Saturday 14 December 2019

We got your message loud and clear, Sir

In an oestrogen-heavy environment, a muscle man with a megaphone was bound to cause a stir.

INSISTENT: Andrew Phelan spoke out about the ‘dismantling’ of the traditional education system. Photo: Patrick Browne
INSISTENT: Andrew Phelan spoke out about the ‘dismantling’ of the traditional education system. Photo: Patrick Browne
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

You hear your name called in a familiar, booming voice and for a fleeting moment you stop dead in your tracks. You've been caught mitching, again. You scamper down the stairs trying to blend in with the wall, hastily composing a dodgy excuse ("Sir! I'm an adult with a job now, Sir!"), but it doesn't matter, because you've been seen. This is going on your permanent record.

But then you glance down at the programme in your hand – Asti Conference 2014 – and are reassured that despite the fact that you're still in a suffocating shirt and jacket, this isn't that recurrent Leaving Cert dream after all. A group of men that had the power to banish you to detention are giving a cheery greeting now.

They look as relieved to be away from the Battle of the Boyne and rote learning as you are. And as much as you would dearly love to use their slanderous nicknames, passed down from generation to generation, you must now call them by their first names.

Even that feels like a flouting of the rules. There is something exhilarating about a teacher, a figure that looms large over childhood dreams, being brought down to eye level. The change in perspective is slightly thrilling. That's why, without fail, every year the headlines about their union conferences portray them as pupils misbehaving and politicians like Ruairi Quinn know to tap into this by slyly suggesting that teachers need to do less moaning and brush up on their maths. It's as though an entire nation rises up and agrees that its go-to caricature of teachers is that of the juvenile miscreant.

As I'm writing this a picture editor for another newspaper is sitting near me looking for two pictures – of "someone asleep and someone causing uproar". Next year the Asti might save us all the imaginative leap and just have a dress code of short trousers, slingshots and dunce hats. It could be like one of those 'Skooldayz' discos that were popular a few years ago, but with added strike threats and sarcastic applause.

There has been a lot of talk this year about teaching being a "feminised" profession (making it sound like it's been taking hormones on its road to full gender reassignment). So in this oestrogen-heavy environment a muscle man with a megaphone was bound to cause a stir. Andrew Phelan, a PE teacher from Waterford (but teaching in Lucan), is the buachaill dana of the week and, depending on who you talk to, either a disruptive influence on his peers or the coolest kid in the class.

His amplified heckling of Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn was met with thin-lipped disapproval in the press and weary eye rolling from Asti leadership who portrayed him and his cohorts as a radical fringe group – a kind of Provisional Asti, if you will.

But there's a sense around the hall, which gave Quinn an extremely frosty reception, that he might have done the right thing the wrong way. For a group that spends a good deal of their day bringing children to heel, teachers seem to have a certain regard for judicious disobedience.

Phelan looks a little shook up the day after the deed but is refreshingly unrepentant. "This is a forum for debate and that's exactly what I was engaged in," he told the Sunday Independent.

"There's only so far you get with slow clapping or folding your arms. Teachers are committing suicide out there, they can't pay their bills, they are in danger of defaulting on their mortgages. Would I want my pupils interrupting me with a megaphone? No. But would I put them in the kind of position where they have no security in life and continually worsening working conditions? Also no. This is a work show for [Quinn], but it's life and death stuff for us."

For a delinquent pupil, surprisingly articulate then; perhaps there's hope for him and his megaphone diplomacy.

Phelan was careful to distance himself from threats that were made online to head boy and Asti general secretary Pat King, but to some these seemed beside the point. Several teachers I spoke to wondered if the revelation of these threats and the claims of "bullying" were themselves a distraction from bigger battles the union has lost or is losing. In recent months everyone from Alan Shatter to John Waters have let it be known that they've been a target for the lunatic fringe, thereby assuming the mantle of victimhood and implying that their opponents hardly have their troops under control. As with those two figures, sympathy seemed somewhat thin on the ground for King.

Indeed, compassion for the suffering teachers generally wasn't very much in evidence. You could see some of the assembled press playing their tiny violins as the teachers sang their litany of sorrows. Insecurity for junior members of the workforce, lack of anything resembling a proper pension, decreased pay and increased workload – some of the key complaints teachers have about their work conditions – are all par for the course in modern journalism. And, unlike the rest of us, secondary teachers have roughly four months a year to relax, regroup and perhaps get to work on an entirely different career if they so choose.

And yet looking around the hall in Wexford it was difficult to believe that this tweedy assembly truly represented the worst of the spoiled public sector. The cars parked outside White's Hotel were dismal little hatchbacks and sensible family estates. The faces inside had a touch of Charles Lamb's superannuated man "without hope of release or respite".

There must be something about teaching, with its endless repetition and emphasis on crowd control, that causes the soul to age in a way unknown to other professions. Perhaps they need all that time off after all.

We might not begrudge them one week of laughing from the back of the class at a distant authority figure then.

Some have wondered why the Minister for Education bothers to come down to the conferences, year after year, only to get slow-clapped and heckled. But perhaps Quinn, in playing his part in the Punch and Judy show of the last few days, had teachers' best interest at heart after all.

He was needed as a foil this week and played his role perfectly. The controversies and bluster may be a tiresome sideshow to many of the teaching rank and file, but the theatre of the event vaulted the conference and the concerns of our teachers on to the front page of every national paper.

It's a reality of the classroom that neediest young people get the most attention. And in Wexford the message was megaphone-clear: the problem children of Haddington Road aren't going away.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss