The Secret Teacher: When did teachers become the enemy?

In Ireland, it feels like people imagine schools would be perfect if it wasn’t for the bloody teachers.
The Secret Teacher: When did teachers become the enemy?

Secret Teacher: Teacher bashing has been particularly bad this last week because of schools staying off beyond Monday. School days are decided by the Department. Dates are decided by Boards of Management. Teachers follow orders.

We can’t ignore the wellbeing of our planet’s two-legged inhabitants when we push for sustainability. Too many of us work unsustainable hours. Fewer hours can mean better output. Stanford professor John Pencavel discovered as much, noticing how productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week.

In terms of holidays, secondary school teachers have it good.

But other professionals don’t look to us as setting a positive example. Far from it. We’re vilified again and again for being lazy. Some greater force has managed to pitch the private worker against the public worker and it’s good news for those on top. The teachers are the enemy. They need to work more. Everything else should remain the same.

Despite our holidays, this perception is part of what makes the teaching profession unsustainable. We’re losing teachers. A TUI study from 2020 reports that 97 percent of 130 secondary schools experienced teacher recruitment difficulties in the previous six months.

Teachers are swapping the holidays for a life with less vitriol.

Teacher bashing has been particularly bad this last week because of schools staying off beyond Monday. School days are decided by the department. Dates are decided by boards of management. Teachers follow orders. And yet, listening to the radio, you’d swear we were down in a bunker somewhere, plotting the downfall of Irish children. One Twitter commentator began her criticism with, ‘I know they didn’t cause the pandemic but…’

I’m deeply, stupidly affected by it all. I watch myself trying to chip away at the arctic block of ice that’s gathering between teachers and the general population. I’m an old dog in serious need of some new tricks. And it’s not sustainable.

Teachers are referred to as a single entity in Ireland. It’s assumed that everyone in the profession acts and thinks the same — as if we’re factory-produced robots, boxed and distributed to schools by the Department of Education. We’re barcoded automatons, lazy androids, who share a fixed and singular mindset of getting what we want, when we want it, and to hell with everyone else.

I must have come out of a different factory. Or maybe I’m a defect? But I’ve yet to meet the standard copy I see represented in the media. My school is full of passionate, committed members of staff, fighting for what’s best for children.

We all have different ideas about the way things should be done.

For instance, I think holidays need to be shortened in secondary school. But I also think we need less contact time with students during the year to ensure that our teaching is as good as it needs to be. Irish teachers have significantly high contact hours by European averages. Primary school teachers have 905 hours; the European average is 754. We also have the biggest class sizes. We spend less GDP on education than our European counterparts. Our supports and our buildings are inadequate. But all of this gets less airtime.

It’s easier to blame teachers. It’s possibly because of our unions. Would it surprise you to know that I’m not in one?

I believe in the need for unions, but I think Irish unions stifle innovation in education too often. They shouldn’t have brought up pay parity during a pandemic. They also need to come up with more creative negotiation strategies. Threatening strike is like calling the guards on your next-door neighbours. There’s no coming back from it.

But my chances of joining a union have greatly increased since returning to Ireland three years ago. I’ve spent most of my teaching life abroad and I’ve never experienced such a wall of abuse. There’s seething anger towards teachers. Teachers and parents seem to be on different sides of an argument. And I feel like I missed the start of it.

And while I don’t agree with threatening strikes, I see why unions felt backed into a corner. As I type, 79 percent of cases reported are under 45. Covid is now a young person’s disease. As of the first of May, 25 percent of secondary schools have cases. Who can blame unions for looking for increased safety measures?

Every teacher I taught with, in my last school abroad, is vaccinated.

In Ireland, it feels like people imagine schools would be perfect if it wasn’t for the bloody teachers. Well, schools are being emptied of them. People are increasingly avoiding the profession because it’s a deeply unpopular one.

I was told recently that teachers need to stop feeling so offended. That our profession isn’t beyond scrutiny. I’m all for scrutiny and honesty. But when you blanket criticise thousands of people based on their job title, it’s nothing short of bullying. And it’s not sustainable.

Some 77 percent of schools in a 2020 TUI survey advertised positions in the previous six months and no teacher applied. No teacher applied.

If one of my three children considers becoming a teacher, I’ll tell them it’s a wonderful, inherently meaningful job. I’ll probably force-feed them Paolo Freire and make them watch Dead Poet’s Society with me. Then I’ll tell them to go and teach in a different country. Because I want them to feel respected. I want their life’s work to be sustainable and rewarding. As things stand, there’s little chance they’ll get that here.

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up