President’s comment | 5 February 2013

When it’s better to get smart than get tough

KBates-thmb-5sq.jpgIssues of students’ behaviour and teachers’ workplace safety are the subject of regular media reports, with a particular focus over the past few days on teachers’ compensation claims.

Teachers and principals, as well as other education staff such as teacher-aides, have the same right as any other worker to a safe workplace environment. That includes not only the physical workplace setting but also how the behaviour of others can impact on an individual’s health and wellbeing.

There is no question that violence is an increasing concern in our society, whether it be on our roads, in our schools or, tragically, in our homes. The injuries suffered by teachers and school support staff are very real. However, to blame students as the sole cause of such violent behaviour is untenable.

Government responses often demonstrate a knee-jerk desire to show “toughness” in policy approaches, and, with regard to schools, elicit a dog-whistled public reaction of “bring back the cane”. To question the efficacy of meeting violence with violence elicits an equally predictable response of being accused of bleeding-heart political correctness. For every commentator who demands that misbehaving students should be instantly expelled is another who says that suspending such students simply moves the problem to local shopping centres.

Teachers and principals, meanwhile, are left to cope with the problems on a daily basis. They must balance the right of every child to an education with the right of all students to an education that is not compromised by unacceptable and disruptive behaviour from their peers.

It is not enough to deal with the symptoms – it is time to deal properly with the causes.

Any teacher or principal can tell which children need help. Causes of changed or disruptive behaviour are as varied as the children themselves: family discord, peer discord, bullying (both in person and online), learning difficulties, undiagnosed or untreated medical problems, disengagement with learning and so the list goes on.

There are systemic steps which can be taken to address many of these causes before the symptoms appear. One is for more centrally-funded support from specialist staff including guidance officers. Another is for more properly staffed and resourced positive learning centres, where at-risk students can be removed from the usual school setting but continue their education. Another is the provision of a broad curriculum, particularly in high school, to maintain all students’ active interest in learning.

Instead, we see short-term programs like boot camps. We see that this Government has not convened one meeting of the Queensland Schools Alliance Against Violence, of which the QTU is a member. We see budget cuts reducing school flexibility and restricting curriculum. We see extra funding for school chaplains, but not for guidance officers. And we see schools being increasingly blamed for society’s ills.

Being seen to get tough on crime might be politically palatable. Supporting children to overcome their issues is socially responsible. To not do so should make our hearts bleed.

Kevin Bates