‘We’re tired. We need to rest and digest this academic year’

The Secret Teacher: Our education system has morphed into one of increased nervousness

Martin raced in, buckling under the weight of his books. He’s as polite as any first year I’ve ever taught, yet the apology and explanation I hadn’t even asked for interrupted me as he blurted them out.

He sped past me to his seat and riffled through his bag for what seemed like an age before finally settling. Physically at least, because he took a good deal longer to lose all of the signs that he had been flustered, most notably breathlessness and the high colour in his cheeks.

Passing his desk, I invited him to take a drink if he needed it, and he really did. I sensed approval from the others, wondering if they shared my view that there is no good reason for a 13-year-old pupil to get so worried about being a little late for class. Regrettably, this kind of worry is anything but rare, and the physical symptoms of such nervous energy are becoming the norm in Irish classrooms and staffrooms.

One context for this is bullying. Huge focus on anti-bullying policies has by no means obliterated it from our schools. Unfortunately, much of the bullying itself happens out of sight, and it remains very hard for young people to share all the details and find the courage to do what might “get someone else in trouble”. Much of the coping with bullying still happens privately, and I’ve had conversations with students who reassure me that things are okay and that the bully will eventually move on to someone else.

We have all experienced classroom visits during teacher training, and wouldn't be here had we not passed the test

Young people today feel a desire to fight their own battles, and need someone to talk to rather than someone to act for them. What we as adults say matters hugely, and the coping mechanisms we offer need to be more sophisticated than some of the more common and admittedly dated ones – “she’s just jealous” or “ignore him and he will leave you alone”.

How many fully qualified and experienced professionals in other fields are subject to spot inspections of their individual work? Incidental inspections are still carried out in our schools; these are typically one-day visits and a school has no prior notice. For such visits the whole-school focus is secondary, as a small number of teachers are singled out for classroom visits. We have all experienced these already during teacher training, and wouldn’t be here had we not passed the test.

Most of us question the value of this random close-up on individuals. We do not – and cannot – deliver best practice in 35, 40 or 60 minutes. That is not how real teaching works. We can deliver it over a week of lessons, as that permits us to show a range of skills, all appropriately timed for the pupils’ benefit.

To provide the variety required of us in one lesson is to skim the surface of them all and deliver no depth in any. These inspections are undoubtedly well meant, but the fact that the burden of delivering falls to individuals rather than the team is inappropriate, and a source of real strain for teachers.

Things improved with Covid restrictions as the incidental inspections were announced 48 hours in advance, and it is deeply regrettable that the department removed this notice period and re-instated entirely avoidable pressure.

And so as Ireland’s education system morphs into an increasingly nervous system, it may be pointless even to talk about prevention any more. Wellbeing has come to the fore in recent years, and with it our raised awareness of how others are doing. Observing the visible evidence of the nervous systems of my students and colleagues has revealed a worrying trend. It’s a trend we cannot ignore, provided, that is, that the human stakeholders in education take priority over policies, initiatives and reforms. Sometimes I wonder if we do.

Our education system plays its role in conditioning youngsters to start living in fight-or-flight mode

The pressures of modern life mean that everyone’s perception of what poses a threat or danger has evolved unhelpfully. We anticipate problems where there are often none and spend far more time than required in fight-or-flight mode. This is exhausting and yet our education system plays its role in conditioning youngsters to start living that way. My close to three decades in classrooms with teenagers have revealed clear patterns in what school systems demand and how youngsters respond to those demands.

School rules require punctuality, and so our students rush. Not having work learned or completed has consequences and may incur punishment, so there is stress to get everything perfect. Books and materials must be in the room, which means students carry heavy loads.

This one brings particular suffering to first years like Martin, as their genuine fear of not having something results in them always bringing everything. Their young bodies and minds are already coping with longer days and multiple changes of room and/or teachers, and these adjustments are burden enough. To also go from having a home room in primary with everything within easy reach to carrying their school world on their backs is a significant strain. They also lack organisational skills so losing things is a daily norm for many, and this in turn brings its own sense of panic.

While these are apparently insignificant daily events, they add up and therefore lead to students sensing danger and feeling fear. Inevitably their nervous systems respond accordingly.

Yet, there is lots of fun and laughter and much to celebrate in schools, especially at this time of year. Nonetheless we are also very tired and need to rest and digest this academic year. The summer break merely provides what conscientious students and teachers alike have earned.

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