Teachers caught in a perfect storm

The Point V9 N5

We’ve heard much recently about the need to improve education. The federal government says teacher quality is the issue and that universities should increase the ATAR score needed to get into teaching, while on the other hand universities are unable to attract enough students into teaching as it is. It’s all a contradictory mess - and much of it misses the point.

The joys of teaching can be great, but the pressures, hours, workloads and demands are enormous. In addition to all this, accountability fatigue’ and the ever-increasing threat from complaints and investigations is a real drain on the appeal of teaching as a career.

Some years ago, complaints about educators were rare. Now it is rare for a school to have any period when they are not dealing with complaints. Given the challenges educators face already and the vast volume of excellent work they do, is it fair that their life can be turned upside down by one vindictive parent or one disgruntled student?

It’s true that some educators do bad things, and that the appalling historical conduct of many clergy requires an unflinching response. But should all educators be subjected to career-ruining processes because of criminal clergy and a few ‘bad apple’ teachers? The IEU has seen too many great educators leave the industry after suffering through months of tortuous investigations. Their selfesteem
and professional reputations are in tatters even when they are ultimately exonerated. The personal cost is lifedefining and the cost to the education industry is inestimable.

Just one example: a teacher was alleged to have ‘hit’ a girl backstage at a school performance. The teacher had an impeccable 25-year record, and was enormously respected by leadership, colleagues and students. She was stood down and subject to separate investigations by her school and the VIT. After a year-and-a-half, the truth came out: the allegation was fabricated by two students. The member was completely exonerated, but was shattered by the experience. After 18 months away from her workplace as the subject of the allegation and the gossip that goes with it, she could not face going back to teaching. Another great teacher lost to the profession.

The IEU is increasingly engaged in defending members against false, vexatious and vastly exaggerated claims. In an environment where
educators are given little support in managing physical and verbal abuse from students, how can it be that ‘tapping a student on the shoulder’ is the basis for subjecting a teacher to a potentially career-ending process?

There are many factors which are all pushing in the same direction. Each taken on its own is perfectly reasonable, but together they have created a ‘perfect storm’. Consider these:

1. The Commission of Enquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
The revelations were horrendous, but in schools the findings were almost exclusively about priests, not teachers or support staff. The response included establishing another government agency to compel schools to conduct in-depth investigations whenever a vaguely credible allegation is made about any conduct which could cause ‘more than trivial’ emotional or psychological harm. Schools, anxious not to be reported in the tabloid media, take a ‘diligent approach’. It only takes one student or a disgruntled parent to ruin another career.

2. Community expectations
The rise of the culture of ‘individual rights’ continues, as does the view that students are ‘consumers’ of education, with consumers’ rights. For better or worse, people are increasingly likely to pursue legal claims if they feel they have been wronged.

3. Heightened sensitivity in schools
The focus is all on child safety. Without doubt, students should be protected from abuse – but right now this is coming at the expense of the protection of staff. Schools are anxious to be seen as having ‘zero tolerance’ on child safety. Shoot first, ask questions later.

4. Financial imperative
In non-government schools, students are the ‘client’. Losing a student loses income. Disgruntled parents can do financial damage. There is no balance here – if a staff member is in a parent’s sights, the economic choice is clear.

5. More and more policies
Policies are essential. But the undeniable impact of having better and broader policies setting out the rights of students and parents to complain is that more people do.

6. Bullying jurisdiction
Three years ago, bullying was a difficult thing to take on. The advent of the bullying provisions of the Fair Work Act set up a legal recourse but also promoted a much greater community awareness. Allegations of bullying have overtaken allegations of discrimination as the ‘go to’ complaint in school communities.

7. Civil action
It is still relatively rare for civil litigation against to be filed against educators but, in some quarters, the threat is thrown like tomatoes at the Tomatina Festival. The threat puts enormous pressure on schools to oust educators to appease potentially litigious parents.

8. More risk-averse regulators
VIT and the TRB regulate teachers and the Department of Justice issues Working With Children Permits. No public servant wants to be the one who exercised discretion to allow someone to keep working in a school and then later find they were an abuser. The tabloid media would crucify the educator AND the regulator. Better to be on ‘the safe side’ and assume the worst.

9. Police / prosecutorial activity
Police used to steer away from prosecuting educators, preferring to leave it up to schools to sort them out. This led to real and terrible failures. The focus on those failures has caused police to become highly active in this area, resulting in a number of prosecutions of innocent educators.

10. VIT/TRB Investigations
The number of investigations being conducted by teacher registration bodies has burgeoned. They are required to investigate any relevant allegation, and families are more aware than ever of their power to ‘get’ a teacher by filing a complaint. The outcome is almost irrelevant – the process is torture.

11. Reportable Conduct Scheme
Coming out of Government Enquiries, Victoria has established the Reportable Conduct scheme. Here is a whole new forum for anyone (disgruntled parents, upset students, ex-partners seeking revenge – anyone) to make an educator’s life hell. And the magic of it? There is no consequence for making false and vexatious claims!

12. Mandatory reporting
There is nothing new here, but there is still a steady stream of reports involving educators. Some are justified, many are not.

13. Social media and communications
No school is going to ban social media, and many urge teachers to use online facilities and apps for educational purposes. But their use blurs the once clear professional/personal line. Too many educators find their innocent communications being ‘re-interpreted’ in
professional conduct investigations.

We don’t suggest any of these developments are of themselves a bad thing, but where is the ‘happy medium’? What path is there for an educator who is falsely accused?

Union members receive the benefit of expert legal advice and representation in these situations – representation which in many cases would otherwise cost tens of thousands of dollars from lawyers without a close knowledge of education law. The IEU has guided hundreds of individual members through this quagmire and has had many successes in establishing the innocence of the wrongly accused. The tragedy though is that in many cases a legal victory cannot undo the damage done to lives and careers.

Past systematic failures to provide safe and supportive environments for our students were shameful, abhorrent and in many cases had truly tragic results. However, addressing this should not come at the expense of the provision of safe and supportive working environments for our educators – if it does, then our whole education system will be the worse for it.