08 October 2009

Living Values: Do as I say, not as I do (3347 words)

Shani Hartley has worked in a corporate environment for many years but is now a high school teacher.  Here she writes about the struggles of teaching values in a greedy world. 

***
Ask the average man on the street what 2 + 2 is and he’ll say 4
Ask an engineer what 2 + 2 is and he’ll say 4.0
Ask an accountant what 2 + 2 is, and he’ll whisper seductively in your ear,
 “What would you like it to be?”
 

***
I left the world of finance and accounting because I had become increasingly discouraged by working in an unethical environment.  Well, that’s what I said in my interview to be a teacher in a Christian school.  But in reality I was burnt out, disillusioned, empty, over it.  I was frustrated with whom I was in the corporate world, not brave enough to live my faith nor strong enough to stand as firm in my values as I wished.

They awarded me the job and I am now in my sixth year of teaching.  I teach a range of subjects, including Economics, Business and Commerce.  Teaching has become a passion and it consumes me.  And at last I respect myself…mostly.  There are still flaws in the virtuous character to which I aspire, however, teaching somehow redeems me. 

Now instead of helping to make rich people richer I am training students to become the way I was, business savvy and astute about the mechanisms of the economy.  Of course there’s more to it than that.  I hope to instil a love of learning, a thirst for knowledge but also to help them develop into good people with solid ethics and values.

Values matter to me.  If a company or institution state they are going to act in a certain way then they should act in that way.  In fact I’m a bit obsessive about it.  For instance, as a teacher I enforce uniform rules.  Personally I couldn’t care less what the students wear as long as they don’t expose the more private parts.  However, the school has a uniform code, parents are informed of it and generally the school community expects the school to adhere to it.  I believe in practicing what you preach.

My specialty doesn’t lend itself easily to these ideals.  Even though they each have areas related to ethical behaviour they are generally treated as a minor concern.  Commerce has topics covering legal responsibilities and how to be a wise consumer.  Economics refers to social costs due to market failure.  The Business Studies syllabus has five HSC topics and each tacks ethical concerns on the end. It can be tempting to rush the end of a topic to move quickly onto the next in a very content heavy subject.  Too often the last is the least.

A decade ago when I worked for a particular financial institution, it listed its first core value as trustworthiness.  Since then its core values have been streamlined but being trustworthy remains its number one priority according to its website.  The people with whom I worked mostly were trustworthy but the higher up the hierarchy you went the less this appeared to be the case.  One day I discovered a trade instruction that my team leader had accidentally executed as a sale instead of a buy, resulting in a $45,000 loss to the client over the three months that had transpired since.  My team leader phoned the client to inform them of the error and to assure them that it would be rectified and all losses recouped.  However, once our manager learnt of the situation he claimed that the instruction wasn’t clear and that the client was to blame.  This issue kept being passed up the line until eventually it reached the CEO.  Meanwhile the loss on the trade grew.  The company ended up paying for half the difference and the client withdrew millions of dollars.  The time had come for me to leave the financial industry.  I was pregnant within a month and about six weeks later I left.  That financial year the company made $29 million and ten years later it made $182 million.

Now I am surrounded by astounding people who demonstrate great virtues in their interaction with both students and colleagues.  When we lose staff it is often to noble causes such as teaching English in Kathmandu, facilitating housing and food for Cambodians and managing a remote Aboriginal community.  These people enrich me with their selfless sacrifices.  Yet I, spoilt by corporate culture, struggle to let go of 5 star hotels and fine food and wine.  Even my husband jokes that I consider 4 star hotels to be camping.  My teacher’s wages don’t cover my consumer preferences: Clinique and Clarins in cosmetics; Sportscraft and Cue in clothes; and I fill my Peugeot with premium fuel. Every so often we top-up our mortgage to pay-off my credit card bill.  And then I go into the classroom and show the students how bad the interest is on credit cards and all the catches inherent in using them.  For instance, a while ago banks realised that if they dropped the minimum payment on credit cards from 5% to 2% customers would pay less each month and hence accrue more interest.  They tapped into the psychological factor that some people only pay what they must rather than what they should.   If customers only paid the minimum 2% each month it would take at least 50 months, that’s more than 4 years, to pay back the outstanding amount, not including the interest that mounts up.  Compare this to the minimum repayment of 5% which would require at least 20 months, just under 2 years, to eliminate the debt.  I feel a hypocrite as I preach to my students the evils of these plastic cards.  I’m a sucker for consumerism.  I’m the dream spender of Rudd’s stimulus package.

