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Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 22 August, 2019

Column: If teachers are overpaid, why am I waitressing to support myself?

Education will shape Ireland’s future – but with disappearing jobs and growing classes, teaching in a recession is no picnic, writes Polly Donoghue.

Polly Donoghue

ANYBODY READING THE headlines following the release of the OECD Education at a Glance report earlier this month probably thinks that, as a secondary school teacher, I am overpaid and underworked.

I am one of over a quarter of second-level teachers in Ireland currently in temporary employment, paid according to how many hours I teach. I am underworked – because I cannot get enough work. At the moment, I have just ten hours teaching work a week. As well as those hours, I try to pick up casual substitute work when I can and I work part-time in a local restaurant.

The recent headlines didn’t mention teachers like me or the many teaching graduates who are unemployed. They didn’t note that teachers earn 12 per cent less than comparable graduates in Ireland, nor did they point out that new teachers’ pay has been slashed by 25 per cent since the figures were compiled. Those facts characterise the true situation for teachers in Ireland.

Teachers and teaching are the most important influences on students’ educational outcomes. That fact has been highlighted in numerous reports including the OECD study Teachers Matter. Meanwhile, the recent ESRI report From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School: A Longitudinal Study of Sixth Year Students found that students consider the most effective teachers to be those who are prepared, patient, willing to explain, and who treat them with respect and care.

Unfortunately, it is becoming more and more difficult to give that kind of attention to students. Schools have fewer resources than they have had in decades following successive budget cutbacks to education. At a time when the need to support all students is most pressing, resource teachers have been withdrawn, the pupil-teacher ratio increased, capitation funding cut, and grants withdrawn. As a result, class sizes are increasing, subjects are being dropped, higher and ordinary level students are being taught together, and in some cases different years are being taught together.

Teaching is a job I love, but not one I can rely on

The teachers I had during my school experience had a huge influence on my educational achievement and career. I got into teaching to have that same impact on my students. Teaching is a job I love, but with only ten hours a week, jobs under threat, and no promotional prospects following the moratorium on promotional posts, it’s not a career I can rely on.

That reality is far from the impression I had of teaching when I chose to purse it as a career; it is far from the view many still have of the profession. Of course the landscape has changed utterly for all professions over the last number of years; people are struggling across all sectors – teachers see that daily through the hundreds of families we come into contact with who cannot afford books, uniforms or other expenses.

Quality education is the most effective means to break the poverty cycle and to prepare for an uncertain future. Each child gets just one chance at a formative education. Chipping away at the only education system they will ever experience puts current and subsequent generations at a disadvantage. I am lucky to have gone though the education system before cutbacks put it in jeopardy. My education is my greatest asset; it gives me the best chance to adapt to this recession.

We need our education system to prepare students to be adaptable, active learners, ready for a changing environment. For that reason, the aims of the Junior Cycle reform reported this week are commendable. But it would be naïve and dangerous to try to implement such changes to an education system already at breaking point without providing required additional resources and teachers.

The rhetoric surrounding the Junior Cycle reform has highlighted one important truth: a student’s secondary school experience will influence the direction their life takes. It will affect not only their exam results or college and career prospects, but what skills they develop, how they view learning and education, and how they understand society and the world around them. Teachers are doing what they can to continue to provide this vital foundation within an underfunded system. But it’s certainly not easy work.

Polly Donoghue teaches in St Raphaela’s Secondary School in Stillorgan, Dublin.

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Polly Donoghue

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