The Irish media has been clamouring to give voice to beleaguered parents and concerned citizens condemning today’s teachers’ strike. Some of those commenting on the ASTI and TUI decision to picket seem to be under the impression that teachers are just obstreperous babysitters who live a cosseted existence, overpaid and underworked, doing an easy job that a monkey could do in their sleep – except these monkeys are particularly greedy. The reality of this couldn’t be further from the truth and there is far more to teaching than standing in front of a classroom from one end of the day to the next.
Teaching is a profession that’s viewed with an almost unique level of disdain in some quarters. The phrase “those who can’t do, teach” might be used in a self-deprecating manner by some teachers but it’s something that genuinely appears be the core mind-set underpinning the criticisms of the strike. Texts are being read out on Newstalk from critics saying “these teachers are only afraid of doing more work with no extra pay,” as if teachers should be martyring themselves and teaching for free, for the pure love of imparting their knowledge to students, as if instilling a love of learning in pupils should be reward enough in itself. It’s probably only teachers and nurses that are consistently faced with the attitude that serving others should be compensation enough and it’s no coincidence that it’s a female-dominated professions that bring out comments such as that. The Minister herself isn’t immune from subtly making that same criticism, even though the strike isn’t actually about the rate of teachers pay. But even if it was, who could blame them? Why should teachers do more work for no extra pay?
Reform of the Junior Cert is badly needed. Students who are 15 years old shouldn’t be faced with exams of that intensity. The only thing I even remember about my own Junior Cert is that I bluffed my way through the English Paper 1 and wrote an essay that had something to do with Paul Weller and me on bikes in Drogheda, that a bottle of Sunny Delight leaked in my bag during the history exam, and that the horror of the whole exam experience provoked an episode of insomnia and sleeping difficulties that I’ve never fully shaken off.
Everyone agrees that the JC needs radical changes, and the elements of project work and continual assessment that are being incorporated should be welcomed. But when the people who are being expected to implement these reforms object on the basis that there is no best practice or evidence to support the claims being made by the Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan, and further that there are issues around the resources being given to support them to implement the reforms, then they should be listened to. No matter how much a media and public given to teacher bashing would like to paint this as ultimately being a pay dispute, the crux of the strike is about who actually marks the Junior Cert papers. The Minister for Education allegedly believes teachers marking their own pupils is, educationally speaking, best practice for students. The Minister has moved from saying that internal marking 100% of the time is best, to saying that 40% internal marking will do, for the purposes of getting the reforms through. It’s unclear how much money will be saved in not paying other teachers to mark the junior cert papers but it’s a substantial amount given the sheer number of students involved, and the research or evidence that the Minister is basing her claims on hasn’t appeared thus far.
There are clearly difficulties in Ireland in making teachers mark the papers of their own pupils in a high stakes exam. That’s not to say that teachers are unable to mark the papers in the same way they would with other exams and tests they set for their classes, but to point out the difficulties that present in a state where schools are controlled by completely unaccountable boards of management and very often securing employment is based on who you know. There are teachers in Ireland who are as precariously employed as a person working in McDonalds on a temporary contract because they can’t get anything other than covering someone else’s maternity leave, and then four hours a week subbing when that teacher returns to their permanent post. Teachers may not cave to pressure in exam marking, but they will certainly come under it. In many cases, the students’ marks will be as high stakes for the teachers as the students themselves.
Teachers might not actively attempt to mark students unfairly (although I wouldn’t afford the benefit of that particular doubt to the teacher I had for Junior Cert geography) but there is evidence to suggest that teachers can be influenced by irrelevant factors in marking such as gender, socio-economic background, effort and behaviour of pupils. They are only human. Many teachers are now engaging in what could more accurately described as crowd control rather than education as a result of consistent severe cutbacks to school budgets and resources by this government. It is completely unreasonable to expect them to teach their class and mark their own students’ exams in an unbiased manner while not being offered adequate training to carry out what is envisaged in the marking scheme, or even enough training to actually deliver reforms to the curricula that they actually agree with; Not to mention that teachers will be expected to continue doing all of the extra-curricular work they do for free, like teaching the choir, or coaching the camogie team, or giving extra-lessons to struggling students in their own time while being continually demoralised by a government that doesn’t value what they do.
The Minister is quick to point out how other states assess students at that level fully through internally marked exams, but they are different school systems. The 26 Counties has one of the highest pupil-teacher ratios in the EU. Thousands of students spend the duration of their school life in cold, damp, mouldy prefab buildings. There are teachers who have never taught in anything else. Schools have had 1% cuts to capitation grants every year for the past three years while pupil numbers have increased. More students with special needs assistants are attending mainstream schools than ever before, so the Department of Education changed the rules to make it harder for them to get special needs assistants to support them in the classroom. Qualified special needs assistants were let go and some replaced with Jobbridge interns. The Department recognised that there are high levels of mental health issues among students in schools and introduced suicide prevention guidelines. However they took away guidance counsellors in schools with under 500 pupils who have ordinarily supported students with anxiety and mental health difficulties, leaving teachers to fill this role. Teachers who can’t secure permanent positions are told to apply for Jobbridge internships and do the same job as their peers for their unemployment benefit plus €50 extra a week. Schools make up the funding shortfall by increasing the so-called “voluntary” contribution that parents must pay. Teachers then have to deal with stressed parents who cannot afford to pay this because the Credit Union won’t lend them anymore money or because St. Vincent de Paul have already paid their electricity bill for them this month and they can’t ask for more.
This is what our teachers deal with on top of teaching. It would benefit us all to recognise the importance of their work and the pressure that they are under right now, and for the government to address the decimation they’ve inflicted on the education system before they go introducing a new system based on research that may or may not exist, that they in no way have the capacity to deliver. This is why we should support the teachers’ strike – despite the media driven hysteria.