Tuesday 21 January 2020

Mary Kenny: Teachers worth their pay, but bar should be set high for their aspirations

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It is a well-established fact that Irish politicians are paid more than most others in Europe (and that the Taoiseach, with €257,000, has the highest salary of any European political leader, including Angela Merkel).

And now it has been disclosed that primary school teachers in Ireland are among the best paid in the world: their starting salary is €32,000 annually, rising gradually to nearly €60,000 at the top of the scale. This is well above the European average.

However, in contrast to the politicians, I would suggest that teachers are well worth their remuneration. An incompetent politician is unlikely to do lasting damage to any individual in the country, even if he -- or she -- makes a hames of their own portfolio. But every teacher has the capacity to mark a child for life.

A teacher is almost as important as a parent in a child's life. The influence of a teacher will shape both character and career. The encouragement of a good teacher can be a lifelong inspiration, while the destructive impact of a bad teacher can cripple potential.

Politicians may have power over budgets and policies, and can prove to be good or bad stewards of their constituency, or of their wider parliamentary remit, but seldom is their influence as important as that of a teacher.

I was thinking about this recently when listening to an edition of Desert Island Discs, the BBC programme which invites a guest to choose eight records to bring to a notional desert island. The guest was a renowned piano teacher, Dame Fanny Waterman.

The way she spoke about teaching music was inspiring. I stopped the car just to listen and admire -- even envy -- that inspiration. She loved her subject. She adored imparting to young people the beauty of music. To see a young person respond to both the beauty -- and the discipline -- of piano music was reward enough to this remarkable teacher.

My mind went back to the piano lessons of my childhood, and the sour and discontented woman -- now long dead -- whose main method of 'teaching' music was to rap a child sharply over the knuckles with a pencil at every error. Doubtless I was a difficult pupil, idle and disobedient. But a good teacher should, surely, look on the difficult child as a challenge.

And it's not that I think rapping over the knuckles counts as corporal punishment, or some form of abuse, as the fashionable view might be today; far worse than a -little light physical chastisement is a grim and discouraging attitude.

And worse than that is the inability to communicate any enthusiasm for the subject matter. If you teach music, teach the love of music. If you teach maths, speak about the mystique and philosophy of mathematics. If you teach language, be passionate about it.

On the whole, the nuns I encountered in my convent schools were, at least, committed to what they were doing. Irish teaching nuns were, in those years, often the daughters of strong farmers who had probably sacrificed a decent dowry and promising marriage prospects to enter a convent. With that sacrifice went a sense of commitment that was transmitted to their pupils and charges.

It was the lay teachers who were so mediocre. These were often unhappy and discontented women who had drifted into teaching because they had few other choices, and, by middle age, had internalised the mean-spirited stigma once manifest against the 'old maid'.

There were exceptions, and occasionally you would encounter an eccentric teacher who, in her own quirky way, burned with a passion for her subject. There was a history teacher who was an extreme Irish nationalist, and a worshipper of 18th-century Germany. Her views were decidedly fanatical and she ended up as a batty old recluse, but she did have a driven compulsion to transmit what she loved to youngsters, and that was a lot better than the sour indifference of many others. (Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a fabulous text about the impact that a beguiling, if politically perverse, teacher can have on a child.)

So my view is that teachers, however indulgent their holidays seem to the rest of us, are worthy of their pay, in both primary and secondary education. But the bar should be set high for their aspirations -- they should be expected to bring commitment and high standards to their vocation. And school heads should be able to let go a lacklustre teacher.

Teacher training should discourage individuals from going into the profession unless they have that positive sense of commitment.

It's not good enough to teach just because you can't think of any better career path.

Despite the difficulties of the times we live in, women -- and men, too -- have an awful lot more career choices today than when the ghastly Miss Murray sat at the piano all day rapping recalcitrant kids over the knuckles.

W

Irish Independent

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