From the President: As I started, so I remain – QTU Proud!
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 8, 6 November 2020, page no. 6
One thing we often fail to do is stop, look back, consider what has come before and contemplate how it might shape tomorrow. As this is my last ever column for the Queensland Teachers’ Journal, I will take the time to look at what our lived experience of the past has to offer on how we might move on from 2020, a year like few others.
I begin by addressing the primary question of why people become teachers, and hasten to add that there is no one answer, but many. Of late, this has been described as the “moral imperative” of our profession. In essence, I became a teacher because I wanted to use my skills and knowledge to make a difference in the lives of the students I taught. I have heard many others describe their motivation in identical terms. It was a small step to seek to play a bigger part in the Queensland Teachers’ Union, and in 1994 I was first appointed as an Organiser for the Darling Downs and South-west Queensland. In my head was the desire to continue to try and make a positive difference in the lives of people who make a difference in the lives of their students. Others will of course be the judge of the extent to which I have achieved this.
When I began my life as a teacher 34 years ago, I was paid the sum of $19,594 per annum as a first-year, three-year trained teacher. My first pay cheque really was a cheque, printed on a dot-matrix printer. Beginning teachers today, all at least four-year trained, begin teaching on $71,834 per annum – a 350 per cent increase. When I became an Officer of the QTU in 1994, I left my role as a head of department (curriculum), for which I was paid $42,919 per annum. Had I remained as a head of department for the past 26 and a half years I would now be earning $120,682 per annum and, had it not been for the state government imposed pay increase deferral, I would be paid almost three times what I was earning back in 1994. Salaries can always be better, but this provides some perspective on what has been delivered for members by the QTU.
Salaries, as always, will play an important part in the attraction and retention of the thousands of teachers who are needed to staff our schools over the next decade. But the reality is that salaries alone won’t elevate the profession to first choice for many, and we must also continue to address the oppressive workload and occupational violence that have had such a negative impact on teachers, principals and the capacity of schools to maintain a position as employment of choice.
Another change of great magnitude has been the increasing complexity of the classroom. The individual needs of students and the needs of cohorts of students have been transformed over the past three decades as the pipeline of change from the community manifests as exceedingly complex classrooms. This is unlike anything I experienced in my time as a teacher and school leader. Educators experience this complexity as classroom management issues and as challenges in communication in a world which has developed a 24-hour, seven-day cycle of intense engagement.
One critical improvement that would begin to address these issues is the restoration of professional autonomy to the teaching profession. We must have trust that teachers and principals know what is right or the best way to decide what is right, in consultation with the students and parents who are our close partners in education. Education is being shackled by some backward-looking politicians who cannot embrace the potential power of the teaching profession because it would finally reveal just how much has been foregone while those politicians have been attempting to call the shots.
We often lose sight of the impact of change in our lifetime. Social media, and the transformation of the media world in general, has been a key feature of my work as QTU President. Social media provides a voice for many who have not had one, albeit that some choose to use their voice to project hate and spite with real consequences that are unseen. News and the media’s need to generate content is now ubiquitous. After nine years of working with journalists, it is clear that their work is unsustainably intense and largely driven by their bosses’ advertising revenue imperative rather than a calling to inform the public. The more sensational and outrage-generating the better in the modern world of media, and our community is poorer for it. The role of the QTU President as our chief media spokesperson has never been more important or more difficult to sustain. I will not miss the calls to do live-to-air radio interviews at dawn.
Finally, I reflect on the community of which our schools are such an important part. We are more diverse, more inclusive, more complicated and yet still riven by inescapable internal conflicts. Rising poverty, generational unemployment and reliance on inadequate welfare, sharp differences between city and country and between states and nations, all generate very real consequences in the classroom – consequences that education systems are ill-resourced to manage, resulting in embedded disadvantage on a growing scale. It is here that much attention must be focused.
One constant challenge during my more than 26 years with the QTU has been the defence of the great public institution that is TAFE. This timeframe coincides with the rapid escalation of QTU involvement in TAFE, which has had more than its fair share of restructures and, ultimately, a slow decline imposed by retrograde government policies favouring the market and competition as a mechanism for funding in vocational education and training.
The groundwork that had been laid was exploited by the Newman LNP government in 2012, my first year as President of the QTU, and the future of TAFE hung in the balance. Ultimately, a small group of dedicated rank and file activists conducted a campaign that saved TAFE from immediate destruction. Members showed great courage and tenacity, including taking strike action on the day before the 2015 state election to highlight the existential threat to TAFE posed by a re-elected Newman government. It is one of many times I have been awed by the audacity and altruism of members fighting for a much greater cause.
The struggle for TAFE is not over. The inclusion of TAFE members in the core of the QTU is critical to our collective strength and our ability to promote and protect public education in all its forms, and it should be celebrated as such.
Education in schools and TAFE has always been the great enabler. In a society that embraces fairness and merit, anyone can succeed, reach their life goals and contribute for the benefit of our whole community. Too much now is left for schools and TAFE, and the teachers and leaders who work in them, to resolve without the time and resources to do the job that is asked of them. That is a further challenge for our times.
I conclude this retrospective with a note of sincere thanks. All that we have achieved has been the result of our collective efforts. Over my time at the QTU, I have worked with thousands of members, all teachers and principals from our great state schools. I have worked closely with all the employees of our great QTU. I have been a part of a great leadership team of Senior Officers who share the passion for education and the QTU.
Through all of this I have enjoyed friendships and camaraderie that will endure well beyond our time together. You are all what makes our QTU so great.
I am the product of my family, my teachers and mentors, my friends and work colleagues and my community, and yet on many things I stand apart from them as my own person. We are, after all, individuals who draw strength from the collective. Over my time with the QTU, I have loved and lost family, my father Frank and grandmother Irene, and friends, Neil Stephens, Gary Quinn, Neil Weaver and Bob Baldwin, to name just a few. All of them played an important role in my life, and I am indebted to them for their contributions.
Most importantly to me, the last 16 years of my journey with the QTU have been with my wife and life partner Andrea Lie. I know that my being a public figure who, like many others, draws the ire of “trolls” from within and without creates unpleasant consequences for family. I will not miss the pain of seeing my loved one’s struggle with me being the subject of real and confected anger and hate.
It has been an honour and a privilege to play my part in leading the QTU into its 132nd year. I have great respect for and expectations of the new Presidential team for 2021 and beyond – the first all-woman Presidential team in the QTU’s long history. I will follow what is to come with great interest and with hope.
I have hope because our great Union continues to grow, and with the milestone of 50,000 members within reach, we are three times larger than when I started work as a teacher. I have hope because we have confronted hostile governments and prevailed. I have hope because we continue to improve the working and learning conditions in Queensland's great state schools and TAFE while producing a world class education for all Queenslanders. I have hope because the QTU remains focused on the needs of individual members, the teaching profession, state schools and TAFE, while continuing to support the vulnerable members of the community who have always needed a champion. I have hope because I am, first and foremost, a teacher.
Wherever I go and whatever I do, I will remain QTU Proud!