My school is also part of Rudd’s economic plan.  We have been awarded $3.2 million for buildings we were mostly going to construct anyway.  It is an innovative and dynamic school that focuses heavily on technology.  At times, these buildings and the money we spend on wiring up the classrooms is like the magnificent cathedrals constructed while abject poverty surrounded them.  It feels wrong when I know of public schools suffering in decrepit buildings, not to mention schools in Aboriginal communities.  There are good economic arguments for this imbalance.  It is cheaper for governments to fund a private school that will take in students who would otherwise be in the public system.  The government (both state and federal) pays for all the buildings, land, equipment, teachers and other staff, plus the general running expenses in public schools.  It is actually cheaper to fund private schools money in order to save a lot of these ongoing expenses.  The concern I have is for those left behind.  So again I feel a hypocrite.  By choosing to teach in a private system I go against the belief I have in our public schools and the meritocracy system. 

In light of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), we should probably become more aware of the lack of values in our capitalist world.  Many, including our own Prime Minister, believe that the GFC was caused by a culture of greed, the pursuit of profit at the expense of values.  There have been numerous reports of greed and corruption in corporate operations in the press.  For instance, Babcock and Brown has been described in the Sydney Morning Herald as having a litany of problems including a culture of greed resulting in a “focus on bonuses [and other] short-term rewards at the expense of asset management, lack of leadership, churning of assets and lack of risk control”.  Another example is how Nicholas Bolton rorted both individual shareholders and the company BrisConnections by following the rules but not in what would be commonly viewed as an ethical way.  He outwitted, outplayed and outlasted them all in his own and far too real shareholder game of cunning and deceit by saying he was going to do one thing and then doing the opposite.  He gained $4.5 million in the process and the ire of his fellow shareholders who had believed him.  According to the Sydney Morning Herald, twitterers (people speaking through the social network Twitter) were “unsure whether to condemn or congratulate him” with one saying he was a traitor and another saying he was a winner.  It is in this mixed up concoction of values that we teach.

Before the GFC came upon us governments around the western world became concerned about the values held by youth.  It was against the background of globalisation, and more particularly terrorism, that governments sought social unity, to keep the peace.  In May 2004 the Australian federal government announced two new requirements for school funding.  The first was that a flag pole bearing the Australian flag needed to be erected in each school and secondly, that ‘values education’ be instilled in the school curriculum (see Box A).  The Rudd government came in power in December 2007 and has continued with this program.  Even before the federal budget announcement of 2004, the NSW Board of Studies (in March 2004) decreed that NSW schools must explicitly and implicitly teach a slightly different set of values (see Box B).

At the school where I teach all employees are Christian; it is a condition of employment that one is an active member of a church, but the students or their families needn’t be.  Some parents send their children to our school so they can be instilled with Christian values but then are surprised with how overtly the Christian message is presented.  I don’t always agree with the methods used at times, such as guilt trips, emotional hype and the good old testimony of God saving someone from wreck and ruin.  I think it makes a torrid life sound even more attractive when it is held that God could always rescue you.

As for the values, they are meant to be demonstrated by the behaviour and attitudes of staff but also more explicitly through a weekly Ministry time on a Year Group basis and in the more intimate Care Groups.  Care Groups consist of a group of 10-12 students allocated to a teacher to be responsible for their welfare and meet for 20 minutes, three times a week.  In practice the direct teaching of values doesn’t happen much due to all the administration, such as checking exam timetable clashes, and discipline regarding uniform infringements that also needs to be undertaken at these times.  On a regular basis the Head of Welfare emails around attachments to bible verses and images he found via Google related to the particular value being promoted to start us in our mission.  At the end of each term it is my responsibility in our Year 11 Ministry time to re-cap the values examined during that particular term.  I create a PowerPoint using the sent material and add in students’ photos.  I generate a few laughs, I have a serious anecdote or two and soon it is all over and they can all go on their way, ignoring everything I have said. 

Last year I gave a Ministry talk to Year 12 based on Ecclesiastes 11:9 (NIV version):

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
       and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
       Follow the ways of your heart
       and whatever your eyes see,
       but know that for all these things
       God will bring you to judgment

It was a month or so after a group of young people had taken a runabout on Sydney Harbour and crashed into a fishing boat.  Six people died.  I showed a video clip of ABC News reporting the accident and then I delivered a message that even if they are not worried about God’s judgment they should think about how society, the media, family and friends will judge their actions.  Not long before this talk one of the boys had related an encounter he’d had with the police.  I anonymously repeated his tale in my presentation.  In New South Wales drivers under the age of 25 are not allowed to carry more than 1 passenger under the age of 21 between the hours of 11pm and 5am.  Max, not his real name, leaving a party at 2am, had overloaded his car with young passengers including one in the boot.  He dragged off a friend at some traffic lights.  The friend sped away but Max was pulled over by the police.  The police officer listed all the offences Max had committed: passenger without seatbelt, passenger in boot, speeding, the excessive number of passengers, not displaying P plates and there may have been more.  However, it was close to the police officer’s knock-off time and he really wasn’t in the mood to write up a report, so Max left scot free, continuing his journey in the same way, but slower.  My point was that this incident could have easily had similar consequences as the boat accident.  A little lark becomes Judgment Day.  This had greater impact than some twee sayings and clip-art pictures.  Using a recent life news story and an experience of their own makes the risk real.  I don’t think that the next time they leave a party in the early hours of the morning they recall what Mrs Hartley said, but they just might associate the death of the people from the boat accident to driving an overloaded car. 

