English teacher Evelyn O’Connor has written an open letter to the Minister of Education Ruairi Quinn about her fears and hopes for the education sector in Ireland.
My daughter Hazel (5) and I recently had an interesting exchange concerning our education system which I feel compelled to share with you. To grasp the true beauty of this exchange, please take a moment to study the image below.
Hazel: What are the kids doing mammy?
Mammy: They’re thinking inside the box.
Hazel: I thought they were sleeping?
Mammy: (spluttering into mug and laughing) some of them might be!
Hazel: I’m going to draw in eyes so they look like they’re awake.
Mammy: OK, good idea.
Hazel: Can I draw in the boxes?
Hazel: What do you want them to be thinking?
Mammy: (who is also a teacher) Anything they want!
Hazel: (drawing) This boy is thinking about a cat zebra.
Hazel: (whispering) …and he’s dreaming about being on a boat!
Mammy: (smiling) What are the others dreaming about?
Hazel: (drawing slowly, concentrating, until finally…) A dog with a bunny tail, a stripy cat, an alien and this girl is thinking inside the circle.
Mammy: Why is the teacher cutting the circles into boxes? (WARNING: leading question alert:) Is it so that they all think the same thing?
Hazel: They’re not all thinking the same thing so it doesn’t matter if they think in circles or boxes. (Putting down pen decisively) Can I have some chocolate buttons?
Mammy: ok sweetheart, but only if you give me a hug first!
A few days later my daughter started school. I want her time in school to be wonderful. I want her teachers to care about her education. All of my experience tells me that the vast majority of teachers she encounters will care about her and about her learning, even if at times she doesn’t particularly care about her learning herself.
Five days into Junior Infants as we sat at the table doing her modest homework, she told me she needed to practice her sounds and her new letter but she didn’t need to do her colouring because the teacher wouldn’t look at it.
Some parents would tut tut at this revelation, I only smiled because:
(a) I like the sound of this teacher. The phonics matter, the colouring not so much. Time and resources are finite, and this teacher has 30 five and six year olds in a mixed class of Junior and Senior Infants. That is not something I would sign up for! Yet every night as my daughter is falling asleep she is practicing “guh guh guh, sss sss sss, ah ah ah“. The teacher is doing a bloody great job and she’d better watch out or I may just hug her at the parent-teacher meetings!
(b) Hazel is already looking for shortcuts. Lol! Less than a week into her formal schooling, she has internalised the notion that if there is no audience, then there is no point. This scares me as a secondary school teacher, because for me to give each of my students just ten minutes of my time a week would amount to 33hours 2o minutes. But what each of them writes in a week would take a hell of a lot longer than 10 minutes to read.
[c.f. my calculations from a previous blog post on the new JC English specification:
22 hrs class teaching,
33 hrs individualised feedback of 10mins each x 200 pupils
12 hrs class preparation (a vast underestimation)
5 hrs subject department/croke park/school self evaluation/literacy and numeracy/ICT
3 hrs extra-curricular
= 75 hour working week
However, despite the challenges my job presents, very occasionally it seems like you, Dear Minister, understand the difficulties teachers face.. On the 8th of September 2013, a Sunday morning, I was sitting at our kitchen table preparing classes for the week ahead with the radio on in the background. I heard your dulcet tones and asked my husband to lean over from washing the dishes at the sink and turn it up. I was so delighted to hear you say something positive about me and the work that I do that I scribbled down your words, then typed them and tweeted them to the world. (If you need help with your PR in future, please don’t hesitate to contact me!)
The following evening I had hoped to take part in #edchatie for its 100th anniversary but it had been a very long day. We don’t often say it to the world but teaching – like nursing and social work – is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting and as you already know, we now work under “extremely difficult circumstances”. I fell asleep putting my daughter to bed.
Nonetheless, I woke up just in time to catch the last five minutes of the twitter chat. The topic was “Why Teach?” and people were finishing the night reflecting on what was the best part of their job. Due to my tardiness, my only contribution for the night was this:
So if I love my job, despite the challenges, and you think I’m doing a good job, why am I writing to you? Right now, as you observed, we’ve got an excellent system (cf: http://brianmlucey.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/why-do-we-hate-teachers/).
Well, since our decision to reject the Haddington Road Agreement, I feel you have forgotten your earlier wisdom. In fact, it’s quite ironic that at a time when anti-bullying procedures are being put in place in all schools, you attempt to bully us into submission by threatening us with compulsory redundancies. It’s even more ironic to listen to you and your spin doctors telling us to “think of the children“.
I do think about my students. All the bloody time. I twist myself up in knots trying to think of new ways to do my job better.
