Teacher strikes: ‘If no compromise is made I will be crossing the pickets again’

To Be Honest: A teacher writes in favour of junior cycle reform and in opposition to the unions ‘striking against change’

‘The unions are becoming irrelevant to young teachers.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

‘The unions are becoming irrelevant to young teachers.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

With the talks between the Department of Education and the teachers’ unions still ongoing, and the prospect of Pauric Travers’s proposal for progress failing to appease both sides I will be constantly questioned by my non-teaching friends about “more teachers’ strikes” and I will gently remind them that not all teachers have been on strike and the ASTI and TUI do not represent all teachers. On the last two strike days, my non- union colleagues and I discreetly crossed the pickets. I will do so again if necessary because, put simply, the union wants teachers’ to strike against change.

Well, guess what? The world is changing. Education in Ireland must change with it. The fundamental basis of our traditional school system, right down to the division of the school day, was devised during the industrial revolution. Our terminal exams are still little more than indicators of a student’s skills in organisation and memorisation; important skills, but mostly of secondary importance in our modern economy that thrives on conceptualisation and problem-solving.

For me, as an educator, the junior cycle reform is long overdue. We simply cannot continue to adhere to a system that drives teachers, understandably, into a position where they are teaching to an exam. There seems to be very little point in exam-driven rote learning when even the simplest, cheapest mobile phone offers internet access. Learning off the answers to questions when almost every answer imaginable is a keystroke away is not only pointless but bordering on educationally negligent.

We need to start teaching the students to ask questions, not to know the answers. Even a final exam worth 60 per cent is too much and will dilute the educational gains of continuous assessment.

We are still educating students for a Civil Service career or a factory system of employment that no longer exists. The junior cycle reform challenges this. It allows teachers to teach away from the terminal exam, takes away the emphasis on rote learning, allows educators to facilitate students’ inquisitiveness and ultimately allows students to work in groups, to think outside the box, to challenge received knowledge and most importantly to ask why.

In fighting these reforms the unions are becoming an embarrassment to the teaching profession. All the arguments against reform fail to convince me change is not crucial. Teachers who express concerns about the fairness of continuous assessment seem to ignore the inherent unfairness of a system with a high- stakes, one-size-fits-all, meaningless terminal exam for 14-year-old children.

The only difference regarding fairness is that this change would put the responsibility of equitable treatment and fairness back on the teaching profession, a weight it is happy to shirk on to the ever willing shoulders of “social problems” when it comes to how bitterly unfair the exam system is for students with special needs, unsuited to exams or from broken or financially deprived homes. It is our responsibility as teachers to grade and assess our students. We are supposed to be professionals. Professionals assess. This is just part of our job. The argument that continuous assessment works elsewhere but not in Ireland because we are somehow “special” rings hollow to me.

I refuse to be party to a movement that threatens to keep our education system in the 19th century. If it creates an extra workload for our well-paid colleagues, well, guess what, there are thousands of young teachers here and in England desperate for those hours. The current employment system has us so desperate for work we are willing to accept almost anything and work long hours for free now. The reform would be a blessing for us.

So if no compromise is made I will be crossing the pickets again and again. As a history teacher this is not a decision I will take lightly. As a young teacher I am not only on a different pay scale to my colleagues doing exactly the same job, not remunerated for my honours degree, my honours professional qualification or my subject masters like many of my colleagues, but I can only daydream of permanency. If I stopped working tomorrow I would be better off on social welfare.

Where was the strike action against these measures? Do the unions seriously still claim to represent “teachers” as if we were all the same? Do the unions seriously expect young teachers who are desperate for change and opportunity to accept this pointless and irrelevant refusal to reform a system set up in Victorian times?

I think they do.

The unions are becoming irrelevant to young teachers. They do not represent the future of education and they certainly do not represent me.

The writer is a history teacher in a girls’ school in south Dublin. This occasional column gives a voice to people with an interest in education. Contributions are welcome to education@irishtimes.com

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