Our school library hangs a poster listing the “Values for Australian Schooling” decreed by the federal government. Beneath the words is an image of Simpson and his donkey.  In Year 9 History we investigate the Anzac Legend, questioning how it came into being and how much truth is behind it.  The students are amazed when they discover the truth behind John Simpson, a binge drinker who enlisted with a false name and running away from debt.  He only survived for 24 days at Gallipoli.  Brendon Nelson, promoting the National Framework for Values Standard, claimed on ABC radio that Simpson "represents everything Australians should aspire to be" and “everything that's at the heart of what it means to be an Australian”.  A year after Nelson made these statements, Jenni Deveareux wrote about the furore this created in the press.  The media lapped up what appeared to be a Nelson gaff, and this was before he was Leader of the Opposition.  On a more dangerous level, Nelson used the Values Standard as a benchmark for foreigners to obtain if they wanted to become Australians.  He particularly singled out Islamic students as requiring an education in Australian values.  It made me sick to think that ‘values education’ was just another form of wedge politics to fuel xenophobic attitudes and thus keep the Coalition in power.  Greed was dictating the actions of our politicians.  Another concern with politicians extolling values into our schools is that they hardly appear to be living them themselves.  In recent times a NSW MP has been dismissed for bullying staff and a Queensland minister has been charged with receiving corrupt payments and committing perjury.

Corporations have a legal responsibility to act in the interest of its shareholders.  As owners of the company, the shareholders have the right to dictate the operations of the business, within the realm of the law, and usually, profit is the main target.  Any concerns for the environment or other stakeholders are secondary responsibilities.  Lately there is increasing social and cultural pressure on corporations to be environmentally and socially friendly but it seems they only take this action because it will lead to larger profits for the company through making a better name for itself and thus increasing market share.  Beyond this I believe there are some responsibilities that corporations and individuals should abide.  The list of values provided by the government for schools perhaps should also be required by businesses. 

Actually, in fact, most industries do have a code of conduct.  On 1 July this year the Financial Planning Association of Australia (FPA) introduced a revamped Code of Ethics (see box C).  The main difference to the previous code was the addition of client first at the top of the list, bumping compliance off the end. A necessity it seems.  A now prominent funds management company was at the early stages of a rapid rise when I joined.  The organisation had very talented traders and an inspiring and intelligent CEO leading the way.  Part of my job was to placate financial advisors who were trying to squeeze the maximum amount of fees they could for themselves and sometimes this was at the expense of their clients.  One way they could do this is place a large amount of money with us on behalf of their clients, earn their 3% fees, and then a week later move it somewhere else, again skimming off some fees.  If the client doesn’t read the details of the transactions it appears that the financial institution (as opposed to the advisor) is making bad trades and charging exorbitant fees.

The other main ethical problem I encountered at this workplace was the incredible backlog of customer requests to change their account details.  It could take months for us to enter new addresses or to cease taking automatic monthly contributions, at times causing great distress to clients.  The focus was on the trades and on new applications (deposits) to the funds; in other words, the money.  If only we had put client first.

When I left school my only goal was to be a yuppie.  I was a country girl seduced by fast-paced business, quick minds and the lifestyle trappings.  I successfully participated in that life for eight years.  My faith became buried to the extent that one day when I said something about church to a close work colleague she was amazed, even though we had known each other for over a year.  It showed me that I hadn’t been living my faith and I began questioning my place in the financial industry.  It would be another three years before I left it.

Now I am teaching in a Christian school there is no doubt in the eyes of my colleagues and the students I teach as to where I stand in my faith and the values to which I aspire.  Although I feel like a hypocrite in some ways, overall I am much more satisfied with who I am and the values I live.  I enjoy the opportunity to share my corporate experiences through my teaching and hope that my students, unlike me, can join the corporate world with a set of values that they believe and live.

Box A: The federal government’s values for education
Integrity
Respect
Responsibility
Care and Compassion
Doing Your Best
Fair Go
Freedom
Honesty and Trustworthiness
Understanding, Tolerance and Inclusion

Box B: The NSW government’s values for education
Integrity
Excellence
Respect
Responsibility
Cooperation
Participation
Care
Fairness

Box C: FPA Code of Ethics
Client first
Integrity
Objectivity
Fairness
Professionalism
Competence
Confidentiality
Diligence


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