back2school

It’s the start of the new school year and the parents and kids of this country are going through the annual reality-check of getting into their school routine.

But this year there’s something different in NSW. If you have watched television over summer, you may have noticed some advertainment during the commercial breaks, sponsored by the NSW Teachers Federation.

It is a series of dramatic stories about teachers that position the teachers in a favourable light in a very clever way. They are well produced and appear to be aimed at teachers to make them feel good about what they do and possibly at students who are considering becoming teachers.

There is even a website which explains why these spots were created: http://www.nswtf.org.au/news/2013/01/14/video-teachers-make-difference-campaign-launch.html

And there’s another website designed to spread the word and encourage teachers to contribute their stories. http://www.teachersmakeadifference.org.au/

Now I have to admit, one of my favourite things in life is teaching – it’s why I own a marketing training business. I love sharing knowledge and seeing those light-bulb moments when people in the audience get the message or lesson being delivered. I am also a guest tutor at universities and TAFE.

Some of my closest friends and relatives are teachers in public and private schools from pre-school through to high school and universities. They are dedicated and hard working. I’m also the father of two kids who have been in the public school system for the last 5 years. My wife and I are a product of the public school system.

The campaign is obviously a political one designed to get the public to view teachers and teaching in a different light. According to the brief there is a lot of negativity about teaching in public conversation. Apparently teachers aren’t political, but the system in which they operate is definitely political. Try telling that to the Gough Whitlam Fan Club leader that taught me economics – you were almost forced to stand in the corner if you disagreed with his political view.

When I was leaving high school, if you wanted to become a teacher you were required to have an interview with a panel of teachers as part of your career advice. I interviewed with a panel and they collectively told me I would be wasting my talent (whatever that was) in teaching. I was told I wouldn’t enjoy it and the system would frustrate and stifle me. In summary, teaching was a bad career choice and I could do much better – and this from people whom I admired. I was very confused. But I took their advice.

How ironic though, I’ve now written marketing textbooks and certificate courses, and teach for a living in the business world.

The difficulty with producing advertising that makes sweeping generalisations about a service, is that it’s much different to creating advertising about products. You see, products are created all the same – they have to be. The customer expects a specific brand of beans to taste the same and weigh the same, each time they buy them. It’s effectively illegal for products not to be consistently the same – if you get my drift. So an ad that makes general statements about a product has more chance of its claims matching the consumer experience.

Yet in the case of teachers, even though teachers in a specific year for example, may all teach the same curriculum, every single teacher is different in the way they teach and behave towards their students. And every single kid has a different personal teaching experience. The service varies from teacher to teacher and school to school. In fact, it varies so much that every child and parent in each specific year has a different experience, even though they are being taught the same curriculum. And that adds up to millions of different experiences with the NSW Teachers ‘brand’.

My family has had some wonderful experiences with our kid’s teachers. However, when you stand in the playground to collect your kids at the end of the day, the conversation amongst the parents is rarely about how wonderful the teachers are. It’s usually about the problems the kids/teachers are having and what is the school doing about it! That’s human nature – it’s easier to moan about something that isn’t working, than to praise something because it is working.

And the parents rightly believe they are paying the teachers via their taxes, so they want a say about things that affect their children.

Here’s some experiences in schools with which I’m familiar – how do they stack up against what’s being portrayed in the advertisements:

– The school stationery list came home numerous times with the heading “Stationary List”. Note the typographical error in stationery. We were always taught it’s ‘e’ for ‘envelope’.

– “Your brilliant” was a comment on a homework sheet, not “you’re brilliant”.

– “The Great Australian Bight” was corrected to “The Great Australian Bite” – I’m not kidding.

– 6 x 8 = 48 was marked incorrect and the answer was given as 54.

– The Greens party have stuck their political stickers on the boy’s urinal, but nobody has taken them down. So the lads get to read political messages every time they go to the loo – although some might say that’s the perfect place for such messages.

– If a child breaks a leg and is on crutches, their parents are required to be on mobile phone stand-by for the full school day, to take the child to the toilet and help them move around the school, if they need assistance. The school has to prepare a risk assessment report to determine if the child can even come to school. Teachers are not allowed to help the child manoeuvre in the toilet, in case they get sued. The teachers cannot help the child up or down stairs or anywhere they walk, in case the child falls and the teacher is sued for causing it. True.

– Teachers smoke on the school footpath in view of the kids.

– Teachers using kid’s skin colour as a reference when addressing students.

– And then there’s the issue of how children being bullied or suffering anxiety get treated by the system.

A friend of mine is a Primary School Principal. Every time she asks a veteran teacher waiting out his last few years for his lucrative pension, to do something outside his rostered hours – such as playground duty, or after-school pick-up monitoring – he demands an equal amount of time without children in return. Otherwise he threatens union action.

And recently I learned direct from a 2012 HSC student, that if you fail your HSC – that is, you get less than a 50% mark – you can wait 12 months and apply to university to become a teacher. Apparently that’s how you become a teacher if you miss out the first time. Should this be the qualification for teachers we want and need to grow our country?

So how would you react to the ads given these facts? What should you think when the advertising (which is contrived and fake) says one thing, but the real experience says another? That’s how brands are built – not by advertising alone. But by the experience the customer has when they use the service or buy the products. And if the customer has seen the ads and the message has sunk into their brain, how does the experience compare with what the ads are saying?

The bigger the gap between the advertising message and the real experience of the customers, the more damage is done to the brand.

And that’s the risk this teachers campaign runs – there are millions of parents out there who do not have the same experiences proposed in the ads. It could create a backlash amongst parents. It’s mostly not the teachers’ fault by the way.

I really hope the campaign is a huge success at attracting males to teaching – we seriously lack male teachers in all levels of our schools. In a collective 11 years of schooling my children have never had a male teacher between them. Each year they live in hope.

We’ll keep an eye on the campaign and later in the year will report on its performance, because good teachers really do make a difference – and our future depends upon them.