Wrote this in October in the Irish Times on the ASTI’s industrial action.
In my parents’ house there’s a battered songbook, every chord I strained to play, but it wasn’t their simplicity that tore at me, it was the not so simple words. From that book, and a vinyl copy of the first album I learned poetry was complicated but okay, it might even make you more attractive it seemed, the first things I wanted to be were a poet or a teacher. Suzanne. When I studying for my Leaving Cert, the second time, my girlfriend was gone, my friends were almost all in college and I sat at home for a year studying, but mainly listening. I remember proudly staying up until four in the morning at the end of December, just to prove I could. In university I bought cassettes to devour on the lonely bus home. A Singer Must Die. A student must learn.
And the I took the the novels on trains through the great cities of Budapest, Prague and Vienna, with its hundreds of windows and concert halls. After that I read Lorca, I wrote my own novel and settled into my life teaching poetry and singing the songs with my brother. Who by Fire.
Out of nowhere I recall putting on headphones on the streets of Sydney and hearing his song. Take This Longing.
When we first lived in this house I used to lie in the bath singing. Lady Midnight. Lover Lover Lover. When the time came here I began to sing the songs to my daughter. And another. And another. Hallelujah.
In the meantime my brother stopped singing and playing and it was from Anthem came the words my Dad chose to remember him from the altar on his anniversary.
There was the night I spent with my Dad when in Kilmainham listening like pilgrims to words that had only before come from speakers. And remembered growing up with this music, these songs leading us through our highs and lows. Through the rain this fabulous band raised us up, as religious as music gets. A Thousand Kisses Deep.
So now at every traffic cone my kids pass we salute and say ‘hiya Lenny’.
Two years ago I bought a blue raincoat on West 23rd Street New York, the street of the Chelsea Hotel, it hangs in the hall now as I write here in the kitchen and the headphones have the sublime Webb Sisters unfolding If It Be Your Will: If it be your will/That a voice be true/From this broken hill/I will sing to you/From this broken hill/All your praises they shall ring/If it be your will/To let me sing.
And I’m weeping because you let me sing.
Why is the general membership of the ASTI is so disconnected from the structures that make decisions for them? Why are members so willing to hand the running of the union over to the few (often unelected and most definitely unknown) members who are ‘active’? At my estimation there are about 800 such active members in an organisation of 17,000, less than five percent. Among them those of us over forty are far more well represented than those under forty and newly entering the profession. This is unhealthy at best.
The relationship between the teacher in the classroom and the ASTI is broken and those teachers are ill-served by leaders who seem to put crisis before education, using the ASTI as a vehicle to promote the political views of the few over the good of the whole teaching profession. When the aim is to perpetuate crisis over a long period, as is evident in recent weeks, incurable structural problems start to emerge, but go unaddressed. The crisis consumes everything, so any attempt to fix ‘peripheral’ issues is ignored. The time is long overdue to modernise and improve the structures of the ASTI and to improve the quality and depth of information members receive about their union.
The ASTI has no collected, or published, set of principles, so it’s easy to assert what the Association stands for without really knowing. (A guide could be found in Rule 5 of the ASTI Constitution and in my next post in this threepart series, part one is here.) The levers of decisionmaking need to be in the possession of those in whose interests the union acts. That is not the case in the ASTI. From schools to Branches, from Branches to CEC (Central Executive Committee), between CEC and SC, and between SC and the Officers of the union, communication is broken, has broken or will break down in the near future. We can see this very clearly in the claim recently that huge majorities have supported action taken by SC, when the type of action was only decided after the ballot was held and voters, in the view of many, made their decisions without a full explanation of their consequences.
The task of being School Steward should be rewarded by waiving their subscriptions, but it will only evolve into a functioning position when information flows freely between Head Office and schools. Facilitating collaboration between Stewards to solve common problems could be achieved if they were encouraged to attend training after their terms end to give feedback on what they experienced. Each school should be visited at least every three years by officials given the specific job of organising in schools, so that if there’s war they get the feeling of the footsoldiers, and if there’s peace they can share the credit. If you don’t talk to members you can easily pretend you know what they think, as de Valera said: ‘if I wish to know what the Irish want, I look into my own heart’, same goes for many making decisions in the ASTI.
