Exit of a Hack Teacher  
Thor May   © 
copyright Thorold May 1998 All Rights Reserved 
published by The Plain & Fancy Language Company 
ACN 1116240S Melbourne, Australia  

Note 1: This letter, written to the director of Kangan Batman TAFE in early 1998, records my exit from the institution. There are thousands of such departures every day from Australian workplaces. The details of this one are not of any special significance. However, taken out of its personal context, the letter is a kind of historical window, for this moment in time, into the reality of teaching in a TAFE. 

Note 2: Reply from John Parish, Director of Kangan Batman TAFE 

Note 3: Reply from the Hon. Phil. Honeywood, Minister for Tertiary Education
             and Training, Victoria

To e-mail Thor May, please click here 
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18 February 1998
Mr John Parish
Director                                                     cc. The Hon. David Kemp
Kangan Batman TAFE                                     The Hon. Kim Beazley
                                                                        The Hon. Phil Honeywood
                                                                        The Hon. John Brumby
 Exit of a Hack Teacher
Dear Mr. Parish,

I have been invited on one of the Institute's forms to make an "employee
exit statement". That is, my contract is not being renewed. Your own
tenure has been brief, we have never met, and I have no idea what manner
of man you are.  However, it may be useful if I put a few fairly candid
propositions on the record. A copy has been forwarded to various political
leaders since their understanding of the flavour TAFEs, publicly funded
educational institutions, must have a bearing on future developments. A
further copy will be found at my Internet site:

Exit of a Hack Teacher(c) Thor May 1998; all rights reserved  [go to end][top of page]

Firstly let me explain that I worked at the pre-amalgamation Batman TAFE
for 3.5 years as a teacher / co-ordinator of a program to teach technical
English as a second language to overseas trained mechanics and other men
with mechanical interests. It was rewarding work, helping to re-establish
individuals who had literally had their lives shot out from beneath their
feet, and found themselves in a strange country as long term unemployed.
A new teacher has been appointed to displace me. He is a decent and
competent man who will do a good job.

The English for Mechanics program itself is no longer valued, and the
reason for this will serve as a paradigm for much that is troubling the
TAFE as a whole. This program, we are told, is a "loss centre". What does
that mean? The institutional budget has been atomised into small local
cost-centres. As it happens, the English for Mechanics Program is run by
the Language Studies Faculty, which must "buy time" from the Automotive
Faculty for three afternoons of workshop activity a week (budgeted back
from four afternoons in 1997), which leaves little departmental profit. The
line manager therefore feels that she has no brownie points to win from
promoting the program, and has effectively ceased to put time into it.
Throughout Kangan Batman TAFE managerial incentives are structured in
this manner. The outcomes are pretty feral. The best interest of students
has been an early casualty.

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Let us go back a step. You will be well aware that prior to mid-1997 the
director of Batman TAFE was a man almost universally regarded by the
staff as a scoundrel, whose recent conviction for contempt of court was
neatly matched by his contempt for education. The curious paradox of
Batman was that having a disliked but neglectful leader, unlikely people
found common cause and some remarkably ecumenical teaching programs
emerged. Nevertheless, the prospect of more sane management from the
Kangan Batman merger was anticipated with general relief.

The director of the old Kangan TAFE, to be interim director of the merged
institution, came with a barrage of advance promotion. We heard that she
had been Australian something of the Year. Kangan was a tight ship where
things actually worked, and there wasn't graffiti on the walls. Indeed at a
staff "wedding reception" to align the institutional cultures she put up a
bravura performance, speaking for two hours without notes. There would
henceforth be a vigorous, free exchange of information, decisions would
be transparent, and the management structure "flat".

