According to Education Indicators for Ireland published last December, there were just over 38,000 teachers at primary level and almost 31,000 at post-primary. That’s close to 70,000 adults, the professionals your child spends their days with. Beyond whatever youngsters learn about the jobs those in their families have, teachers offer the initial first-hand insights into the world of work. Young people are savvier than ever and they also have more access to media than previous generations. What many observe in us in school contrasts starkly with what is reported about us elsewhere. This confuses them. But are we teachers any less confused?
As teachers, our own individual personal convictions about who we are and why we have chosen teaching as a career come across in our classrooms. It simply wouldn’t be possible to fake an identity for the duration of a career, and so those who encounter us every day – our colleagues and our students – know the strength (or weakness) of our individual commitment.
What I’m concerned with here with the fact that as a profession we lack a collective identity which truly serves us in the public eye. An identity that we have created internally, as opposed to those labels which have been externally applied to us.
The absence of this shared message about who we are has left us wide open to others writing that narrative for us. Our collective convictions about the value of teaching have been lost. Do we even know who we are anymore? And how many among us actually still care?
These questions matter more than ever. There is a documented shortage of teachers, and those signing up for a teaching career do so knowing that their conditions are worse than those they work alongside. Constant conflict on social media means that many of us no longer even want to be online – again, leaving those who remain to write the script. While our withdrawal from the many public word wars on teaching and teachers is understandable, it is especially dangerous now. We risk leaving the field to those who aren’t even teachers.
Junior Cert reform was one thing, as Junior Cycle State exams have always been relatively low stake. The school-leaving goalposts have their home in Senior Cycle, meaning reform there has far greater implications. The total CAO points scored when that final whistle blows matter a great deal, and therefore so does the playing field on which all the action happens.
It’s time the general public afforded teachers an opportunity to say what we stand for without fear of reprisals. To vilify the politicians we voted for and who we believe let us down once elected is one thing, as people can reasonably argue that they are owed something in return for their vote. The ongoing disdain against teachers encourages us to remain silent and invisible.
If we do no more than teach our classes and focus exclusively on individual impact in our own school context, where is the strength of collective teacher voice in shaping the future of Ireland’s education system? Ours is surely the single most important stakeholder voice. And if it isn’t, whose is? Only we remain active for several generations as students and parents come and go. Politicians too!
Establishing our collective identity involves addressing key questions. How we answer will shape future generations of teachers. Do we honestly want the dominant public narratives to remain that we are only in the job for the holidays and constantly complaining via our unions? There is so much more to us than this.
A strong common voice prepared to demonstrate the commitment, dedication and passion that the majority of teachers bring to the profession would quell the hard-line pessimists and blockers, those who will resist change at all costs.
This strong common voice could restore the credibility that teaching as a profession fully merits. While it wasn’t for all of the right reasons, the esteem in which teaching was held in Ireland decades ago at least meant that teachers could hold their heads high in their communities. Too few of us feel we can truly do so these days.
We must find a common ground somewhere between clinging to old ways and rushing into yet more shiny new initiatives
And yet the fact that within our schools we still can means that all is far from lost. Once we find a way to come together the strength that inevitably comes in numbers will emerge, and we will find a means of expressing who we are. The fact that we are entirely open to change and willing to engage in dialogue will become evident and trust will be built. The appropriate large-scale consultation of teachers may even follow, as that is what is most crucially lacking. We simply cannot communicate our concerns around Senior Cycle reform via our different unions. Collective voice means all teachers together and not the division that comes with the dual union route at second level (three in fact, as not all teachers belong to a union).
Discussion which impacts on our current high-stakes school-leaving arrangements needs to take place in an inclusive, respectful and thoughtful setting. The Minister and her team need to engage fully with those at the chalk-face and trust that we know what works best for the students with whom we spend our days. We must find a common ground somewhere between clinging to old ways and rushing into yet more shiny new initiatives. This requires a space for meaningful and thoughtful dialogue, and such a setting may be unlike any that our education system has availed of before.
Rumi, the 13th-century poet who lived before online binary thinking became so fashionable, describes such a place: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” In readiness for this encounter, we teachers need to define who we are – before the best of what we are gets irretrievably lost.