Let go

“I’m sorry, we’re going to let you go.”

This is a statement that has been said to hundreds of people already this year, Amy Cotton Professional Officer, and Donna Widdison Organiser, IEUA NSW/ACT Branch write.

They started 2018 with a new job and all of the emotions that go with that: hope, excitement, commitment and pride. Yet within six months their new employer has dismissed them, with little regard to the impact this has on the teacher, their colleagues and the school community as a whole.

Employers in Australia have an unfair advantage over employees. They may dismiss without citing a reason any new employee who hasn’t worked the minimum employment period (six months for large businesses and 12 months for businesses with fewer than 15 regular employees). The Union movement needs to change the rules on that.

While employees are expected to have wholehearted commitment to workplaces, the relationship isn’t required to be reciprocal.

“You’re not a cultural fit for the school.”

Yasmin was thrilled to learn in late 2017 that she’d successfully been appointed at a large, prestigious school in Sydney. A visual arts teacher, it’s hard to find permanent jobs in her subject area, and this role and opportunity were perfect for her. The school selected her as a candidate because of her innovative teaching practice and she was keen to grow and develop in her new role. She resigned her position at another school, refinanced her mortgage and prepared for the 2018 teaching year.

Soon after starting, it became clear that Yasmin taught differently to others. She referenced non canon artists, made her own resources, prepared different pathways through the syllabus and implemented new ICT programs. The parent body became concerned – Yasmin’s classes weren’t the same as the teacher down the corridor. They didn’t know the artists she talked about. They didn’t know her past teaching history of consistent Band 6s in the HSC.

Management brought Yasmin in for a meeting and told her that she just wasn’t a cultural fit for the school, that her teaching didn’t “meet our standards of academic rigour” and dismissed her.

Yasmin had no chance to address her practice, no understanding what ‘cultural fit’ actually meant, no opportunity to explain the methodology of her practice and is now unemployed. She gave up a permanent job and made a show of good faith in her future employer that they would commit just as fully to her in return. They let her down.

This is a common enough occurrence in non government schools and early childhood centres. That doesn’t make it sound practice by the employer. It may even hide an uglier practice – ‘You just don’t fit’ might be code for sexism, racism or ageism.

So what went wrong here?

‘Probation’ periods should not be used as the final step in a recruitment process. There shouldn’t be a ‘try before you buy’ approach; if an employer’s recruitment process is so weak that they rely on being able to dismiss someone in the first months of employment, something is wrong.

There shouldn’t be a ‘try before you buy’ approach; if an employer’s recruitment process is so weak that they rely on being able to dismiss someone in the first months of employment, something is wrong.

Are they seeking innovative practice and difference in teaching style whereas their parent community wants a monoculture of traditional and ‘safe’ teaching methodologies? Is there a disparity between what a school claims they want in pioneering candidates and the conformity and deference to authority they actually prefer in employees? Teachers are not disposable commodities to be cycled through as the school searches for the perfect candidate. Students shouldn’t have to put up with a revolving door of teachers as the school attempts to see what sticks.

There is no such thing as the perfect teacher for a school. To think that anyone would just fit in without adjusting their practice is naïve and dismissive of the exhausting work any new employee does in their first year of employment. Some employers think that other schools should put in the work of moulding a great teacher and they will just harvest that teacher when ready.

The school that has failed to induct a new employee to the culture of the school is a bad employer. Many schools forget that new employees also need induction, not just early career teachers. If a school enacts a certain philosophy of teaching, or an ethos particular to its religion,the onus is on them to create an induction experience that helps the new employee align themselves to the school’s ways. There should be no hidden curriculum for a new employee to decipher; expectations should be clear, consistently applied across all staff and reinforced by mentoring programs.

Where a school bows continuously to parent complaints and fails to defend its employees’ practice, a culture of fear starts. It’s easier to dismiss a teacher than defend a teacher, to maintain a status quo than embrace challenging change. Parents are not experts in education. Although they have the right to express concern, the school should be prepared to show the reasons why innovative practice is beneficial to the students and to the whole school over time. A manager that can’t clearly articulate the teaching strategies of their staff, in all of that diversity, should invest more time in getting to know their teachers. One way of doing this is a developmental induction process.

Hire and fire practices lead to low morale and poor practice

Schools that show no responsibility to their staff are enacting a one sided relationship. They expect everything from their employees but offer no reassurance and faith in return.

Some schools are well known for turning over dozens of staff each year. It’s a quick spiral down before the school becomes the joke of the education community; ‘Why can’t they keep staff? It must be a nightmare school.’ Employers think that this might be a badge of honour, but in reality the school community is in trauma – the students are experiencing a constant parade of teachers, the teachers are always looking for another job. Neither students or teachers have loyalty to the school, or faith that they are being looked after. This leads to students not investing in getting to know teachers (‘Oh, you’ll be gone by the end of the term’) and developing bitterness that impedes rapport and trust which are vital to a teaching relationship.

The staff at such a school will react in a variety of negative ways. Some will become overly compliant, eschewing any practice or conversation that might challenge management. Carbon copy teaching will arise where teachers see someone else who is favoured by management and copy instead of innovating or developing, thereby creating a monoculture of teaching strategy in the school which isn’t dynamic enough to meet the diverse needs of the students.

Staff may experience anxiety that they are not perfect fits for the school, and others will simply feel stuck because although there might be greener pastures in which to teach, it’s too scary to leave because once in the new job they’re back on probation. For the staff that are seeking new employment, they’re certainly not going to invest the effort in creating long-term projects that benefit the school.

Schools that show no responsibility to staff expose a one-sided relationship. No teacher will offer loyalty to a workplace that doesn’t invest in or defend them. The teachers are expected to do all the work in that relationship whilst the employers sit in judgement.

What sort of school does management envisage?

If management seeks to create a dynamic, innovative and cutting edge education environment for their students, they are best to induct and invest in their teachers, assure them of security of employment and defend their practices when called.

Insecure workplaces force a new employee to put professionalism aside for 6–12 months in order to become a meek ‘yes man’ style employee. Is this the type of teacher schools should be seeking?