Hands up all those who support the teachers

The teaching profession attracts ripples of resentment while young teachers struggle to meet commitments

Mon, Apr 28, 2014, 01:00

The weather has been so good recently you’d almost think the Leaving Certificate came early. And at the latest teachers’ conferences, there were plenty of high points.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn is right about teachers needing to be more up to scratch in terms of their subject knowledge, but perhaps it would have been more pertinent to focus on secondary school maths teachers having the relevant smarts in that area rather than primary school teachers.

The Minister was also right to point out that it’s a profession that attracts women. While I’m aware of the apparent inability of senior Labour politicians to discuss realities in lay(wo)man’s terms, his use of “feminised audience and profession” was badly phrased. Perhaps Quinn could learn from the teaching profession how it has been so successful at attracting women, and share this knowledge with fellow Ministers examining gender inequality in other professions.


Ineffective teaching methods
In terms of pedagogy itself, many areas of teaching have been mystifyingly slow to progress, which is why Quinn’s drive to shake things up is so fascinating. While recently reading a Capuchin Annual published in the 1950s (a remarkable source of information, by the way) I came upon a 1924 Department of Education report regarding rote learning and teaching of the Irish language in schools, lamenting “too much memorising and too little conversation”. It could have been written yesterday. The Department of Education has been having the same conversation about ineffective teaching methods for 90 years.

But the wider sentiment around these conferences is the undercurrent of resentment that ripples beneath public discourse about the teaching profession. I’m not sure why there is so much eye-rolling about teachers. Maybe it’s because everyone was a student once and still longs to act the brat at the back of the class. Don Myers, president of the National Parents Council Post Primary, was on hand to “condemn” the behaviour of teachers at the ASTI conference. Of course parents never shout, squabble, get angry or act in an unruly manner, right?

The heckler with a megaphone, a PE teacher in Lucan, probably said the most sensible thing of all after the conference: “Why is someone taking a megaphone out at a conference so incredible?”

Because, Sir, the media and the public prefer to concentrate on a tiny incident and blow it out of all proportion rather than deal with the wider issues. That’s something they don’t teach in school.

Like most aspects of Ireland these days, one of the main issues with the teaching profession is how young people are being screwed over. The Teachers’ Union of Ireland estimates that while 30 per cent of its membership are actually in part-time, not full-time, employment, this increases to 50 per cent for TUI members under the age of 35. In this newspaper last week, TUI president Gerry Craughwell laid this reality bare: “Where once teachers applied for full-time, permanent positions, now they apply for fragments of jobs with no guarantee of being retained from year to year. Many struggle to get by and meet even the most modest of financial commitments.”

Everyone who knows young teachers is familiar with the difficulties they face in securing permanent work: sending countless CVs to countless schools, driving around the State for interviews in schools that would mean upping sticks to some unfamiliar town, grabbing a day here, a day there, a substitution shift here, some maternity cover there. For students, being taught by several teachers over a short period of time is disruptive. The changing nature of work in the teaching sector reflects the changing nature of all work. For young people, there is no such thing as a job. There is no such thing as security. There is no such thing as permanency. This is the real generation gap.


Not a nixer or an easy gig
The derision teachers face over the perceived “short hours” and “long summer holidays” is overblown. If it was such a sweet deal, everyone would be at it. But who has the calling and the energy to face classrooms full of teenagers? People with a lot more patience than most of us, that’s who. Teaching is not a nixer. It is not an easy gig. At the TUI conference in Kilkenny, delegates were told about the escalation of violence in disadvantaged schools; broken bones, chipped teeth, verbal and physical assaults were all given as examples of attacks against teachers.

But at the heart of the teaching profession is the sadly increasingly unfashionable culture of volunteerism. So many teachers go above and beyond what is required of them. They stand on the edge of mucky pitches training the sports stars of our future. They offer counsel to young people with no one else to turn to. They stay late leading rehearsals for musicals and plays. They co-ordinate fundraising in communities. If we were being honest with ourselves, teachers would be among the best paid and most respected workers in the State because, let’s face it, nobody remembers their favourite banker.

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