Here for the holidays? Not when there are 28 other reasons to be a teacher
EDUCATION PROFILE:Short working days, long holidays – don’t teachers have the life? Recent controversy over the difference in hours, holidays and professional assessment between Irish teachers and those in the UK only serve to add fuel to that fire, writes GRÁINNE FALLER
But how many people actually know what teachers do on a daily basis?
“People see us working from nine until half two and that’s it,” says teacher Kate Divilly. “I suppose we don’t shout about it, but class time is only part of the job. The smooth running of a classroom can only be achieved through careful planning and preparation, which is done before and after school. It’s not formalised, but everyone does it.”
Divilly teaches second class in Knocklyon Junior National School. She’s 25 and in her fourth year of teaching. “I don’t have a permanent job yet. Everyone thinks that teaching is a job for life, but the school lost three teachers last year and I was next in the firing line. Luckily I held onto it, but next year it will be the same situation. Will I have a job at the end of the year?”
This year there are 28 children in Divilly’s class, with the usual mix of personalities and abilities.
They put me in good form,” she says. “I love coming in every day. It’s very intense, though. You never sit down during the day. Children don’t wait for you if you’re not prepared.”
Divilly’s working day begins at eight, when she arrives in school. “By the time I come in, the staff car park is full of cars. That’s my time to look at my plan for that day. I get all my materials, resources and lessons ready for them before they come in. I have children with special needs in my class, so I have to cater for them as well. It’s just important to have everything ready by the time they come in.”
After school there are corrections to be done and planning for the following day. Once a week, Divilly coaches GAA skills for an hour.
“Lots of teachers in the school give their time to teach music or choir or drama after school. You don’t get paid for it but it’s something that people just do. I generally leave school at around four or half-four. But the after- school work isn’t optional – if I have to leave early, at three or half-three on a particular day, the corrections and preparation come home with me.”
She says the profession has changed greatly in recent years. “I honestly think a lot of teachers’ critics are probably thinking of what they experienced when they were in school, Teaching today isn’t like it used to be. Nowadays you don’t really have a teacher standing at the blackboard dictating to a class. It’s a very different job.
“We don’t dictate the learning so much as facilitate it. It’s a much more hands-on approach. Teachers today deliver the curriculum but there’s also this hidden curriculum that basically consists of life skills. You want to instil a sense of self-belief in children, a love for learning.”
Upskilling is important: “I wanted to do a Master’s this year but I couldn’t afford it, so I’m saving up to do it next year.” Informal upskilling happens all the time, however. Teachers have to keep up to date with the needs of different children in their classes.
“In my career I’ve encountered children with various disabilities, hearing impairments, Down’s syndrome, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, all sorts of things. It’s a difficult task to adapt the curriculum if its required, but the rewards are huge when you see how they are developing and improving. The goal for one child could be something as simple as turn taking – but each child with special needs has an individual education plan with different goals and aims.”
Contrary to what some believe, Irish teachers are required to keep detailed written records. Lessons are planned in fortnightly blocks. Progress is reviewed monthly in cuntas miosuils, and overall aims are recorded in term and yearly plans.
“Any inspector can come to the school and ask to see these records,” says Divilly.
She meets with her colleagues once a week after school to discuss plans and preparation. The issue of formalising such work by extending the working hours of teachers arises in public debate on occasion.
I don’t know how much of a difference that would make,” she says. “Maybe it would make a difference for the tiny minority who underperform, in that it might force them to devote more time to preparation. But for the most part that work is taking place already.”
Divilly currently earns €43,042 before tax. “It’s fine, it’s not a huge amount, but it’s grand. My worry is that if we take more cuts, living in Dublin is going to be increasingly difficult. I’m really not complaining, not with the economy the way it is. Money never came into my decision to become a teacher, but I have to be able to live.”
When asked about today’s one-day strike, Divilly looks pained.
“I feel that teachers do a good job that sometimes goes unrecognised. Nobody wants to strike, but I’m a member of a union and I wouldn’t like us to be targeted over and over again. I’m willing to take a pay cut – I already have. I’d just like to see the cuts to be fair and across the board rather than aimed at one particular group.”
Some argue that if teachers get pay and increments, their performance should be subject to British-style monitoring. Divilly says that the British model is excessive. According to a recent article in these pages, teachers in the UK are assessed six times a year.
“People would be putting all of their energy into paperwork and assessment if that was the case,” she says. “But teachers shouldn’t be worried about being assessed every now and again if it’s for the good of the students. It would have to be fair and it would have to be beneficial for the students. I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea if that was the case.”
It’s a vocation, Divilly maintains. “You have to love it. It’s very full on. You’re catering for the learning of 28 different children every day. I have parent- teacher meetings coming up – after school, of course – so I’m preparing for them. There’s assessment, pupil record forms. You need to monitor their progress in the 12 subjects.”
The challenges of the job pale in comparison to the satisfaction Divilly derives from her work.
“I love coming in every day to 28 different personalities. It’s all about them. You couldn’t do this job if holidays were the reason you chose it. The love of teaching is what keeps you doing it.”