Why are there so many teachers and principals in the 33rd Dáil?
Teachers, like politicians, need to lead people, make fine judgement calls, make use of very limited resources, implement policy changes and fight for the needs of students
There are 19 former teachers and school principals in the Dáil, making education one of the most well-represented professions in Leinster House. Photograph: Maxwells / Houses of the Oireachtas
Among the 160 TDs of the 33rd Dáil are 19 former teachers and school principals. That makes education one of the most well-represented professions in Leinster House.
This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Ireland-so what is it that makes a career in education such a fertile training ground for future politicians?
Working in education puts you at the very heart of the community. Most weeks, teachers interact with students and their parents, but also other community organisations, including local sports clubs, volunteer groups, local businesses and public support services.
In very pragmatic terms, that means teachers and principals are well known among constituents. If they haven’t taught you or your children, they’ve probably worked side by side with you coaching an underage sports team, helped to stage the school drama production, or collaborated with a local business on a transition year module.
More importantly, leading a school affords an unparalleled insight into a broad cross-section of the community. Teachers see what’s working and what’s not, where challenges arise for families, and the impact of issues such as housing, childcare costs, and mental health and wellness on students and their families.
Leading a school means interacting, on a daily basis, with a diverse set of constituents spanning faculty, students, parents, and extended families
This leadership role requires an ability to manage change, motivate colleagues, implement new legislation, balance budgets, and manage relationships with government departments, feeder schools, and third-level institutions. It means being able to inspire and energise students coming from often very different backgrounds and with very different learning needs.
Education in Ireland today is in a state of flux. Change is constant. This year alone, we are implementing major changes to school enrolment procedures as well as leading the embedding of junior cycle reforms. Meanwhile, senior cycle reform remains an urgent priority and something that we continue to lobby for among decision makers in the Department of Education.
Overseeing and implementing this change requires nous and political skill, as well as an understanding of the stakeholders who may stand to benefit and those who may seek to resist the changes for one reason or another. It means being able to operate within a system but also have the strength of personality to drive change and convert non-believers into advocates and practitioners.
The challenges facing education leaders and professionals are well documented. Despite them, ultimately, it is the teachers’ constituents, namely their students, that remain the priority.
Recent research by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals bears this out. When we surveyed our members on their priorities in their role as education leaders, all respondents said the welfare of their students in their care was their top priority. Principals and teachers are advocates for all those in their care. This means fighting for the needs of students and families of all levels of ability and talents.
Often, that means taking a legislative approach. Teachers call for change and carry out legislation passed by the Dáil. We live and breathe the stuff, from its early-stage theoretical formation to its practical rollout.
The best politicians are comfortable operating in the uncomfortable space between black and white. Unfortunately, most contentious political decisions don’t fall into straightforward categories with linear means of determining success from failure.
Educators learn to operate in a similar environment. League tables and exam results, focal points though they are, only tell part of the story. The real kaleidoscope of education, young people, and human interaction is far more nuanced.
Teachers need to be able to lead and motivate people, make fine judgement calls, make use of very limited resources, implement policy changes, and meet the varying needs of students, parents, and communities in a constantly evolving society.
Thankfully, teaching continues to attract these kinds of high-calibre individuals. The Dáil is all the better for them.
Paul Byrne is deputy director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals.