Sometimes the useful lessons of history come from the strangest destinations.
In Season 6 of The Simpsons an episode was produced about a teachers’ strike that went too far. The Springfield locals, exasperated and frustrated, eventually decided that they didn’t need the teachers and that any old Tom, Marge or Apu could fill in.
And that’s when it all turned south.
Emblematic of the ensuing mayhem was a creepy old character called Jasper who spends most of his time threatening the students with belting them with a paddle before sending the students home due to his beard getting stuck in a pencil sharpener.
The episode when to air in 1995, and yet here we find ourselves twenty-six years later in Victoria, on the verge of following New South Wales down the path of inviting retired teachers and unqualified undergraduate teachers to fill the inevitable staffing abyss when schools reopen.
Frankly, it’s more absurd than the cartoon.
Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, needs to come clean with the state’s parents. When he announced, with thick fervor, last week that the start of the school year will not be delayed he was conspicuously thin on detail about how.
We heard the usual vows about masks, about just thirty schools being set up as vaccination hubs ahead of day one and about the perpetual promises of air purifiers.
We didn’t hear much beyond “other supports” about the plan for vast swathes of educators being unavailable to work when they isolate as either close cases or covid victims.
We didn’t hear about what percentage of 5–12-year-olds vaccinated could constitute a safe working and learning environment during a crippling Omicron wave.
We also didn’t hear any objection to the cockamamie New South Wales plan drag retired teachers off the bench to play a major role in the game.
Can you imagine it, opening a surprise email from the state education department as you sit on the porch having a cuppa in the summer sunshine?
Dear Retired Educator,
Bit of a problem here. All the teachers are crook and we promised a state full of parents that we’d make face-to-face learning a reality. Look, we know your age likely puts you in the highest risk bracket for covid and that we’re asking you to enter a writhing entanglement of unvaccinated snottiness. But do you reckon you could shield the economic forecast of the state with your bodies ahead of the next election?
The State Government
That collective “Umm … thanks but no thanks” will be heard across the country as quickly as we’ll be hearing the gates close on almost every school set to re-open at the end of January.
It’s not policy, it’s fantasy.
The notion that unqualified undergraduate teachers could also step into classrooms without disruption to our kids’ learning or these young professionals’ wellbeing is also unworthy of serious consideration.
Every pre-service teacher will tell you that they learn more in their first semester of teaching than they did in four years at university. Those first ten weeks are a baptism of fire and far too many don’t survive it, with up to 40% in some places leaving forever within the first 3-5 years of service.
Stoking that fire with some significant risk to their own personal health is going to make that problem worse and leave us on the other side of this short-term problem with an ongoing workforce crisis.
That crisis will leave us successful in our quest to put a warm body at the front of every classroom, but completely bereft of any trust that that this will translate into a decent education for any Victorian student.
To be clear, anyone can teach. But that’s the equivalent of me saying that both Ash Barty and I can play tennis. It’s true, but it proves nothing. We all know who can really play tennis without making an absolute mess of it.
And so, the only people we should entrust to teach our kids are qualified, healthy teachers.
If our governments can’t guarantee that they can provide that level of quality assurance to parents about our schools, then they shouldn’t be promising blindly and unpreparedly that they’ll open them.
Which leaves us at step one in our school reopening plan. Before we talk shade sail grants, open windows on forty-degree days and whether cotton, surgical or N95 masks are preferred we need to ask the obvious question.
How are we going to look after our teachers?