Broken bones, chipped teeth, and concussion: the new life of some teachers

A teacher was murdered in a school in Leeds last week. How violent are some Irish schools?

Steve Mort, head teacher of Corpus Christi Catholic College, reads the hundreds of tributes left in honour of slain teacher Ann Maguire on April 30th, 2014 in Leeds, England. A 15-year-old male student has been arrested in connection with the death of teacher. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Steve Mort, head teacher of Corpus Christi Catholic College, reads the hundreds of tributes left in honour of slain teacher Ann Maguire on April 30th, 2014 in Leeds, England. A 15-year-old male student has been arrested in connection with the death of teacher. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Tue, May 6, 2014, 02:00

‘Teachers in my school have been brought to hospital by ambulance after being attacked by students. It has happened twice per term. They have suffered broken bones, concussion, chipped teeth and kicks in the face. They are commonly spat at and subjected to regular verbal abuse. Pregnant teachers have been knocked to the ground.”

Speaking at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland conference in Kilkenny this Easter, this teacher laid bare a growing problem of violence in some post-primary schools. Delegates heard that a gangland culture that reveres violence and criminality is seeping into schools as more young people in disadvantaged areas feel alienated and marginalised by the worst effects of the economic crisis. Students who want to speak out and defend their teachers are afraid of reprisals.

It’s an issue primarily affecting post-primary schools as older students are more likely to be intimidating than younger children. And while the two teachers who told us their personal experiences of violence and threats in the classroom (see panel, below) both worked in disadvantaged schools, it would appear from feedback at the conference that violence against teachers takes place regardless of the demographic .

Last week, Ann Maguire, a 61-year-old teacher at Corpus Christi College in Leeds, was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old pupil. Teachers here are publicly keen to play down any parallels between the murder of Maguire in the UK and the problem of violence in Ireland’s schools. But, speaking privately, one teacher who has been assaulted on several occasions admits his colleagues have, for some time, been concerned that a fatal classroom incident “will eventually happen here”. And he’s not the only teacher who expressed similar worries to The Irish Times over the past fortnight.

In the UK, teachers have spoken of a constant feeling of menace in the classroom, particularly in some inner-city areas. Their fears are echoed by some post-primary teachers across Ireland, but particularly in disadvantaged parts of inner-city Dublin, west Dublin, north Cork, and parts of Limerick. Sources estimate there may be serious discipline issues in up to one in five schools.

In one Dublin school, whose identity is known to me, the principal has advised staff not to sanction students for using the word “f***” or for telling a teacher to “f***-off”. Sources have said that the levels of violence against staff in this “dysfunctional” school is “endemic”.

We are aware of several instances in which a student assaulted a teacher, spat in their face, or threatened their life, but still returned to school the next day. Schools are generally reluctant to invoke the ultimate sanction of expulsion. Parents also have the right to appeal an exclusion order.

In 2013, 52 cases where a school had decided to expel a student were brought to appeal, with 15 students winning their case.

The reasons for exclusion are not always revealed, but violence is often a factor. Where a decision is made to exclude a child, they must be accommodated in another school.

Audrey Cepeda, a teacher and representative for the Dublin city branch of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), believes part of the problem is cutbacks to social services. “Families in crisis are being abandoned by social workers with high case loads when they desperately need support. We are dealing with the fallout and it is impacting on our ability to do our job: to provide an education for young people.”

The issues that can cause emotional, behavioural and academic problems in students are well documented: they include parental unemployment, lack of space to study, hunger caused by poverty, drug and alcohol misuse, parents absent from the home as a result of working one or two jobs, and domestic abuse.

Teachers unfairly blamed
“The cuts to guidance counselling services in schools are making it worse,” says Cepeda. “Problems that happen outside the school gates come inside, but there’s nobody to deal with them because posts of responsibility, such as year heads, have been cut. Principals and deputies have schools to run, so they can’t spend all their time on discipline issues. But in some schools principals deal with the problem of violence effectively, while some others are failing.”

Teachers are calling in sick to work because they are afraid to go to school, it is claimed, but they are reluctant to reveal the real reason to their school principals. In one school, up to a quarter of staff were absent during one week in the past year.

