Wednesday 28 September 2016

Hey, Irish teachers, stop leaving those kids at home

Teachers will do anything for Irish children, except spend more time with them in the classroom, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

'Tell a teacher that most of them are a bit average at their jobs, and they generally react as if you've kicked a defenceless puppy.'
'Tell a teacher that most of them are a bit average at their jobs, and they generally react as if you've kicked a defenceless puppy.'

There are coal miners in China who complain less about their workplace conditions than Irish teachers. Trawlermen in the North Sea don't feel so hard done by. Listening to members of the teaching profession in Ireland, one could almost be forgiven for thinking the TV series World's Toughest Job was devoted entirely to their ordeal.

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Meanwhile, they're currently halfway through the latest holiday. What is it this time? Two weeks? It's only six weeks since the mid-term break, and, for secondary school teachers, there are less than two months to go until the marathon summer holidays begin in earnest.

People from other countries are astonished when they discover the length of Irish school holidays. "The children are home for how long?" A few years ago, then UK education minister Michael Gove called on British schools to reduce the length of holidays amid fears that performance suffered as a result. That was particularly so in the case of socially disadvantaged pupils.

He. Has. No. Idea. Six weeks? Secondary school children in Ireland have already been on holiday that long before British kids even begin their own break. The logistical nightmare and financial burden that this prolonged idleness places on parents is immense. They either have to take unpaid leave, thereby damaging their own pockets and, potentially, careers, or else pay for expensive childcare and summer camps to fill the empty days ahead.

Then there are all those extra days which teachers take off for some cushy number known as "staff training", with the cost once again being borne by parents in the form of more unpaid leave, more childcare, more hassle.

Why not schedule these training days during one of those interminable holidays? It would hardly threaten teachers' fundamental human rights. Especially as, unlike most people, they're still being paid exactly the same for sitting at home doing nothing as they are when in work.

Some chance. That would mean inconveniencing themselves, rather than parents. They're still complaining about the 33 hours of extra work required of them under the Croke Park Agreement. That's an extra 33 hours over a whole year, by the way. Or, to put it another way, 38 minutes a week. Another way still, less than eight minutes a day.

If this is exploitation of labour, sign us all up.

As if to rub salt into the open wound, Irish teachers are planning yet more days off in the near future by going on strike, supposedly in protest at changes to the Junior Cert.

This would be easier to take if teachers were as concerned about their pupils as they claim to be. Some undoubtedly are, but teaching is like every other profession. There's a concentration of motivated, highly skilled people at the top; a not-as-small-as-it-should-be group of useless incompetent messers at the bottom; and the vast majority who bumble along somewhere in the middle. They're no different from hairdressers or quantity surveyors in that regard, but tell a teacher that most of them are pretty average at their jobs, and that, if they want more sympathy and support, they should be prepared to work harder at improving standards, and they generally react as if you've kicked a defenceless puppy.

Incredibly, the amount of time children spend away from the classroom actually increases as they progress through the system. Under European directives, the minimum number of days that children must spend in school is greater at primary than secondary level, when all the evidence suggests that it should be the other way round.

It wouldn't be so bad if every hour of that time was spent intensively teaching, but it isn't, and the slack has to be taken up by parents coming home from a full day's work and sifting through large amounts of homework which teachers often lazily set as a substitute for, rather than an addition to, classroom work.

There are few things more infuriating than asking a child what he or she did in school today, only to be told they spent the afternoon watching a video. Here's a radical idea. Why don't you teach them maths during the day, and we can watch videos with them at home in the evening?

In a survey published on Friday, 98pc of Irish secondary school teachers actually had the cheek to complain that they took work home with them, as if marking a few essays in the evening was an unreasonable intrusion on their valuable time.

They're not the only ones to bring work home; and unlike teachers, most other workers don't have extremely long holidays by way of compensation, or the same job security.

Three quarters of teachers in the same survey even cited the introduction of new technology as a cause of stress.

Well, join the club. There isn't a profession which hasn't changed in recent years as a result of computerisation. Journalism has certainly been transformed. No doubt it would be lovely to go back to the days of manual typewriters and hand-set letterpress printing, but it ain't gonna happen. In the private sector, workers recognise such ongoing retraining as a part of the deal. Who honestly expects a job which they entered in their mid-20s to remain the same until they retire 40 years later?

Certain teaching unions, that's who, two of which have forbidden their members from taking part in training programmes or "any other activity" related to the proposed Junior Cert changes. Worse, they're refusing to hold another ballot on industrial action, despite the fact the proposals on the table now from Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan are quite different from those in place when the last vote was taken a year ago.

Talks resume in a few weeks, but all the signs are that the dispute will drag on into 2016 at least, affecting hundreds of thousands more children and their parents.

If this is what happens when a few changes are made to Junior Cert, imagine the chaos when mollycoddled Irish teachers finally realise the extent of reforms needed to drag the country's education system up to the standards of competitors overseas.

Our students are terrible at foreign languages. Proficiency in maths continues to slip. In 2010, most shockingly, pupils become the first generation in Ireland to have lower levels of literacy than their parents.

Ask teachers to take some responsibility for this mess, rather than blaming resources, and they throw their rattles out of the pram, having accepted as gospel the unions' complaint that they're disproportionately disadvantaged by conditions of employment.

Friday's survey - commissioned by unions, surprise, surprise - even contained a priceless comment from one respondent who summed up the challenges of the job as "trying to teach while juggling home life and keeping up to date with technology and new methodologies." It's called real life, dear. It's where we all live.

Sunday Independent

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