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Hands up if you think our teachers don't get enough credit: Now, try this little quiz

Opinion

From life-savers to life councillors, the expectations of our teachers seem to grow broader each day. Yet their contribution seems to be forever overlooked and under-appreciated, writes Madonna King

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Here’s a quiz in which very few will score highly, but every one of us should.

What’s the name of the professional who you might find sitting and talking to a child who has just cut their wrists?

What about the person who has to tell a child that their mother has just been found, dead?

What’s the occupation, apart from paramedics, where you could be required – on any working day – to ride in the back of an ambulance, hoping like hell things will work out for the young person lying in front of you?

Or where you counsel warring parents, who put their own happiness ahead of that of their children?

What’s the occupation where you might have to deal with a bout of alcoholism and suicide in the one week? Or domestic violence and murder and bankruptcy in the next week? And you won’t know which one of those issues might pop up before you get to the office.

Where do you even start, when you need to deal with a homeless primary school student?

Dr Briony Scott, an experienced Sydney school principal, provided the answer to all those questions in a stunning talk at a women’s leadership conference this week.

And the answer? Our teachers and school leaders – who hold the lives of our children in their hands for hours and hours each day.

And yet how do we treat them? We undervalue them. Ignore their contribution. Trivialise their role. Dismiss their experience.

“We are a profession without a voice,’’ Dr Scott said. “We are too tired for games, bored with the politics and by our very nature, not wired to attract attention.’’

“I am not a politician but every couple of years, an education minister or a prime minister is reported to say something along the lines of: ‘we should focus on the basics – on how to read and write’! And I’m like – Really? There’s a thought! Then they go on: we’re only to use phonics not whole words…because they would know, and we, clearly do not.’’

She didn’t miss politicians in her message – but she also reminded us all of the breadth of an educator’s job.

“I am not a medical doctor, but I have students who are walking around with defibrillators in case their heart stops, epipens in case their bodies stop, Ventolin puffers in case their lungs stop.

“I am not a police officer, but I give students advice about where to go when they’ve been assaulted or raped, what to do if someone stalks them online or on the way to the bus stop.

“I explain over and over, that child pornography laws apply to them if they send a naked photo of themselves online, even if their boyfriend asks, and I give them tips on how to get out of a car when the person who wants to drive has drunk too much.’’

Few professionals would be as experienced in educating students – and the challenges around that – than our school leaders.

And yet they never have a seat at the table where the best way to mute the COVID legacy destroying teen lives is determined, or where serious curriculum changes they have to implement are decided. Curiously, they are not part of the policy-making team, when it comes to mental health.

Dr Scott has three degrees. Many of her peers, running schools across the nation, have similar qualifications. Their post-graduate degrees run from business management to body image and every other area of study you might nominate.

So why don’t we value their advice more? And pay them for the job they do?

“I am not a lawyer, but I have been in the witness chair for three days defending an HSC mark, prepared numerous subpoenas, interpreted and misinterpreted court orders, parent orders, restraining orders, and AVOs,’’ Dr Scott said.

“I’ve been threatened with legal action too many times to list, put security screens on my house after receiving threats, been trolled online by those who don’t agree with my thoughts, silenced by those who think I should know better, and watched my colleagues in some schools raise the next generation to speak up but be clearly told they can’t speak themselves or they may lose their job.’’

Dr Scott’s talk was a call to action for educators to speak up above the ignorant din that envelops education.

But it’s also a splendid reminder for parents of the role played by their children’s educators.

For politicians, it’s an elegant shot across the bow as a new government settles in to ink its own mark.

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