Getting ready to whip up a storm


THE EDUCATION PROFILE THE TEACHING CONFERENCE DELEGATE:On TV, it always looks like a right old moan-fest, so why do 1,500 teachers elect to spend Easter in windowless conference halls? And do they portray the teaching profession in a good light, asks LOUISE HOLDEN

THIS IS THE WEEK when over a thousand teachers will traverse Ireland to attend ‘congress’. The teachers’ conferences are an Easter staple – they attract pages of news coverage and generate plenty of heat but do they actually achieve anything? Why do so many teachers give up their Easter holidays to incubate themselves in a carpeted, sunless atmosphere of unrest?

Regardless of the economic backdrop, there is always an air of dissatisfaction at congress; at least during the official hours of motions and counter-motions, votes and debates. Delegates spend days in convention rooms sucking Fox’s glacier mints and consulting glossy guides featuring motions, union business and lists upon lists of names.

Over the course of three days, it’s possible to become completely enwombed in the windowless rooms, the hotel coffee and the endless march of complaints from various members of the teaching profession. These range from moderate individuals calling for syllabus reform to tub-thumping radicals calling for industrial action.

There are those who are profile-building, trying to gain a reputational foothold from which to advance their union or political ambitions. They take to the podium again and again, armed with a quiver of soundbytes and always with an eye on the press table, aware of the instant fame that can result from a well-chosen phrase.

The week after Easter is a slow news week – journalists are dispatched from all the main papers, the State broadcaster, Newstalk and a selection of local radio stations to cover Congress. There’s always a story in how the minister of the day will be received. Will it be a warm welcome, like that extended to fellow teacher Mary Hanafin in her first year, which cooled significantly as the years rolled on? Will there be silence, slow hand claps, heckling or even walkouts?

Each year a handful (and sometimes fewer) make the ministerial exit uncomfortable, and newsworthy. Last year Mary Coughlan was jostled in the hallway as she fled the West County Hotel in Ennis. Barricaded by placards cursing the banks, Coughlan, for once, cut a sympathetic figure amid the baying crowd.However, the ‘baying crowd’, so dramatically illustrated in the next day’s newspapers, turned out to be no more than a handful of radicals.

Do the motions calling for changes to pension entitlements, pay and conditions, actually make any difference after the chairs are restacked and the Congress guides recycled? Or do they just paint teachers as whingers who don’t know how lucky they are?

In terms of setting the agenda for the work of the union in the next 12 months, these debates serve to highlight the priorities of the various branch members. Much of what is discussed at congress never makes it into the media.

Some unions are better than others at crystallising the various viewpoints of teachers into broad statements of intent that the government, the media and the public can understand. The INTO, the union representing primary school teachers, has always kept its messages simple and, with its concentration on issues such as pupil-teacher ratios, gives the impression of a group more interested in the education system than in the individual teacher.

The other unions may hold the same values, but the emphasis on issues such as pay and pensions sometimes masks the educational values that many delegates undoubtedly hold.

The pension debates have also driven a wedge between younger and older union members in the past. These debates have little impact on the day-to-day working conditions of a newly-graduated teacher. As a result the unions, and especially the post primary unions, have had difficulty attracting younger teachers to congress.

This year might be different, in a number of ways. Pensions have become an issue for everyone. Nobody’s getting CIDs any more (Contracts of Indefinite Duration) and teaching has become a much less predictable career. This insecurity is expected to attract higher numbers of radicalised young teachers to congress, who will be interested in the pension conversation, as it represents just one endangered element of a beleaguered profession.

In response to all this fresh meat, the unions are getting their act together. There’ll be Congress apps for the iPhone at INTO, central secretariat tweets at Asti to summon lagging delegates from the bar, links to speeches on Facebook and all manner of ways to engage with the proceedings.

Perhaps, through Twitter, the gathered media will be able to get a sense of what the delegates are really thinking, especially those who are new and shy and unwilling to publicly contradict the elder lemons of congress.

Not all delegates will confine themselves to the Silver Springs, Cork (ASTI); the Radisson Sligo (INTO) or the Mount Brandon Tralee (TUI). Delegates are funded by the union to attend congress, and in the case of the TUI, for example, are given a set amount to spend on accommodation, sustenance, mileage and entertainment. If they can save money on one, they can spend it on the other and this year some younger delegates will be opting for BBs.

Some things about congress never change. There will be the annual dinner/dance/disco – depending on your union. For some delegates this is the social event of the year. At the Asti conference it is not unusual to see delegates dressed as they might for a wedding – certain branches are known for going the extra sartorial mile.

The TUI- labelled as “the Union of Students in Ireland for grown ups’’ – tends to be more casual, perhaps because of its hippy provenance and the days when delegates turned up in campervans and open-toed sandals with a brood of children in tow.

At the INTO, it’s a younger crowd, more women (over 90 per cent of primary school teachers are female, but they still only turn up at congress at a rate of about 65 to 35 per cent) and music is a big deal, with sing-songs and sessions late into the night.

For all three unions, congress is an opportunity to meet up with old friends from the teacher training colleges – a chance to remember old times, bitch about present principals and argue about the future of the profession.

Romance is always on the cards – the odd flirtation or more permanent contracts. Common to all congress gatherings is the ability of delegates to put aside the fire and brimstone of the convention room once the seats are pushed back and Scruffy Duffy or some other local band strikes up.

Those who go to congress are, by definition, more radical than those who don’t. Teachers in their thirties and forties with young children don’t find it easy to get away during the school holidays, so congress tends to attract newish graduates and those approaching retirement.

However, the average delegate is more ‘average’ than media reports suggest. She is more moderate and student-focused, more realistic about what can be achieved in schools with the money we have. She is just as annoyed by the placard-wavers as those who make indignant calls to Joe Duffy to complain about the “bloody teachers”. The average delegate is now younger, more likely to be female and less secure in her job than any of her predecessors.

But she’s still up for the craic.

Those who go to congress are, by definition, more radical than those who don’t

The typical delegate

Who is she? A delegate at this week’s teachers’ union conferences in Sligo, Cork and Kerry.

Why is she a she? Despite a largely female teaching force, until recently its been mostly men who turned out to congress. Now the INTO congress is around 65 per cent female while the second level unions are roughly 50/50. Expect a slightly younger crowd this year as well.

Why is she in the news? Because its a slow news week after Easter and because the teachers conferences usually throw up plenty of quotable outbursts and angry photo opps, whether or not these represent whats really going on.

Most likely to say: Don’t bother coming in here without some good news, Minister

Least likely to say The media have always been good to us.