The Secret Teacher: ‘I often correct work that has clearly been dictated’

Grinds can be well-intentioned but disempowering. The student is poorly served

In absolute terms our national expenditure on education looks eye-watering. Yet we seem to be making a habit of coming bottom of the OECD rankings for investment in education. Why?

Whatever the importance and scale of other items on the expenditure list, the largest single item is salaries of school staff. As a profession, we teachers feel the full weight of every non-teacher’s expertise on all things pedagogical. We live with the total oxymoron of everyone claiming to know all about what we do while simultaneously demonstrating an entire arsenal of evidence that they have never ever stood in front of a class of young people.

Many who have done so end up leaving teaching, proving that the fantastic holidays do not balance out the pressures and demands involved in our role. However undeniably wonderful the volume of time away from the classroom might be, those of us who are committed and delivering full value know that we have earned every moment of it.

As public servants it is important that we deliver value, and that our fellow taxpayers feel they are getting good bang for their buck. The best way to get that is to look after us, to ensure that we are able to perform optimally. The open abuse the teaching profession is subjected to runs entirely counter to that.

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I know numerous teachers who actively avoid saying what they do for a living until it is absolutely necessary. Interestingly, they are among the cream of the crop

For many, when your name is already mud it’s hard to see the incentive in attempting to convert the deep-rooted doubter. It is too often entirely evident that there is no point in trying. I know numerous teachers who actively avoid saying what they do for a living until it is absolutely necessary. Interestingly, they are among the cream of the crop and have earned reputations for their excellence. They give of their best as a matter of conscience.

If we have unhappy public servants, and taxpayers who are unhappy with their public servants, isn’t that better addressed than shoved under the carpet? The reality is, we as taxpayers appear slow to ask for more and better of our teachers.

A number of alternative avenues seem more appealing.

Astronomical fees

Paying for the same service a second time elsewhere is most definitely one. Enrolments in fee-paying schools exceeded 26,200 this year, reaching an all-time high. Despite demanding fees of between €5,000 and €10,000 for day pupils, many of these schools have waiting lists. €15,000 is not unusual for five-day boarding, nor €20,000 for seven-day boarding. What makes so many so ready to pay astronomical fees for something they are entitled to courtesy of their taxes?

Grinds feature further down the scale but are nonetheless big business. While I’m in no doubt that there are many effective private teachers out there, I’m in even less doubt about how many are doing more damage than good. Parents rush to suggest that they will “get her a grind”, and I usually wince at how obvious it is that they have completely missed my point.

When I see evidence that a student may be being poorly served, I offer to speak to their private teacher. Only once in my career has that offer been accepted

The very last thing a student who is not working hard enough needs is yet another person working hard on their behalf. Grinds are far too often well-intentioned but disempowering. Many parents are so relieved to find someone available that they do not find out enough about that person’s suitability. And the youngster getting the one-to-one assistance is not best placed to filter what they are being told.

When I see evidence that a student may be being poorly served, I offer to speak to their private teacher. Only once in my career has that offer been accepted and on that occasion the person was entirely suitable. He proved himself an excellent collaborator when we liaised and worked together for our mutual student’s benefit.

Regrettably, I often correct work which has clearly been dictated, and which my student has little hope of being able to reproduce and understands only minimally, if at all.

When engaging a private teacher and investing additional funds in what is already available via your child’s school, it is essential to establish that person’s suitability for preparing for the specific exam your child will take. We teachers engage in a lot of training for a reason, but there is every chance that the teacher you are paying privately is not accessing that training. In that situation, there is every reason to ensure that you are getting your money’s worth. You could very well be paying someone to unhelpfully contradict what is in fact correct.

Keeping schtum

While we Irish have a reputation for staying quiet and not wanting to make a fuss, there are limits. It is one thing to go out for a meal and decide to keep quiet about being dissatisfied. Chances are, you’ll simply never return to that restaurant. To clearly see flaws in how we provide for educating our youth and yet let those flaws remain makes little sense. Isn’t this precisely the time to seek only the very best? Does it honestly make more sense to keep schtum and throw good money after bad? Or worse still, bad money after bad?

It is time we established an inclusive forum for open and courageous exchange around how Ireland could "do" education better. These days mental health, wellbeing and leadership are increasingly linked to growth and learning, which is what our young people are at school for. In the interest of serving them better, that forum would do well to conduct a thorough audit of what we are currently doing and explore ways to improve both what we offer and how we rank in terms of education.