As the school lockouts are now a reality, there is a lot of confusion about what is going on and why it is happening. Many people are even calling it a ‘strike’, as if the unions have called for the action, when in reality it is the local government association, Kommunernes Landsforening (KL), which has told teachers that they can’t come to work. But this is not even the biggest misconception about the breakdown in negotiations about working-time agreements.
Many misconceptions have been cynically planted by politicians and their media advisers. Playing on everyone’s memories of their worst teacher, there was a flurry of news stories about lazy teachers earlier in the year The news has reported faithfully that Danish teachers teach 16 hours a week and that teachers in Denmark have the fewest student contact hours in the world. Neither of these things are true, but they have been reported as a given.
The truth is dripping out, but the damage has been done. Hearing reasoning like ‘If you remove outliers such as librarians, the average is more like 25 lessons a week’ does not undo people’s perceptions. Besides, if the media says that teachers ‘teach’ x hours a week, what many people hear is that teachers ‘work’ x hours a week.
Talk of ‘normalising’ working hours was calculated to plant the suggestion that Danish teachers do not work full-time. I am a teacher, and I work full-time. I just have a lot more tasks than simply teaching.
Each lesson takes place on a cycle. To be able to teach, you need to plan. To be able to plan, you need to assess. To be able to assess, you need to teach. Reading, assessing and commenting on work takes hours. Calling both planning and assessment ‘preparation’ means that some people get the idea that ‘preparation’ is deciding what you are going to teach.
Even though I reproduce topics and lesson ideas, I have never entirely replicated a lesson plan. Teaching a lesson is like crossing the Rubicon in that way. A class is not a homogenous mass waiting for me to drop some truth bombs. A class is a group of individuals. Some of them have problems learning new things, a few might have already learned what you intend to teach, and others will learn it straightaway. Everyone needs to get something out of the lesson.
Not that writing this will change minds: people who believe teachers are lazy scumbags refuse to listen to teachers.
The problem with the teacher negotiations is not that the unions are intransigent and contrary. The unions have made several suggestions on how to improve schools and change working-time agreements, referencing international studies. KL will not budge from its position.
Unfortunately for democracy, the other party in the negotiations is not at liberty to actually negotiate. KL met with politicians in secret and worked out its one and only suggestion. The projected savings have already been spent in the minds of the ministries. The anti-teacher propaganda was released months before negotiations. Lockouts were threatened almost immediately. I think there is plenty of wiggle room for reform, so why make threats so quickly?
And why threaten a lockout? If contact hours increase student achievement, why punish students by withdrawing education for possibly weeks at a time? It is a cynical ploy to turn parents against teachers. It is as if the media advisors had a ‘House of Cards’ marathon on Netflix before starting the talks. Finding childcare in the week is going to be difficult. Sympathy with teachers is planned to wane.
These plans are devised only to save money, not to increase achievement. They are not based on best practice. When the government wins and these plans are forced through, Danish schools will be less expensive to run, but an opportunity to reform them into better places of education will be missed.
I am frustrated that this process is not about making Danish schools better, but about breaking the unions to save some money. The appeal of Denmark is that even though you pay high taxes, you get lovely working-time agreements and the state provides decent services. Taking away both great aspects of life here leaves only the high taxes. It hardly seems worth it.