Free membership should be extended to everyone who has qualified since 2011 and earns an unequal salary through changes to their pay scales. They aren’t joining in large numbers now and this would both give them a voice and focus the minds of everyone to move to full equality fast. It makes sense to give anyone who works in a temporary position membership for a nominal fee. Though giving an important voice to people who have given huge service to the ASTI over the years, retired membership should no longer be free, retired teachers do not have the same stake in the profession as those who are in still teaching in classrooms.
Members do not attend Branch meetings in numbers, we all lament this but nobody does anything about it. If Head Office had information on when meetings were being held, members in that Branch could be alerted by text, email or social media. To revive the Branches it will be necessary to open up what they do to include meetings beyond ordinary business: external speakers, specific meetings for new entrants or subject groups. It should be a requirement that regional SC Representatives and CEC members attend all Branch meetings to answer for and defend the actions taken on behalf of ASTI members. Ultimately the ASTI should be following the best practice of some of our sister unions abroad and providing CPD for teachers. I’ll go into that in more detail in a later post.
The ASTI has fifteen committees varying in size from CEC at 180 to smaller ad hoc five member bodies. The committee structure would be far more effective if it was used as a way to bring new activists into the ASTI. It isn’t. Members shouldn’t be allowed to serve on more than one committee at a time and six continuous years should the limit for membership. With an issue like pay equality, the input of those committees should be sought when deciding core policy.
CEC suffers from it’s size and attendances have fallen dramatically of late. Often meetings start late, run on too long with repetitive speeches and questions asked in the form of statements. Not enough information is given to CEC members in advance of their meetings, my view of this is very clear: insufficient information means emotional decisions. When you know this it becomes easier to understand why CEC makes curious decisions (recently it decided not to give members full information on the implications of a ballot on Croke Park Hours). On many occasions the tension and distrust between CEC and SC is seen by the unwillingness of SC members to stand over their decisions or opinions at CEC. Then again, CEC is also frequently undermined by some of it’s own members who regard SC and the officers, no matter who they are, as the enemy.
Standing Committee should confine itself to strategizing and planning forward. SC meetings often become bogged down before they start, disputes over minutes and correspondence often take up a large part of the monthly meetings. It would help if documents circulated in advance were taken as read and not discussed in detail. The Arrangements and Procedures for Standing Committee (a document plainly unfamiliar to some member of SC itself as the provisions are regularly ignored) makes it clear that individual member or school issues shouldn’t be raised, but they often are, wasting time on Industrial Relations issues better dealt with by IR staff. SC could be a huge source of ideas on education and industrial relations, but the falling interest in even running for election to the committee is not a good sign and only about half a dozen of members went through elections to get there.
The Presidency should last for two years. It should never been seen as a reward for service to the ASTI, and the process of selection (which centres on a Vice-Presidential race one year before) should be capable of expansion to a hustings including addressing members directly at meetings in advance of a choice being made.
The ASTI Annual Convention should be completely reorganised. It has become tired, repetitive and sterile. Little that takes place at Convention affects the work of teachers in classrooms. Few topical issues can be discussed because the gap between the submission of Convention motions in November and the Convention itself at Easter can be up to four months. Motions are almost never contentious. Deeper discussion on topics out of which motions could be proposed would be far better. As Convention goes on the numbers in attendance falls, last year there were only 50% of the opening day attendance present at the end. Keeping members involved and interested until the third day could be done by holding all elections on the final day of Convention instead of towards the beginning.
The appointment of a General Secretary is the most important task the executive undertakes. They, or their proxies, should be informed in their decision by expert legal and industrial relations opinion and recruitment experts should be consulted at every stage of the process.
As the staff of Head Office are the employees of the ASTI, they should be treated as any teacher would expect to be treated by their manager, employer or principal, anything less would be hypocritical.
