I thought they were just mothers at the school gate. Friendly. Helpful with the children. But meeting them now, at a school mothers’ reunion, they were different: They wanted to work again. They wanted meaningful work. They wanted flexible work. They wanted to teach. What could they teach?
Turned out I had a lot to learn. One of them had a degree in computer science and had been a manager in a major tech company. The other had a PhD in science. Just mothers. Mothers who could be the teachers for which our education system is gasping.
But they can’t teach, because they don’t have a master’s in education and they can’t get that without spending two years of studying full-time and €11,000 in fees. There are very few mothers who can afford to spend on themselves while they raise their children.
So the years roll on. These mothers do voluntary work that interests them or paid work that doesn’t. Meanwhile, huge gaps have opened up in the teaching teams of our secondary schools.
A survey undertaken by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, late last year, showed that 99% of secondary schools reported difficulties with recruitment. Some 75% of secondary schools had teaching vacancies open for more than a year and more than half still had unfilled vacancies.
There were particular difficulties filling vacancies for teachers of Irish, French, home economics, Spanish, physics, chemistry, engineering, woodwork, and metalwork. The main reason reported for the shortage was the availability of more attractive work opportunities for new graduates.
Mature professionals who want to teach, like the two mothers referred to above, have already sampled those “more attractive” options and have had enough of them. They often don’t have to max out their pay cheques, either, if their mortgages are paid or under control.
There must be hundreds of middle-aged professionals in this country who have degrees and work experience relevant to the unfilled teaching vacancies, but find their access to the profession barred.
This is a tragedy, not just for them, but for education in this country. We could have teachers of engineering who were engineers; teachers of Spanish who ran businesses in Spain; teachers of wood work who had their own carpentry businesses; teachers of home economics who ran B&Bs; teachers of chemistry who worked in labs, and teachers of a new subject, computer science, who worked in our booming tech sector.
There are burned-out professionals all over this country, many of whom would turn to teaching with passion and energy. In the UK, they would be embraced. They have a very similar shortage of teachers to ours, in very similar subjects.
They offer scholarships and bursaries. For prospective maths teachers, the funding can amount to £30,000 (€32,700), down through computing and languages, at £28,000, and even for English, my common or garden degree, it’s £15,000.
These are available to all applicants with good degrees, but they offer particular advantages to mature applicants who still have children to rear and there are special incentives for parents and people with disabilities.
The Now Teach programme, which has been running since 2017, targets and selects mature professionals who have had successful careers and now want to train as teachers.
The training is condensed to one year of four-day weeks, in a school setting through a mentoring programme. The Now Teacher is then newly qualified and, if hired, earns £25,000.
Most Now Teachers will have been earning a multiple of that as bankers, doctors, financial consultants, or as a columnist in the Financial Times, in the case of Now Teacher founder, Lucy Kellaway. The youngest has been 42, the oldest, 67.
They need a basic wage, but they are not in it for the money. As the Now Teach website says, “Teaching is a hard job, but one which brings rewards not found in other careers.”
Kellaway says she watched her daughter’s excitement as she tackled her job as a teacher and thought, “I want a bit of that.” She still loved her job in journalism, but, as she says, “I wasn’t getting any better at it.” She didn’t have to. She was always my favourite columnist, sending herself up with dry British humour as the FT’s “chief trivia correspondent”.
I remember her, in the wake of Brexit, staring gloomily at weed in her pond, too depressed to do anything else.
Her remedy, in the end, was to “carry on whether you feel calm or not” and ring a gardener. Now Teach is carrying on in fine British style and if we don’t adapt the model to our own uses, we may soon be the ones staring gloomily into weedy ponds.
Education really matters: 91% of respondents to the TUI survey agreed that the breadth of education being offered in their schools had been negatively affected by staff shortages and 37% said subjects had not been offered in their schools because there was no-one to teach them.
Meanwhile, getting into this career has been made about as hard as it could possibly be, requiring a five or six-year course, two years of which are self-funded.
We have a successful modern economy and we are long-lived, but none of these gains are influencing the hiring of trainee teachers looking for their second career. I don’t think the education system wants them. The closed shop works for those behind the counter.
The TUI focuses exclusively on the pay gap between teachers hired before and after 2011 as the source of the recruitment difficulty, though the UK has the same recruitment issue. Meanwhile, the Department of Education’s pathetic response has been to facilitate two schools to share a teacher.
The main reason for the recruitment crisis is our successful economy, which attracts graduates with wages, conditions, and status that teaching can’t offer. I would like to see teachers’ pay go up, but the Department of Education won’t be offering company cars any day soon and will never compete with Google on salary.
Teaching would compete and easily win on job satisfaction and quality of life for my mother friends, however. It’s a crying shame that we don’t care enough about education to say to them: “Now, teach!”