Was it Evelyn Waugh in his early incarnation as a schoolmaster who told his charges that a monetary reward would go to the student who produced the most writing on a given subject irrespective of merit? Or, perhaps, it was his hapless avatar Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall. Either way, it speaks of a philosophy of teaching which Julie Bishop understandably wishes to discourage.

The question currently doing the rounds of staff common rooms concerns what criteria will be used to award performance bonuses to teachers. Will, for instance, a home eco teacher be in line for merit pay and will it be awarded on the basis of the educational excellence of her muffins? And what of that teacher – there is one on every staff – who thinks to advance educational excellence by plonking his classes in the library at every opportunity. As his students swing from the rafters and the harried librarian races from spot fire to spot fire like a summer CFA volunteer, our teacher justifies the melee as a necessary step towards children taking ownership of their learning.

One fear is that teachers will be rewarded on the basis of their results alone. All fine and dandy if you’ve got the material to work with, the dictum about silk purses and sows’ ears holding more than true in the classroom. There is not much to be done, for example, with a difficult Year 9 group that responds to your every exhortation to improve their minds with the instruction to ‘tongue me jocks’.

Back in the staff common room, beneath bulky knits and tie colours that nature has rightly decreed to be warning signals, there beat hearts Machiavellian. The idea that a colleague might be receiving an extra $1000 per annum (whoo-hoo!) makes manipulators of us all. Now is the time when secret packets detailing the peccadillos of the science coordinator are placed into the lion’s mouth of the principal’s office. Or else old favours are called in and past associations revived. Does the principal remember all those years ago their time at Moe Tech, the department’s closest equivalent to a tour of Nam? And surely the assistant principal recalls the time her head was guided towards the bowl after a particularly lively staff do?

The final arbiters of any teacher’s worth are naturally the students. While not suggesting that rateyourteacher.com should be the ultimate tribunal, schools could do worse than consult the frank opinion of young minds. As one kid recently divulged to me without prompting, ‘Mr So-and-so is sh-t.’ And I believed him.

Atticus Flinch is a practising pedagogue

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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