Keith Wheeler’s Wheeler’s Wisdom | OPINION

A former Gundagai doctor, Dr Andrew Laming, now a Queensland MP, gained notoriety via a Sydney Morning Herald report where he said teachers should work a "regularised" 38-hour week for 48 weeks a year, like everyone else. "Teaching needs to operate like other jobs, with the same hours, days and weeks as the rest of the economy,” he bungled on, talking about, “excessive holiday periods”.

This was a strangely provocative, and uninformed claim from an MP who is anything but a fool. He is a highly qualified doctor, who served in Gundagai in 1990, in various outback Queensland and NT communities, and worked with the International Red Cross in Kabul. He trained in obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery, becoming the principal researcher in evaluating single dose azithromycin for mass treatment of trachoma, plus much, much more.

He would know what lengthy, irregular hours mean, so why bother with the “teachers have too many holidays” jibe? 

I can speak from “regularised hours” experience. From Lockhart Central School I was seconded for two years as a consultant with the Hawke Government’s Participation and Equity Program (PEP). This position required “administrative hours”.

So once into the job I asked about school holidays, and was told that I would be entitled to “leave in lieu”, in other words, no overtime pay for extra out-of-hours work, but those additional hours could then be used as leave. My school visits were in normal school time. The many, many hours of planning, writing, publishing, addressing public meetings, conferences and so on were often at night and at weekends. And there were a few occasions with 24 hour responsibility at camping courses for school student leaders.

Keeping an “overtime” diary showed me that work outside school hours added up to much more than the school holidays! If conscientious teachers, and particularly school leaders, kept a similar record they would be able to tell the same story.

Having studied professionally himself, I wonder when Andrew Laming thought that teachers study to gain higher qualifications, read about new ideas, prepare lessons, mark children’s work, and all that unexciting stuff that sometimes frightens first year uni students when they are doing their first “prac”? Why do so many new teachers leave the profession in the first five years?

Teachers eat their lunch while doing playground duty. There is a mountain of government-generated bureaucratic paperwork for almost any task undertaken, which really eats into a teacher’s own time, and saps their enthusiasm.

Mr Laming quickly back-pedalled, admitting in a SMH article that, “Irrelevant tasks like playground and bus duty are stacked on top of social work and behavioural management, simply to avoid Australia having to pay others to fill those roles.”

And I did like the part where Laming later acknowledged, “Much of the magic of teaching lies where it is least expected: quiet counsel under a tree, the excursions that open minds and the extra-curricular pursuits. I want teachers paid for these additional hours, including overtime …”

As a school principal, I often wished that I was paid for a workaday week and able to claim overtime for the hours spent finishing necessary tasks. “Our nation seems to think that overpraising teachers is sufficient compensation for not paying them for their hours of work,” he added. If only he hadn’t said something silly in the first place.