The Secret Teacher: ‘People just love having a go at us’

Many other professions envy the fact that we get so much media attention at Easter

For the public, the teacher union conferences provide something of an annual bulletin on where the profession stands in relation to work conditions. Photograph: iStock

For the public, the teacher union conferences provide something of an annual bulletin on where the profession stands in relation to work conditions. Photograph: iStock

 

My colleague Adam just loves a pint and a bit of craic. He gives up drink every Lent and then goes all-out over Easter making up for it. He regales us with tales of his annual “pilgrimage towards the pints”, and his Lenten journey makes the occasional appearance on social media too.

His anecdotes are highly entertaining, but I question the wisdom of posting a “pints update” from the teacher conference. I can’t help feeling that he would serve me and our colleagues better by keeping his wits about him and concentrating on the order of business.

For the public, the teacher union conferences provide something of an annual bulletin on where the profession stands in relation to work conditions.

Many other professions envy us this, and wonder why their own doesn’t get a similar stage from which to enlighten others on the realities, and especially the constraints and struggles, in their line of work. I would say this is a case of “be careful what you wish for”.

Extensive media coverage is the cue for a barrage of criticism of how we don’t know how good we have it, and such reassurances as “sure haven’t ye the great holidays anyway”.

Teachers are far more than our annual conferences and our unions. Having this annual platform can also mean that people get their fill of us and our issues then, and expect us to stay quiet for the rest of the year.

Teacher strikes have become synonymous with poor public support and high public frustration. When teachers strike life becomes massively complex in households with school-going children, and they are simply downright inconvenient for people. The negativity and resentment that invariably underpin our strikes mean that many would-be super ambassadors and spokespeople stay firmly in the background because they don’t have the stomach for the front line.

It’s one thing for primary and post-primary to have different unions, but an altogether different matter to have two different unions at one level. Ultimately this means there are up to four different groupings, as some teachers opt not to join a union at all, or to leave theirs, which has recently become a trend in Ireland.

Unions within themselves are divided, this is common knowledge. There are those high up, cosy in a long-established network; there are members trying to break into those ranks; there are other members establishing activist groups within their unions, with a view to actually getting things moving. Each of the three teachers’ unions in Ireland now has its own established faction, so there are at least six potential groups representing teachers. Surely the matters for analysis are numerous and complex enough without such an excess of conflicting perspectives?

And then there are the teachers, many of us are paying our membership but contributing little else. We are desperate for effective leadership and one clear message – therefore fewer divergent voices.

Inertia

The membership serves as an insurance policy for when we might need the backing of a union, but there is a well-documented inertia among members, and the vast majority show scant interest in attending branch meetings and playing an active role.

Another moot point, especially when people claim that they are not attending meetings because of having a previous negative experience of one. It is unfortunate that the mood at union meetings is more political than pedagogical, but that is the reality of trade unions and it simply isn’t for everyone. Equally, the classroom isn’t for everyone and some teachers thrive on their activism within a union.

Being actively involved in one’s union is to be lauded, as indeed is membership of any of the committees or boards that are relevant to the teaching role. We are indebted to the delegates who attend the teacher conferences to further our cause.

The annual conferences provide opportunities for those in the higher ranks to engage in real and sustained dialogue with members who represent a wide variety of teacher realities. It allows delegates to hear what it is like trying to survive as an LPT (lower paid teacher), especially if living in a part of the country which makes the headlines for high rents or how the cost of living has soared. These conferences are attended by the media, and how teachers come across really matters for how the profession is perceived by the general public.

Responsibility

Attendance therefore comes with enormous responsibility and an obligation to represent the profession in the most positive light possible. It always deeply saddens me when attendees post online about what a great time they are having.

Even if the conferences also provide the opportunity for teachers to let their hair down, doesn’t the general public have enough to criticise us for? Such posts also legitimately permit fellow union members and teaching colleagues to doubt delegates’ motives for being there.

Those who don’t get to go want to believe that the places are wisely allocated, so those attending must not give anyone cause to doubt their ability to best represent the masses. If it’s not a “jolly” we must not give anyone any basis to think that it is. How we conduct ourselves outside the classroom reflects on us, both individually and collectively, especially when in the presence of the media and in a country where people just love “having a go” at teachers.

Rightly or wrongly, while conscious of their contribution to our salaries, the taxpayers feel entitled to expect us to behave ourselves.