These were two main themes running through the presidential address of Máire G Ní Chiarba to almost 400 delegates at the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland.
Ahead of discussion this afternoon of the junior cycle reforms over which a series of one-day strikes are looming next autumn unless the dispute is resolved, she said teachers would rather be in their classrooms instead.
“Nobody takes lightly a decision to strike, least of all teachers. Our voice, the voice of the practising teacher is powerful and must be listened to for its expertise,” she said.
Earlier, ASTI president-elect Ed Byrne said it was misleading for Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan to say they were available for talks. He said talks to which the ASTI was invited last autumn after rejecting the latest deal ended up being implementation talks on something the Department of Education knew the union’s members had opposed.
Ms Ní Chiarba said the incoming minister has been put on notice by the ASTI decision to strike in the next school year that their educationally worthwhile concerns on junior cycle reforms are taken seriously.
She highlighted some of the issues raised by members after last September’s vote against the package, included timetabling, the educational value of classroom-based assessment, and the assessment task proposed, common level exams in all subjects other than English, Irish, and maths.
As a teacher of French, German, and Spanish, all through Irish, she said she speaks with authority on the opposition to having State-certified oral exams in Irish and modern languages not being externally assessed, unlike what happens for Leaving Certificate.
It is for educationally sound reasons that teachers raise such issues, she said, and in the interests of their students. The union’s recent research among members found that they need time and flexibility to interact with their students.
“Education is based on relationships and time is needed to develop such relationships,” said Ms Ní Chiarba.
“We are pro-reform but reform that is educationally sound. We are tired of listening to the same old rhetoric that we are against reform. Anyone who understands the classroom knows that teachers are in the front line as far as reform and change are concerned.”
While teachers are constantly involved in reform, she said, the uninformed, or perhaps disingenuous, voice tries to portray them as anti-reform if they do not move at its direction.
“Well, we won’t be moving at the direction of such a voice,” said Ms Ní Chiarba. “We will move at the direction of our members and embrace educationally sound reform as is our tradition.
“And this will continue to be done in the interests of standards, fairness and equity in education, and above all in the interests of our students. They deserve no less.”
Ms Ní Chiarba said students will suffer if teachers are demoralised, with the profession in grave danger of becoming more so than it is if they are not accorded the respect they have earned.
“If we are demoralised, the natural enthusiasm that we have as professional educators will be further damaged,” she said. “The system will suffer but most of all the students will not have the exciting educational experience they currently have which encourages them, open their minds to all types of possibility and facilitates learning.”