Senior Cabinet meeting within Leinster House: Lads we need a sound bite to distract the people from the kicking they got in the budget. Umm … we could give the teachers another kicking I suppose.
Brendan Howlin, Irish Minister for Public Expenditure, has recently come out in the press – not like that stop sniggering – to deliver another kicking to a section of the public service. The objects of his ire on this occasion were teachers, more specifically, bad teachers and the necessity to remove them from their positions. Full disclosure here folks as I am a newly qualified teacher and as such, am fully in support of the removal of ‘bad’ teachers.
I support this on a purely selfish level, as the savage public services cuts have made it almost impossible to get a job in the career I returned to education in my mid-twenties to qualify for and also on a broader professional level. The position of teacher is far too important a position to be left to those who, have either lost whatever love they had for what is a vocation or who got into the job for all the wrong reasons. They are the same reasons which make public servants, teachers in particular, such easy targets for politicians hoping to score points after another savage budget. Job security, five-day work weeks, long holidays and general ignorance about what is required to survive and flourish in the field are the usual suspects that rear their heads when it is the teachers’ turn in the firing line.
I could bore you to death with the same arguments you’ll hear from any teacher defending themselves and their positions. We are in loco parentis for eight hours of the day; we are actors, counsellors and so much more. There are however a couple of elements of Minister Howlin’s statement which particularly grate.
The decision to send one’s children to ‘grinds’ (extra tuition outside of school) in an effort to improve their results falls on parents alone. To blame teachers for students taking grinds is a blatant example of ignoring a huge number of variables just to support your argument. Perhaps Minister Howlin has suddenly had selective amnesia and forgotten the last three budgets. Larger student teacher ratios and the removal of special needs assistants may also have had an effect. Perhaps it was the political culture whose short-term thinking saw them throw money at people instead of introducing the systemic and structural changes when we had the money to pay for them. Minister Howlin expects teachers to do more, for less and in more difficult circumstances. No problem Brendan, is there anything else while we’re at it?
The Teaching Council, to which I a pay a sizeable chunk annually to regulate my profession, has already put in place procedures, which are less than 2 years old, to deal with under performing teachers. This includes more visits to schools and more paperwork, such as detailed lesson plans and schemes of work, which teachers are required to provide at a moments notice to show just how prepared they are to take on the difficult task of educating children. This of course only scratches the surface of what teachers have to face, there are students for whom a full day of attendance in the school can be seen as a major victory. So what is so wrong with these provisions that would require a Minister of State to launch another attack? What exactly is it that he requires from teachers to justify their position?
My fear is that this is going to turn into a race to the bottom. The ‘data management’ style of brass tacks numbers will see teachers being judged on the results their students get. This is one of those things which seems very reasonable on the surface but, once delved deeper into, is the type of policy that ruins the lives of teachers and students alike. As I stated in my opening paragraph I am a newly qualified teacher and as such am in a prime position to impart how teachers are being taught in Ireland. One of the words that popped up with regularity during my training was ‘holistic’. Previously the utterance of this word would have sent my eyes rolling back into my head with a sharp intake of breath. This of course is because the word has been co-opted by individuals who believe in Homeopathy and other such hokum but as my course progressed the word was reclaimed and in the end I ended up defending my use of it to friends when talking about the education system in Ireland. We are being asked to help create well-rounded individuals, to focus of literacy and numeracy, to find ways of making our subjects relevant and interesting, to create an active and inclusive learning environment in an effort to move away from rote learning during which cross curricular links are forged, and all this with one eye on the needs of the economy. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? So a result driven system where judgements are made on a final grade do nobody any good and run directly in the face of how teachers are trained.
One would almost believe that the statement made by Minister Howlin was just an effort to distract the nation from more immediate problems. I am not alone in finding this political culture tiresome and insulting. The statement spurred me to write this piece on the difficult role teachers face, those that can get a job that is (grumble grumble), but perhaps the real issue is the inherent disrespect the government has for teachers and the difficult jobs they do, and indeed for everyone else in society; that they think taking a swipe at easy targets will distract us for a period while they muddle on in corruption and ineptitude serving their real bosses. This is the same political culture which sees people on social welfare squeezed and investigated while corporations pay minimal tax: the same culture which sees outrageous stories regards budget cuts leaked before the budget so when the cuts arrive they don’t seem so bad. I am not expecting miracles from our politicians just not to have our intelligence insulted.