It’s a dark, miserable night. You’ve been teaching all day, you came home to mark your students’ work, help your own children with their homework, cook dinner, tidy up and get ready for the next day. And now there’s a union meeting over an hour’s drive away where you’d be discussing standing orders and arguing about all the problems at work? It’s understandable that many teachers will take a hard pass.
Since the Covid crisis began last year, however, those in-person meetings have all moved online – and all three unions say attendance and engagement is up significantly, with some branches have reported a fivefold increase in the numbers showing up.
It's not just that it's as easy as logging into a Zoom meeting from the comfort of home: teachers are turning to their unions and their colleagues for support and advice with remote learning, educational and pedagogical issues, supporting vulnerable students affected by lockdown and implementing significant changes to exams and assessment. They're also worried about the risk of catching Covid-19 in some of the most crowded classrooms in the European Union.
Today, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) kick off their annual conferences. Because of Covid restrictions, the conferences are all, for the first time, happening online, and running over two days instead of three.
Many union officials and teachers believe the increased engagement from members could have profound implications for education in Ireland. Several sources say that the views of ordinary working teachers are often less “trenchant” than the powers that govern the unions’ decisions. Greater teacher participation could potentially dilute the voice of more “militant” members as more moderate teachers get involved which, in turn, could translate into less industrial relations strife, they suggest.
The changes also make it easier for women – who make up more than 70 per cent and more than 85 per cent, respectively, of the ASTI and INTO’s membership – to get involved in union politics. While women account for 70 per cent of the ASTI’s membership in 2021, the majority of central executive council and standing committee members are male. More than 60 per cent of branch chairs are male.
A lot will depend on whether the move to virtual meetings is a temporary step or whether it’s here to stay beyond the current crisis.
Stephen Lynch, a TUI member and a teacher at Douglas Community School in Cork, has seen these changes first hand at his local branch.
"Attendance at meetings for the past five to 10 years has been low, but turnout is up by 500 per cent since we went online," he says. "Our branch covers all community and comprehensive schools in Cork county and city, so it was hard for people to make it into Cork from, say, the Beara peninsula.
“Now we are hearing from voices we didn’t hear from before. There has been a fallback in recent months, however; surveying our branch members, we’re hearing that teachers are too burnt out with online learning and Zoom meetings to log on in the evening.”
Teachers, especially secondary teachers, are also now more likely to be contacted by students for one-on-one support, which places further demands on their time. Moira Leydon, assistant general secretary and education and research officer with the ASTI, says online learning has shown teachers a new side to their students.
“They might see that a student has a certain learning style and, because there is more one-to-one engagement, there’s been a lot of reflection on teaching,” she says. “Teachers can see, more than ever, when some students in their class are struggling. Our surveys and research show that teachers are thinking very deeply about this.”
Another ASTI spokesperson says teachers aren’t necessarily just engaging because it’s easier than ever – but because the ASTI has been heavily engaged in surveying members and taking feedback on their concerns.
This has seen, over the past year, 86 per cent of its members say that the workload was growing and negatively affecting their work-life balance, with 29 per cent saying the past year has had an “overwhelming” impact on work-life balance and a further 41 per cent say it has had a “major impact”.
The INTO has also been changing how it engages with its membership, although a union spokesperson says this predates Covid-19.
“We’ve been investing in digital communications and advocacy for a number of years: our younger members are more comfortable using digital tools, and it’s also a way for parents – and even lay people who believe in investment in education – to have their voice heard, particularly on issues like class sizes,” he says.
Zoom can't necessarily replace the benefits of face-to-face meetings, says Liz Farrell, a TUI member and teacher at Coláiste Eoin in Hacketstown, Co Carlow.
“You can’t read the room, feel the atmosphere or respond to people’s reactions, and there can be distractions online: dogs barking, children fighting, bad wifi.” she says. “But it has been useful for people who might have hesitated to travel in the depths of winter, especially if a colleague could bring them back the information. If it’s as easy to Zoom in, that changes things.”
Peter Keaney of ASTI's Mullingar branch says he is glad to see "younger faces" at union meetings, but that virtual meetings can be more formal and there's less opportunity for the robust debate and discussion that happens in person.
Most observers expect that remote union meetings are here to stay, albeit with a “blended” option that would see some members attend in person and some online. Others expect there may be pushback for a return to in-person meetings.
Either way, teachers have leaned on their unions perhaps more than ever over the past year, and that level of increased engagement could make it harder for any one view to dominate. Whether this leads to a move to the adoption of more centrist positions, or causes schism and division, remains to be seen.
On the agenda at the 2021 virtual teachers’ conferences
Covid-19 and the changes it has swept into our lives is expected to feature heavily at all three virtual teacher union conferences, which begin online today.
Vaccines: The three teachers' conferences will hear emergency motions on Tuesday and Wednesday calling for industrial action up to and including strike action unless teachers are moved back up the vaccination schedule.
Investment: All three conferences will focus on how the pandemic has exposed a relative lack of investment in education and support for teachers which predates Covid. Ireland spends 3.5 per cent of its GDP on education, compared with an OECD average of 5 per cent.
Class sizes: At both the INTO and ASTI, members will discuss class sizes, with delegates likely to mention Ireland's high pupil-teacher ratio.The INTO wants a one-point reduction in this ratio every year for the next several years.
Supports: INTO delegates will point to a decade of underinvestment where, before Covid-19, some schools couldn't even afford soap and hot water. Special education and access to therapeutic supports for children will be on the agenda.
Curriculum: The issue most exercising ASTI members, according to their ranking system for motions, is curriculum change, with many feeling that teachers have been sidelined in the senior-cycle reform process.
Principals: The INTO will discuss the support provided to teaching principals and call for a retention and expansion of the substitute teacher supply panel.
Pay inequality: The TUI and ASTI will highlight the ongoing pay disparity between teachers appointed before and after 2011 and the impact this is having on recruitment and morale, as well as the underfunding of third level which affects its members working at third-level institutes of technology.