Secondary symptoms-Can the PPTA dinosaur adapt?

October 10, 2010

 ‘Striking Wellington High teacher Adaire Hannah said teachers were determined to win the fight. She called for “tried and true” industrial dispute tactics. “We are fighting for decent working conditions and pay….”We need to prepare to strike for more than one day at a time if we are to win.”‘ Stuff*

Published not long after secondary teachers had locked out their students in the first of nine scheduled rounds of strikes, The Dominion Post photo was all a bit ironic. It featured a posed PPTA President in an empty classroom, smiling fixedly to camera*, above the caption: “Lockouts: PPTA president Kate Gainsford has warned members the Government may respond by locking teachers out for the day.”

“Strikes” and “lockouts”-the quaint vernacular of old-fashioned industrial conflict from on the waterfront six decades ago. The wraith of Toby Hill must be smiling wryly at the language of class warfare being kept alive in the classroom if nowhere much else – apart from some service industries organised by the indefatigable Matt McCarten.

Before negotiations on the collective agreement had even begun the PPTA played the unsubtle and unsuitable “industrial action” card*.  Is it top Marx to the teachers association for clinging to its  collective consciousness?  Or is it a resounding “below standard”  for the unconscious irony of its unconscionable  negotiation tactics, especially given the straitened economic context in which it is occurring?

  Secondary teachers have received 12 percent in pay rises over the past three years but the national economic environment is quite different from almost a decade of fiscal surpluses.

The PPTA now demands a 4 per cent pay rise, while the Government is offering 1.5 per cent, plus another 1 per cent in a year. Members are also seeking a series of not inexpensive condition changes, including class-size caps, more professional development, an extra 1 per cent KiwiSaver employer contribution, laptops and immunisation against contagious diseases.

More professional development and making laptops available for all teachers, subject to digital WoF assessment and training  if required, would be good moves, ( as would the provision of smaller mobile devices linkable to on-line learning platforms).  More contentious in the dawning age of the virtual classroom  are class size caps across the board.  

 One hopes that the immunisation request, if acceded to,  will assist in the prevention of future outbreaks of industrialese disease at the outset of the three yearly ritual war dance.  All teacher strikes do is cause disruption for students and parents (and their colleagues and employers), and alienate their natural allies. They are certainly not exercises in how to win friends and influence people.

It would be more effective for the PPTA to better use both old and new media to engage in dialogue with the wider community well before negotiation starts and to argue its case with evidential material  rather than gratuitously disrupting the lives of secondary students and their parents. They are already under enough pressure, particularly those with impending exams.

The trouble is that the PPTA has a bunker mentality embedded in its permanent secretariat which clings to a militant strategy about as flexible as the pre-World War I military strategies of the major European powers. The strike plan is periodically pulled out of the archives, dusted off and mixed with  a touch of Cold War escalation theory and served up luke warm for members to endorse via an entirely predictable loaded ballot at meetings held in school time rather than, say, from 4pm.

The public polls via Stuff* were running 54%-46% against the teachers action when  I looked some time ago.  Hardly scientific but the 20,000+ who had participated at that stage was not a bad muster and the figures are still revealing. The poll was not specifically about the tactics employed. Had it been the supporters of secondary teachers would have been in an even smaller minority. That would be a shame given the importance of education for the future of this country.

It would be interesting to see a proper secret poll conducted among all secondary teachers and principals, not just PPTA members, on a range of issues to do with salaries, conditions and professionalism.  I’ve heard of  a growing number of  recent resignations from the PPTA over the tactics employed -60 from one secondary school.

Minister of Education Anne Tolley has repeatedly urged the PPTA to get back around the bargaining table. But PPTA president Kate Gainsford said Ms Tolley’s statement was “very strange timing” and unhelpful. “If the minister really wants the PPTA back at the table then she will need to make sure that Government is listening to a number of things we are raising, and not just repeat a mantra,” she told NZPA.

Resorting to threats of “industrial action” in the education coalmines and the dark satanic mills of pedagogy, before negotiations had even started, doesn’t count as a mantra because the Sanskrit meaning “instrument of thought, from man to think” doesn’t apply to intellectually lazy and second hand  slogans such as “Quality education under attack, stand up, fight back”.

At the recent PPTA annual conference the Minister wasn’t damned with faint praise for venturing into a hornets nest: she didn’t get even token applause after her address. This was rude, but not as rude as what happened to her at the NZEI Conference at Rotorua around the same time: About 500 NZEI members and parents attended the meeting. Many held up signs reading “Stop, listen and fix the flawed standards” and “stop early childhood cuts” whenever early childhood education and National Standards were mentioned during her speech.

Such behaviour can only be described as childishly rude.  Would teachers expect their students to behave like this in class or at the annual prize-giving ceremony if they had an issue they wanted to address or they disagreed with the speaker’s point of view? What real lessons are being taught by such boorish actions? 

The PPTA’s PR Campaign in the wider community, if it has one, is a disaster. The recent strikes excluded schools here in quake-affected Canterbury. But the earthquake-hit province was  not excluded from a remarkably insensitive ad in the Christchurch Press on 14 September, 10 days after the 7.1 magnitude earthquake.* “This is not the time to forget about education. Education is one of the strongest aspects of a robust and successful community…A crisis created by decision makers is one we can choose to avoid right now…”

The people of Canterbury can be forgiven for having other things on their mind in mid September.

If actual and potential allies are turned off by mindless militant tactics and poor timing by an otherwise articulate group of people, what about the reaction of those who’ve long looked askance at the way the PPTA operates at the national level.  A blunt confrontational approach devalues rather than revalues the professional estimation of teachers in the eyes of the public. The PPTA may or may not win this particular battle but they are losing the war of public goodwill and therefore longer term political clout.

The PPTA is operating in increasingly dinosaur-like ways in a vacuum and is a strong  contender for a group Darwin Award*. As W. Edwards Deming had it “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”   

Educators rightly make great play of learning content and skills in the appropriate learning context. We’re three years into the downturn/credit crunch/ end of the world economic order as we know it. The economic environment is still suffering the effects of global cooling. The PPTA needs to adapt and be much smarter in arguing its case and winning broader political support.

 Kate Gainsford’s Letter to parents in newspapers on 7 October is a belated defensive attempt to placate parents and engage the wider public before the next round of strikes kicks off now that the new school term is about to start.  She makes some fair points about public education and ensuring a supply of highly qualified teachers. But her statement that “one party sat down with a will to negotiate meaningfully and openly, and that was the PPTA”  loses credibility when placed alongside the strike threats made before negotiations even started.

Premature exhortation  got the PPTA  off on the wrong foot in the negotiating dance.  Shooting itself repeatedly in the same appendage since hasn’t helped its cause since. In negotiations, like everything else, the sequence is the secret.

The “letter” also contains this self-revelatory pearl: “As usual, the PPTA has been called a self-serving, greedy, stroppy union by some commentators.”  Well, now you mention it Kate, perhaps it is time for the PPTA to do some self-reflection and reinvention.

Reg Revans in “The Learning Organisarion” is quoted thus: “For an organisation to survive its rate of learning must be equal to, or greater than, the rate of change in its external environment.”  It’s the moment of truth for the PPTA. Is the organisation adaptable enough to lift its own rate of learning to at least keep up with the rate of change in society? 

Better still, is it prepared to make radical changes in permanent personnel, policy and public relations to enable it to play a real leadership role in education?

*Blinks ] 

  #Lyall Lukey 10 Oct 2010  My other blog