If you worry about time speeding up as you get older, ponder this. Many young people applying right now for professional master of education (PME) placements in second-level schools never got to sit their Leaving Cert. (As you are an older person, you might still call the PME the HDip.)
Yes, these aspirant teachers are members of the 2020 pandemic cohort who were subjected to online classes, chronic anxiety and uncertainty for months, and finally, were awarded calculated grades.
Yes, that cataclysmic event that happened five minutes ago is now producing people who still want to be teachers. In two years’ time, there will be qualified teachers who never got to sit the infamous exam, but who will be teaching Leaving Cert students themselves.
The Leaving Cert is such a rite of passage in Ireland that the class of 2020 feel a mixture of relief and embarrassment about never having gone through it. It’s a bit like being a Navy Seal without having to endure Hell Week.
For senior management in schools, however, hell week goes on for months, which they spend desperately trying to fill educational posts, and now, increasingly, PME positions. Schools rely on PMEs to provide paid cover for teacher absences due to illness or other legitimate reasons. It is just one of the invisible ways the Irish education system is propped up.
Schools are having to drop entire subjects or hire unqualified people for teaching posts, but now the damage done by the housing crisis is spreading even to trainee teachers
Anecdotally, schools in Dublin and other expensive urban areas are securing PMEs eager to teach in their schools who then reluctantly back out because they cannot secure affordable accommodation. This is yet another strain on overworked principals, who were already familiar with that phenomenon among qualified teachers.
It has been well-documented that schools are having to drop entire subjects or hire unqualified people for teaching posts but now the damage done by the housing crisis is spreading even to trainee teachers.
There has been a suggestion that, on a temporary basis, the PME should become a one-year course rather than the current two. Given that it can now take six years to qualify as a teacher, followed by a year of Droichead – professional induction in a school as a newly qualified teacher – it would seem a sensible suggestion.
We should be thankful that people still want to be teachers, instead of making it almost impossible for them to live while training. We should also look after the teachers still in the profession, many of whom are far from having the vaunted “job for life” teaching once represented.
We have an anomalous situation where certain teachers in specific subjects – modern foreign languages, Irish, physics, and home economics, for example – can find a job anywhere they want if only they could find accommodation. Meanwhile, other teachers with less sought-after subjects are experiencing casualisation and lack of job security.
This is due to a lack of central educational planning and co-ordination between universities and the Department of Education. Expecting demographic change to sort out the problem in a few years’ time ignores the fact that it is a problem right now and students are suffering. Every teacher is also under increased pressure because schools are supposed to solve all the problems in society as other institutions weaken.
To give just one example, anxiety and depression among young people have greatly increased post-Covid. This in turn has an impact on teachers in every classroom, at a time when teaching is a profession close to crisis point.
The non-traditional Leaving Cert of 2020 kick-started debate again on Leaving Cert reform. Many teachers are approaching burnout. Another half-baked educational reform will break many of them and drive them out of the profession.
It is vital that senior cycle reform is carefully planned, unlike the reform of the junior cycle, which Norma Foley has acknowledged did not go well, stating that she would be foolish not to learn from it and do better the next time around.
Any reform must treat teachers as vital partners, consulting them and providing them with scaffolded support
Nonetheless, a half-baked proposal to sit one of the papers in English and Irish at the end of the fifth year was still seriously proposed until outright rejection by every stakeholder in education scuppered it.
Some of the biggest problems regarding the junior cycle have been revealed by research on the new junior cycle Irish specifications, called L1 and L2. The results are unsurprising to teachers, but do not bode well for senior cycle reform.
There was a strong feeling of frustration among teachers that the “specifications ... [do not allow them] to teach Gaeilge in an effective and stimulating way that would cater for their students’ abilities”. Even more importantly, teachers did not feel listened to. The same could probably be said for every subject.
Any reform must treat teachers as vital partners, consulting them, and just as importantly, providing them with scaffolded support, including detailed information about what is to be taught, how to teach it, resources to support each subject and examinations that bear some resemblance to what has been taught.
Without these vital steps, teacher burnout will only increase, resulting in people leaving the profession or declining to enter it in the first place.