Information is what teachers deal in, there should be no objection to providing members of the ASTI with as much information as they need about how the association works and the implications of the decisions we all make. If the members of the ASTI are to take control of the union again, they need to make it clear that they want to contribute to the direction the ASTI should move in. If they want to maintain the current direction, that’s fine, but I’d bet that with a deeper knowledge of the structures of the ASTI they will choose common sense and reform of those structures. If an opportunity is not taken, the balance will shift back to the old ruling class, which will reestablish its dominance.
The day will come when a crisis within the leadership causes them to split, fracture and turn against themselves. The crisis may be closer than we think.
CEC member 2003-16
Standing Committee 2011-16
ASTI member since 1993
Responses/comments welcome as always
This is a primer on how the ASTI got to where it is over the last few months.
First here’s my concession speech from last ASTI Convention after I lost the election for Vice President.
Then read a fact check of the current ASTI position.
In broader terms here are 4 things wrong with the ASTI (and one way to fix them).
This is why pay equality is the holy grail.
And finally on the anger of post-2011 teachers.
Child on Top of a Greenhouse
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!
Thursday was one of those days. One of those classes that just clicked and a group of 12 year olds, without knowing it gave their teacher the belief that good things can come from throwing the plan out the window.
We were reading Theodore Roethke‘s Child on Top of a Greenhouse, having spent the whole month on poetry. We started by linking Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with poems by William Carlos Williams and WH Auden about the painting. Looking at paintings is a great way into a poem, the visual, the narrative, the surface and the depth of a painting are great mirrors for how I want them to see a poem: what comes naturally in reading a painting can be taught quickly for a poem. You have to present them with the limitless possibilities in a piece of art: I tell them there are no wrong answers and no judgement but we’ll move ahead when we’re all happy with a suggestion. I like to introduce ‘the maybe’, ‘maybe he’s saying…’ maybe it shows…’
We wrote some poems, haikus about what we saw.
We moved on to First Steps by Van Gogh. I didn’t link this to a poem but used it for a writing exercise for homework and built on the still moment in a painting so we could discuss the stillness in a poem. I didn’t talk about it that way, but talked about a snapshot, or a selfie that captures a fleeting thing forever.
Then we went ‘under the surface’ The Road Not Taken: we discussed the ending first, where is Frost when he tells us the story?, how does he feel about it ?and then the choices he made, the choices we make. All very structured, me taking less of a lead, but still prodding their ideas along, them getting more confident.
Last week we tore into Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney to look at the senses and emotions in a seasonal poem that has all the heartbreak of youth, but still an adult’s view, looking back. The haikus they wrote, edited and tweeted in response are here.
So it was all going pretty well before we even got to Roethke. I wanted to do a mirroring exercise: take the poem and rewrite for yourself. That had to wait.
I opened with a joke in the first line, how does the wind billow out the back of your trousers? They smile but set me straight, it’s not flatulence it’s how high up he is! We talk about the onomatopoeic cracks under his feet as he realises how high up he is, we look for other onomatopoeic words. I explain what putty is (the generation gap!) and it’s all going fine. I think it is when we get to chrysanthemums that things take off. I say they are sometimes symbolic of death but I don’t know if that’s what Roethke has in mind. Someone says they’re half grown like the boy. Someone else says he’s going to get killed, not literally but throwing forward to the end, killed ‘like parents do'(!). Then we talk about sunlight and streaked glass, ‘the place the child was in’, ‘he’s up high, he can see stuff he doesn’t see when he’s down low’ and the transition into my favourite part of the poem is ready, so far: 90% their work. Look at those clouds, look at those trees, I say. ‘He can see new things’, ‘maybe he hasn’t noticed this stuff before’, ‘maybe he’s very still, because he doesn’t want to break the glass and everything in the sky is moving’ (no homework for you!), ‘the horses’ manes are like the trees in the wind’ ‘when you said about the chrysanthemums, they were half grown, maybe he isn’t going to be the same after this’, ‘maybe this is when he grows up’ (no homework for anyone!).