Declan Glynn is an assistant general secretary with the TUI and has worked on the issue of school violence and indiscipline. He insists there can be problems at school management level and teachers are sometimes unfairly blamed, with principals suggesting a student who assaulted a teacher may have been provoked, or that the teacher is incapable of controlling his or her class. Several teachers said their younger colleagues in insecure part-time positions reluctantly tolerate it because they don’t want to be seen as a troublemaker.

Teachers have raised concerns about breaches of health and safety legislation, complaining that management is failing to produce the legally-required safety statements. The Health and Safety Authority has identified teachers as being at a “high risk” of experiencing workplace violence, alongside healthcare staff, social welfare staff, and local authority housing staff, but it is widely believed workplace injuries in schools are under-reported.

A spokesperson for the City of Dublin Education and Training Board (CDETB), which has 31,000 full- and part-time pupils and more than 1,000 teachers, said school managers address problems as they arise. Several teachers who work for the CDETB dispute this. The CDETB also said it has a safety statement which governs all activity in its schools, but teachers claim individual schools do not have such statements in place. The CDETB has arranged a meeting with the TUI to discuss its concerns.

Teachers, on the other hand, are generally positive about the role of the National Behaviour Support Service (NBSS), which was established in 2006 to support self-selected post-primary schools where students are displaying behavioural difficulties. It has three very different intervention models and no particular model would necessarily apply to a violent student. Working with a school’s teachers, staff from the NBSS devise a student behaviour plan for each pupil. There are currently 20 behaviour support classrooms in post-primary schools, designed, according to the NBSS, “to meet the needs of students who may experience any number of significant challenges to their learning, and whose behaviour significantly interferes with teaching and learning in the majority of their subject classes.”

However, a principal may not always call in the NBSS, or effectively engage with them.

The issue of school indiscipline has arisen on at least three occasions in as many decades, with Government commissions or task forces looking at it in 1983, 1997, and again in 2006. A 1997 report said that schools were “in the grip of indiscipline . . . of a serious and pervasive nature”. Some teachers believe we are back at that point.

“School principals wash their hands of the problem, often saying the lives of the young people are so full of problems that their bad behaviour should be accepted,” says Glynn. “This does those children and their classmates a disservice.The benchmark in terms of acceptable behaviour is now set so low in schools that it is totally out of synch with the rest of society. This has to change.”

The shocking experience of two teachers:

‘I’ve had a bottle
thrown at me’

Karen* is a teacher in a disadvantaged school in Dublin, and she also comes from a disadvantaged background. Before telling her story, Karen broke down in tears.

“I’m sorry for getting so emotional,” she says. “I didn’t have it easy. I worked so hard to get where I am, and I love teaching, but I’m so close to walking away.”

“The verbal abuse is constant,” she says. “Last week, one of my students called me a dopey c**t in front of the whole class. I’ve been headbutted, pushed against the wall, and had a bottle thrown at me. It completely undermines my ability to do my job.”

Karen says that the lack of action from school managers on this issue is affecting all students. “Even the most badly behaved students in the school are screaming out for boundaries; we are failing them. The vast majority of kids are not disruptive, and they want to learn, but they are afraid to speak out in support of their teachers in case they become targets too.”

Karen says the problem is causing good teaches to leave the profession. “It’s gotten to the point where we no longer worry about whether we’ll have a good term, or a good week, but whether we will have a critical incident in each class. And it’s getting worse.”

‘I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left the country’

Aoife* is a qualified teacher who, exhausted from relentless discipline problems and what she perceived as a lack of support from her principal and school management, left Ireland for a teaching job abroad. She agreed to speak about her experiences on condition of anonymity. “The real violence occurred in my last school,” she said. “There was one incident where a student was extremely threatening and abusive to me in class. I instinctively had to leave the room.”

“I couldn’t take it any more. Management turned a blind eye, and indiscipline was getting worse and worse because students were not being excluded. They were squaring up to teachers and spitting in their faces. I do believe every child has the right to an education, but that also applies to the majority of children who are not disruptive. Their education is suffering because teachers are focusing on discipline rather than teaching. The vast majority of students in disadvantaged schools want to learn, but a small minority are making their presence felt. We’re always on guard and less able to educate.”

* Teachers’ names have been changed to protect their identity

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