived and scrutinised that requires an overhaul, according to Caro.
“The respect we give for teachers has been really whittled away over the last 20 or 30 years,” she says, offering the example that even the language used to describe teachers is often imbibed with derogatory intent; “quality teachers” is the term she finds most objectionable, as those who have seen her on The Drum already know.
“Every single teacher feels insulted by that, whether they are a genius teacher or not … I don’t believe in quality human beings, so I therefore don’t believe you can have a quality any kind of human being. I think it is a nasty, condescending, thoughtless and self-serving term,” Caro says.
“It creates its own reality but there’s no real evidence, in fact you could argue that teachers are now more skilled, more qualified, more creative, better trained, then they’ve ever been.”
Her point is that teachers are human and the current environment they work in makes an already demanding job, incredibly hard. It’s no surprise that Caro has a remedy:
“Well, the first thing we would do is banish the phrase quality teacher forever and fine anyone who used it,” Caro riffs.
“We would make a much better environment for [teachers] to work in, a good working environment, not freezing cold, not crumbling around them, not carpets that have been on the floors since 1960, decent desks, decent classrooms, a decent working environment, that would be the first thing we provide. The second is we would respect their professional opinion and ability to do their job.
“We would not micro manage them ... we would increase the amount of time they spend doing what they love, which is teaching in the classroom and we would massively decrease the amount of time they have to spend accounting what they do in the classroom. We would really bring down the amount of paperwork, the reports they need to write, the stuff that drives people away through exhaustion and burn out.
“We would then give them the support they need in the classroom. We would decrease the amount of hours they need to spend in the actual classroom and increase the amount of time they have to plan lessons, to create exciting things that go on in the classroom, and to do their marking and all that kind of stuff, instead of just expecting them to do that at home in their own time ... People burn out, and they can’t be their best because [they] are exhausted.”
Caro agrees that teachers would benefit from being more outspoken, however considering the immense pressure their jobs cause, along with strict media gagging restrictions for public schools, she concedes that it’s not easy.
“I think that teachers by nature tend to be people who obey the rules, they’re good, they’re good people, good citizens, they’re compliant, I’m not at all like that, so I’m quite useful because I don’t obey the rules, and I won’t be nice,” she says pleasantly.
“[Teachers] are doing an amazing job with very little support and against a lot of odds … everything they do I appreciate.”
“But we can’t keep relying on the good will of teachers, to keep our education system functioning properly.”