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Column: I don't teach for 'good money' or 'cushy holidays'

One of the biggest challenges teachers face is the public’s perception of them – but I’ll tell you the real reason I teach: I want to help young people, writes Gerry Sutton.

Gerry Sutton

TO DESCRIBE THE life of second level education as hectic is an understatement. Teaching was once said to be a vocation, I like to think of teaching as a profession of great importance. I struggle to think of any other profession which has a greater impact upon the lives of children. As a colleague recently said to me, we are in the business of educating children and unfortunately that business has increasingly come under threat in recent years.

The average teacher (and I use that term very loosely here) at second level works 22 hours a week, 167 days a year spread over three terms. To clarify, this is what second level teachers are paid for and to further shatter the myth, the pay for 167 days contact time at 22 hours per week is paid over a 12 month period. Now that that chestnut has been thoroughly roasted let’s discuss an average teacher’s working day and week and the challenges that entails.

Fantasy and reality

An average teacher will have roughly 33 contact class periods per week in which they are expected to deliver the curriculum of their chosen subject. These curricula are laid down by the Department of Education and Science and there are detailed learning outcomes, teaching strategies, aims, objectives and many other wonderful aspirations which are designed to help the children of the nation obtain the best possible future. The reality is far removed from the fantasy.

Teachers are paid to deliver curricula that are cumbersome, ill defined and often do not serve the needs of the students. The delivery and implementation of the recent Project Maths scheme is just one example of the unplanned and haphazard approach to education in Ireland today. The discussions and plans for the proposed Junior Cycle reform are also frightening and I shudder to consider what will emerge from the mind of the minister next. Thirty-three class periods is the basic minimum of a teachers working life.

The challenges associated with teaching a class in any of Ireland’s second level schools deserves a dissertation all of its own. A class teacher is expected to manage, monitor and control the behaviour of increasingly larger class sizes due to budgetary cuts. While managing a class of 30 adolescents is do-able it is difficult, especially considering the challenges of delivering the curriculum, dealing with differentiation in the classroom, learning difficulties of some students, embedding key skills, co-operative learning (group work), sharing learning outcomes and aims, assessment for learning and homework. All in 40 minutes. Nine times a day. Five days a week. On average.

Extra-curricular activities

None of this includes the hours, upon hours of preparation time. Detailing schemes of work and preparing handouts, notes and basic educational material that every student not only needs but deserves. Simple things like organising a class room to make it a comfortable and accessible learning environment and to promote teaching and learning takes more than a few hours a week, it takes months or years to get right.

The correction and assessment of homework, which is probably the most important part of the job, takes hours a week. Children and young adults only learn through their mistakes and rely on the feedback from their teachers.

Then there are the extra-curricular activities that many teachers engage in, in their own free time. This may often entail washing jerseys for a team or travelling great distances with a debate or quiz team, staying after hours to prepare for a music event or organise field trips. This is all happening right now in Ireland. This work goes on the length and breadth of the country – largely unnoticed – just like the challenges that the teaching profession are now enduring.

Arguably the most pressing challenges facing the Irish education system at the moment are the erosion of the status of the profession and the lack of finance.

Firstly, teaching is no longer an attractive profession for young Irish students. The illusion of all the holidays and the ‘handy’ life has been thoroughly shattered. The inept nature of the teacher unions and the complete lack of understanding of successive ministers and governments in terms of the basic needs and provisions of Irish education are staggering.

Secondly, increased class sizes, a freeze on recruitment and the lack of adequate professional oversight has, I fear, irreparably damaged the morale of many within education. A professional body was formed to regulate and run the teaching profession, financed by teachers, many of whom have yet to see the benefits of this organisation.

The public’s perception of teaching

The biggest problem is the public perception of the teaching profession. The “excessive” holidays that teachers “enjoy” is a contentious issue for many people and is a complex issue all of its own and requires a far greater discussion. The other target is the ‘job for life’ argument. This is absolutely ludicrous. There are thousands of teachers working in Ireland today with little or no security of tenure in their employment and no prospects of this changing in the near future. Education is the backbone of any economy and sadly the lack of adequate investment in the futures of Irish children is both short-sighted and irresponsible.

With all this in mind, I hear you ask, why do you teach? The simple answer is I, like many of my colleagues, know nothing else but the need and the desire to help.

From my own perspective there, is nothing better than being there in the moment when a child of 15 or 18 opens their Junior or Leaving Certificate results. To see that unconstrained and pure joy, in that moment, makes everything worthwhile. It’s not the student who gets the A, because you maybe always hoped he/she would, it’s the lad who got the C, the lad who worked so hard and struggled through every lesson, assignment and exam and drank in your every recommendation and when there was nothing left to give achieved the seemingly impossible.

That is job satisfaction. That is why I teach. That is what gives me hope.

Gerry Sutton has been a teacher at second level for 11 years with a Master’s and PhD in History.

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Gerry Sutton

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