The Secret Teacher: Seeking special treatment

To my fellow teachers: please don’t pull rank. We desperately need solidarity

The problem of teachers pulling rank on each other directly results from any situation where equal parties are treated differently. Photograph: iStock

The problem of teachers pulling rank on each other directly results from any situation where equal parties are treated differently. Photograph: iStock


Mr O’Shea’s chair? How could that be? Don’t we spend enough time explaining to our students that no seat is “theirs” as there aren’t any names on them?

On my first day I had chosen that chair only because it was the one beside the person who I was chatting to as I walked into the staff room.

Why hadn’t he warned me not to sit there? Surely he hadn’t led me there deliberately, or had he?

Staying seated was a very uncomfortable option, but if I got up how was I supposed to know where I could sit?

I did the only thing I could do and went to the toilet to regroup and let the moment pass. At least nobody was staring at me for taking that seat.

Inequality was rife in teaching long before the two-tier pay system. Whoever invented the seniority list has a lot to answer for. Its legacy will live on, even now that its importance in relation to posts of responsibility has been re-evaluated.

Previously, in ranking the candidates for internal promotions, the longest-serving member of staff was automatically awarded maximum points in that category and everyone else a proportion relative to their own years of service in the school.

That gave the most senior candidate a serious head-start and good compensation for what their profile might have lacked in terms of qualities actually needed to perform well in the new role.

The inevitable result was that the best (wo)man didn’t always necessarily get the job, far from it.

The additional value that until recently seniority seemed to accord a teacher means that even now there’s nothing like a seniority list to keep people in their place. It is all too evident in schools; you just have to know where to look.

Schools contain several obvious breeding grounds for inequality, and they can vary according to the individual school or perhaps the type of school (Education and Training Board (ETB), voluntary secondary).

While the media focus is on how hard it is for some teachers to cobble together enough hours to live on, a juicier story is hidden away.

Full contact time

Not all teachers are actually delivering the full 21 hours 20 minutes of class contact time for which full-time permanent staff are contracted and paid.

In many schools there is a total lack of transparency around the reasons for allocating a lighter teaching workload.

There are worrying patterns too when the same individuals always carry the full teaching load, but work alongside others who consistently have a number of extra free periods.

Every free lesson is precious, but surely so is every teacher. If the reduction is deliberate in order that the teacher use the time to carry out a specific role for the school’s benefit, why isn’t this just posted publicly on the staff noticeboard?

The PME (professional master of education) students, formerly known as H Dip students, are another example of something poorly distributed across teaching staff.

In many schools some teachers are always allocated them, and others never. It may involve extra work in one way, but it amounts to an academic year with a far fewer teaching hours overall when the trainee teacher takes over for their school placement. Being available on site is much less onerous than teaching the class oneself.

Team-teaching, or co-teaching, is another way of lightening the teaching workload.

Under the new resource model, we see far fewer instances where small groups of students leave the mainstream class to work with a resource teacher. The second teacher provides support in the mainstream class instead.

Two teachers being in the room changes the dynamic completely and brings its own challenges, but the teaching load is shared and the burden inevitably lighter.

Teachers often spend break time talking to a student, and common sense alone tells us that if you have had a full morning of teaching and are heading back straight into class, the (lost) break time was badly needed respite from student contact time.

Effective management

It takes highly effective senior management to ensure that teaching colleagues are treated consistently and fairly, and that a full teaching timetable is perceived as the norm.

Some teachers have little or no shame in seeking special treatment whereas those endowed with professionalism and integrity would never dream of asking.

Both groups are entitled to precisely the same timetable reduction: none at all.

The problem of teachers pulling rank on each other directly results from any situation where equal parties are treated differently and, therefore, that must be avoided.

Rosa Parks also sat in the “wrong” seat and attracted stares for it. She stood her ground in the “white seat” and was arrested. Four days later during a public address Martin Luther King defended her, saying “and you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression”.

Dramatic to compare the two, perhaps, but identifying degrees of oppression is only splitting hairs.

To my fellow teachers: please don’t pull rank in the staff room. We desperately need the solidarity.

And to senior management: every timetable reduction you sign off on, every PME student you allocate and every team-teaching pairing you make may please someone but has been denied to many others.

Perhaps you could remember them the next time the regulars show up at your door looking for special treatment.