‘I think he mightn’t care about the adults pointing up’, ‘they aren’t just adults, it’s everyone’, why does he repeat everyone?, I ask, ‘for emphasis’ (love that), ‘but maybe it was a barbecue and all the neighbours are there, even his grandparents are pointing’ (beautiful). And then this clincher: ‘I don’t think he cares about them being angry.’ I push here, and they divide into two groups, some say ‘he does care, it brings him back down to earth’ (I don’t acknowledged this because I’m floating on air at that stage), some others say ‘maybe he’s a man now, writing this and he knows being up on the greenhouse is the right place to be’.
And I tell my students, twelve year old girls who rode the crest of this poem and didn’t blink an eye, that this has been the best class in my room for years. and as they’re leaving one turns to another and says ‘that was good, wasn’t it?, ‘yeah,’ comes the reply, like they can do this all the time.
And while this doesn’t happen every day, or even week, I’m the better for it, because it makes me reach, and they’re the better for it because it makes them think. I didn’t think once of outcomes, or objectives or process, but I was a teacher in the middle of it all.
The #edchatie discussion tonight was around the recent agreement between TUI, INTO and the DES and whether it would be accepted in a ballot. I haven’t read every tweet because I was inundated with replies to tweets I posted repeatedly asking the simple question: how will strike action, if it happens, move the ASTI closer to resolving the issue? I didn’t receive a single clear or worthwhile answer.
What is obvious is that post-2011 teachers are angry and want to direct that anger somewhere. However what is also evident is that they have been given false hope. They have been led to believe that their issue was the key to ASTI rejection of the Lansdowne Road Agreement and a strike will lead to a better deal for them. Neither of these assertions is true.
First the LRA rejection was never just about the pay scales of post-2011 teachers, unfortunately their issue is being used as a reason to cause chaos for political ends. Of 16 reasons to reject it, one referred to ‘newly appointed teachers’ in this publication.
And second any action will only lead us back to the agreement with the other teacher unions. Nobody has given even the tiniest reason to believe the DES will give a preferential deal to the ASTI that goes beyond what is agreed with the other unions already.
Post-2011 teachers will come to realise they have been overpromised. They have been told pay equality is a short hop away and that was never the case. Restoring pay, as every trade union knows, every union except ours, it seems, is a process that requires negotiation. Progress has been made, ignoring that is dishonest. No clear path to a solution on the issue has been provided by the leadership.
I believe in pay equality. But it cannot be achieved overnight, painful as that may be to hear. Using one group of teachers as pawns in a political game, using their righteous anger, is an unedifying spectacle to behold.
And by the way: if, as I believe to be the case, this agreement with TUI and INTO was shown to the ASTI, it should be put before members of CEC and ultimately put to a ballot.
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
The pay restoration agreement reached today between the INTO and TUI on one side and the DES and DPER is a major step towards returning to pay equality. The agreement does what many of us though would take years to achieve: it eliminates a pay scale introduced in 2012 for teachers who have been denied both their rightful pay and the allowances many of us enjoy as a right. The agreement does not achieve pay parity for all and both unions acknowledge this. But it eliminates the discrimination against anyone who has or will join the profession after 2012.
The difficulty for some will come from the belief that all the restoration could be achieved in one fell swoop. This view is unrealistic and teachers should be wary of those that offer simplistic solutions to complex problems: anyone who tells you they can achieve more than this by grandstanding and rejecting negotiation is just plain delusional.
The worst part of the agreement for me is that it doesn’t apply to every teacher.When I said above that it eliminates the discrimination against all post-2012, it doesn’t: ASTI members in that position will not be included. This after the leadership of the union having been offered a place at the negotiating table without prejudice, and after having sight of the agreement before it was announced. It saddens me to say that my union is doing a disservice to those teachers who could do with this pay increase and that the ASTI will predictably stand against this agreement in favour of continuing to ballot for strike action in the vain hope of getting more than the other two unions while remaining outside of a pay agreement.
This may not have been everything we wanted, but it is huge progress and, regrettably, today has been another dark day for the ASTI.