I took her at her word. Being cursed with an active imagination, I
forwarded a few ideas for innovation or reform of the kind you will find
attached to this document. The outcome was swift and curious. A message
was relayed back to my line manager that under no circumstances was I to
communicate with the director. All contact must be filtered through the
line management. A similar message arrived a short time late from my new
associate director, together with a punitive document that looked like the
official secrets act. Old Batman staff, including middle management began
to tell wry tales of being blocked from the offices of "superiors". As a
lecturer for ten years at four different universities I had had no trouble
communicating with the odd vice chancellor. What was going on? We
began to sense fairly primitive forces at work. An obsession with hierarchy
is the hallmark of defensive mediocrity the world over.

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The dissonance of public virtue and private intolerance found other echoes
as we approached Kangan culture more intimately. There was a rule, a
procedure, a committee for all things. We were advised to join "continuous
improvement teams", which produced reports that any apparatchik of the
old Soviet regime would have recognized immediately. The actual
prospect of having a live teacher join such a team raised timetabling
problems that they weren't prepared to contemplate. Then we had the "Let
100 Flowers Bloom" campaign (apologies to Mao Tse Tung), otherwise
known as the competition for "Ideas, Innovations, Suggestions or
Improvements". The Quality/Continuous Improvement Department rashly
offered "Dinner at Richard's Restaurant" for clever thoughts. I sent them
ten suggestions in thirty typed pages (appended) on 23 August 1997, with
a copy to my line manager. Clearly someone panicked or got indigestion.
Eight months later I am still waiting for an acknowledgment, let alone a
reasoned response.

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The more serious point of this letter is that the Kangan culture on close
inspection has turned out to be a kind of honeycomb shell without much
honey, an assembly of defensive enclaves, "cost centres", where
cooperation and innovation are not judged in terms of educational
effectiveness, but self-preservation of the enclave. It was neatly summed
up by the first staff meeting of 1998 for the old Batman Social Science
Department, now gutted from 25 to 8 staff and restrictively renamed
Pre-Vocational Training. We had to "talk the Department up"; problems
were not to be mentioned "outside"; our future was at stake. We were
referred to the instance of a shambolic Kangan department with a glowing
outside reputation. My mind sped back to the Kangan director's pre-
amalgamation performance months earlier. And to the shells of nations
from whence my refugee students had fled, places where candour is death.

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If you have read this far Mr. Parish you may have concluded that my own
expulsion from the Kangan machine was perhaps inevitable. It was
certainly arranged gracefully with regard to all the prescribed rules,
regulations and panels. I know these dance steps, have met them before in
other guises. One of quaint niceties of interview fashion now is to give you
a "reason" for regretful departure. The poor critters have to choose these
from "key selection criteria", a lucky dip business to be sure. In my case I
"had no ideas for the development of the mechanics program" (sigh), and
had "not liaised well with the mechanics" (they were aghast to hear this).
The choicest bon-bon came from another interview: I "did not sufficiently
grasp equal opportunity principles" (but strangely two young female
teachers, sexually harassed in the workplace,  had sought me out for
counselling over several months after institutional counsellors proved to be
neither confidential nor impartial under management pressure ...). Ce la

Exit of a Hack Teacher(c) Thor May 1998; all rights reserved [go to end][top of page]

This last paragraph is an irrelevance, and I apologize for the personal
intrusion. What does a 52 year-old hack teacher do when Education has
gone on a long vacation and schools pretend they are silicon-chip
factories? Playing devil's advocate has definitely not been a way to win
referees. The time has come, it seems, to find a new horizon. So a three
stage plan: 1) beg on the streets, or anything else to get a cash flow [.. no
joy from Social Security, on past indications: they want you to eat your
savings, unless you have sunk them in a mortgage]; 2) buy a laundromat to
pay the rent, or whatever can be had with all up resources of about
$70,000; 3) get up to speed on a few computer programs and turn my Plain
& Fancy Language Company into a multi-media production empire ...... or,
if all else fails, follow in the steps of my grandfather, who took a primus
stove to Cronulla Beach every Sunday for years, and became famous for
his toffee-apples.

                Thor May

Exit of a Hack Teacher(c) Thor May 1998; all rights reserved [top of page]