For me, this is not about pay
For me personally, and I can only speak for myself, this is not really about my pay. And no, we’re not rich and yes we do have a house in negative equity, in Ennis, that’s worth at least €100,000 less than it was when we bought it. I drive a battered ’06 Toyota Aygo which may or may not pass the NCT next January. My last holiday was to London for the weekend and I stayed with my sister. We’re not wealthy and of course no-one wants to take a pay cut. But we’re managing and money is not what motivates me in life, so we just get on with it and every month that there’s money in the bank at the end of the month is a good month.
For me, personally, this is not about money, this is about my working conditions. It’s about the fact that your government seem to want to make it impossible for me to do my job to the best of my ability.
There are two things which are finite in my job: resources and time. When both of these things start to shrink, I get worse at my job and it upsets me. A lot.
Let’s start with resources. You’re tired of hearing us rabbit on about class size but we won’t shut up because class size matters. The more students I teach the harder it is to offer them individualised feedback yet all of the research states that continuous quality feedback is the hallmark of great teaching and real learning.
The other resource all schools need is TEACHERS. A friend of mine who teaches in London recently told me they have 52 staff and 400 pupils in his school. We have 34 staff (including our wonderful school secretary and caretaker and our cleaner who works part-time) and 475 pupils. That says it all really. That’s 18 more staff for 75 fewer pupils. They have lab technicians and a full time IT person; they have someone in charge of curriculum and innovation. When teachers take on extra duties their teaching hours are reduced to allow them the time to work on these initiatives without compromising the quality of their preparation, teaching and feedback.
In Ireland, rather than give more time, we used to offer more money. Now, with the moratorium on posts of responsibility we offer neither time nor compensation.
I love teaching
Right now alongside my teaching workload I’m working on our school’s Literacy Strategy, working with colleagues on a whole school approach to IT, I’m Head of the English Department, I’m trying to get to grips with the New Junior Cycle English specification – as yet still in draft form – due to be implemented from Sept 2014 but in-service has yet to commence; I’m liaising with the local radio station to give Transition Years an opportunity to learn about broadcasting and I’m trying to tune out the voice of my daughter who has said more than once in the last few weeks “mammy, you’re always working” after I have yet again fobbed her off saying “I just need to finish this sweetheart“.
So it’s taken me a while to write to you Dear Minister because I’m busy and I’m tired. I love my job but your policies are making it very, very difficult for me to be good at it. Today I’ve got poetry essays to correct and a daughter to play with and washes to hang on the line and classes to prepare for tomorrow and I have yet to eat breakfast but you’ve been on my mind so I decided to get this letter out of the way first. It hasn’t been easy to write but I’m glad I did. There’s a mantra I have stuck up in my classroom “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m saying it’s going to be worth it“. Writing my thoughts into words has been worth the effort because it will give me the strength I need to resist the negative propaganda which will engulf our profession in the next weeks and months and possibly even years to come.
Next Wednesday I have the privilege of returning to my Alma Mater NUIG to address the first ever gathering of the newly established Education Society so I need to prepare my presentation for that. I doubt I’ll have time to veg in front of the X-factor tonight. I’m not being paid to address the Education society (like everything else in education, they are no doubt chronically underfunded) but as I said already, money is not what motivates me.
Really, we both want the same thing
Next Friday I’ll be heading to Dublin immediately after work to attend a CESI meet and to prepare for Feilte, a showcase of innovative teaching organised by the Teaching Council for World Teacher’s Day on Saturday. I won’t be breaking the terms of the ASTI industrial action because these are not Croke Park hours, nor are they nationally mandated in-service. Believe it or not, events organised by teachers for teachers are enjoyable and VOLUNTARY. Yes, despite the profound mistrust of teachers evidenced in the notorious and soon to be defunct Croke Park hours, when you trust us and give us a choice, we actually volunteer for CPD. It’s forcing us all to be in the same place at the same time doing the same thing (i.e. Croke Park hours) even though our needs are completely different that we hate and find patronising beyond belief.
I was also asked to go on national radio next Friday morning to discuss World Teacher’s Day and to offer some balance to the relentless negativity around teaching which has swept through the media since we rejected the Haddington Road Agreement but I turned them down because they wanted me in studio, which would mean taking a full day away from my classroom. I’m not willing to do that. If they’ll do the interview over the phone, I’m game because I do think it’s important that the public gets reminded that we’re not the enemy. Teachers are just ordinary people, many of us parents, trying to do a good job. And if we say enough is enough, allow yourself to think outside of the box for a moment and consider that this might not be about money. This might be about far more important things than that.
Meanwhile industrial action looms and you will dig your heels in and we will dig our heels in and God knows where we’ll all end up. It’s sad really because we both want the same thing. We just don’t agree on how to achieve it.
Evelyn O'Connor teaches English in Mt St Michael, Claremorris. She won Teacher of the Year in 2012 and this summer spent a week training to become an Apple Distinguished Educator. She is an enthusiastic member of CESI (the Computers in Education Sociery of Ireland) and when she's not working she's a wife, a mum and a blogger on www.leavingcertenglish.net. You can also find her on Twitter @evelynoconnor