It’s Easter. That means teaching union conferences. And few things are more heart-sinkingly predictable than the alarming, blinkered, backward-looking declarations and protestations of teachers at this time of year.
I was a successful (ie pupils and parents said nice things and exams were passed) teacher for many years. Even when I was of their number I was embarrassed by a lot of what was said each Easter by those extremist teachers who, it seems, prefer to spend their holidays holding public cringe-making debates rather than sharing Easter eggs and a bit of quality time with their families. And now that I’ve worked in other fields as well as teaching, a wider perspective has opened up. Many life-long teachers have, by definition, never done any thing else and I’m afraid it shows to their detriment.
For a start, there’s the question of stress and hours. Yes, yes, yes, I know teaching can be a very pressurised job. I’ve dealt with many highly disturbed children in large groups, parents from hell, paranoid head teachers, high levels of colleague absence which we had to cover ourselves, heaps of paperwork and several inspections just like any other teacher. It isn’t easy. But then neither are most other jobs. Watch the staff in any busy chain coffee shop – working under relentless pressure. Imagine the continual stress city bus drivers operate under. Consider the responsibility of working in an A&E department. And for the record, the writing job I do now is just as demanding, in its way, as teaching was. I am perpetually juggling short notice tasks – typically several at once and meeting tight deadlines with a lot of travel and irregular hours. And I routinely work a seven day week. Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, dared to point this out the other day too. Result? The NUT is bleating for his resignation.
The NUT, almost unbelievably, also wants a shorter working week for teachers. There is a proposal – to be debated at its conference – that teachers should work a maximum four hours a day with pupils plus 10 hours for planning and marking and five hours for other duties each week, thus ensuring that they work no more than 35 hours a week. Now, when you go into teaching you know that you will have to take some work home and that, at some times of the year (when there are internal exams to mark and reports to write, for instance) you will have to work long hours. If you’re a teacher that’s how it is. On the other hand the job does have its compensations. Teachers still get a better annual leave entitlement – typically at least twelve weeks a year – than almost any other profession. But the NUT doesn’t mention that, of course.
‘Conference deplores the increasing use of electronic means of communication in schools with the expectation that teachers should respond at very short notice’ whinges the NASUWT, asserting that ‘This is tantamount to bullying and harassment.’
So teachers object to being emailed and texted about work? Well, it’s what happens in the rest of the world and, I’m afraid, teachers need to move with the times like everyone else. And goodness knows why they think that expecting a teacher to answer an email counts as bullying. I suggest teachers who don’t like it try a week in a commercial company where they can expect a very different, no-kid-gloves culture.
What worries me most is the apparent total inability of so many teachers to see themselves as others see them. Most teachers are in secure, reasonably well paid jobs at a time when many others are not. And desperately anxious jobless people with families and mortgages are probably facing stress of a sort unknown to most teachers. Can they not see how crass, even childish, some of their attitudes and complaints look to outsiders? And as for inviting speakers to their conferences and then heckling and jeering because they don’t like what they say, like the very worst year nine class on a wet Friday afternoon … What sort of example is that for their pupils? But it happens every Easter.
As I have said before, education is in a pickle. School leavers often lack the knowledge and skills that university admissions tutors and employers want. Something is seriously wrong. It isn’t the fault of teachers. They have had to manage many externally imposed changes over the years and most work hard to do what it required of them. But those requirements have often been ill-judged and things have continued to spiral down. It is no good Mary Bousted, ATL general secretary, accusing the government of damaging education as she did yesterday at the start of her union’s conference. It is already damaged. And confrontation and juvenile whining will not repair it. Co-operation and adult behaviour might.