The Secret Teacher: The public stands by our nurses. But why not teachers?

‘In school I’m surrounded by people and yet I truly feel I have nobody’

“My colleagues are too busy minding their own backs to be concerned with anyone else’s, and if I’m honest I don’t have theirs either.” Photograph: iStock

“My colleagues are too busy minding their own backs to be concerned with anyone else’s, and if I’m honest I don’t have theirs either.” Photograph: iStock


Why don’t we talk more about the tough days?

About how hard it is to face class after class of high-energy youngsters when we ourselves are feeling low.

How it never shows because we teachers seem to have an instinct to protect our students.

Every day when the school bell rings, we turn up and put on a show, regardless of how we are feeling inside.

There are days when I am tired (long hours of preparation and correction), nervous (will an inspector appear?) and apprehensive (have I pitched this work wrong, and wasted all that time?) but I’ll never let the mask slip while my students are watching.

This swarm of negative emotions stems largely from the feeling that I couldn’t possibly be ticking all the boxes. There are so many now: objectives, outcomes, differentiation, IT, learning strategies, knowing who the SEN (special educational needs) pupils in my group are . . . the list goes on.

If I get it wrong, I get it wrong alone. I’m human and vulnerable but feel that nobody truly has my back. Like everyone else, I’m not indispensable and one day my successor will replace me in just the same way as I replaced my predecessor.

My colleagues are too busy minding their own backs to be concerned with anyone else’s, and if I’m honest, I don’t have theirs either. I’d like to think I do, but I don’t, in fact, have time. The committed classroom teacher’s shoes have become very uncomfortable in recent years, and I find them lonely and frightening ones to stand in.

In school, I’m surrounded by people and yet I truly feel I have nobody. Does anybody really care about the classroom teachers that head off to work every morning?

We are entrusted with the nation’s children and yet find ourselves constantly under attack and forced into a defensive position. Precisely because we are charged with youngsters, we cannot let them see the strain, but it’s very much there – and may be all the greater for not being expressed and dealt with. Perhaps we are too well-practised at hiding it for anyone to notice.

The students are my greatest source of empathy and support. Smooth-functioning classes are a godsend to a hardworking and functioning teacher.

Having spent over 20 years in the classroom already and expecting to spend 20 more there, I am grateful to all the former and current students who have helped me to get closer to the kind of teacher I aspire to be: engaged, motivated, caring, hardworking and genuinely appreciated.

They embrace my lessons without judgment, they just respond, and how the lesson goes is the best assessment of my ability. Their feedback, whether in comment or in performance, tells me where I am better than any visiting inspector ever could.

Building relationships

Building relationships with my students and their parents has never been a problem for me, but only because I put long hours into preparing my classes and materials, and take the time to phone parents as often as required to ensure they are informed of an issue as soon as it arises.

I teach just under 200 different students per week, so maintaining vigilance regarding the teaching content and home contact is far more time-consuming than one might think.

Parental gratitude is so precious, but it comes almost exclusively in private. No classroom teacher expects parents to shout from the rooftops about how amazing we are, but it doesn’t go unnoticed that openly bad-mouthing the “problem” teachers comes much more easily to them than publicly lauding those who have earned it.

When deputy principals and principals leave the classroom, they rarely cast a look back. At second-level, far too few maintain a teaching presence in their schools.

When they do, it demonstrates clearly to staff that they seek to remain one of us, and we can be confident that such appointees are true advocates of best classroom practice. Their willingness to keep a few toes inside the classroom lifts morale and allows those who teach to stand a little taller.

Continuing to teach while also managing a school demonstrates a commendable commitment to the core business of education. Actions here really do speak far more loudly than words, as many who leave the classroom forever lose sight of it instantly.

They are often relieved to have escaped, and do too little to encourage, praise and promote those left in the classrooms. Again, commendation and praise are spared, although ideas for improvements are always on the tip of their tongues.

In recent years, fear of an inspector’s visit has increased in direct proportion to the onslaught of initiatives and reforms. Expectations that we should deliver more and on a bigger and better scale loom over every attempt to plan lessons.

An additional challenge recently has been teaching a subject simultaneously under the old and new junior cycles. No sooner have we adjusted to some version of assessment guidelines or CBA dates, than an update is released.

However few or many the changes, these are not indicated; a new version of the document is simply released and dated. This amounts to Spot the Difference – but in 50 pages of text. The person who bothers to read each version is therefore made more a fool of than the one who openly refuses to engage with change.

My heart soared when the country stood by nurses and midwives at the start of this year. Profile pictures and updates inundated social media as we declared we would stand alongside them in their quest for fair treatment.

Photos of Irish citizens abroad at international landmarks flooded in. Political parties even declared their support. Our nurses and midwives were far from alone. But teachers? We can only wonder what it feels like to know that everyone has your back.