Separating education from teaching


I have to admit I’m finding the imminent return to school difficult this year.

It’s not the kids that are getting me down. I know how great my students can be, they constantly surprise me with their interest, enthusiasm and motivation. Well, some of them do. Some we never hear of again, but many who got their Leaving Certificate results last week come back and tell us how great school was. Oddly our only feedback comes from the people who used the system to their benefit, kind of like only getting insight into rail travel from trainspotters. But that’s not what’s troubling me.

It isn’t the pressure of a teacher’s daily work either. I’ve always been slow and careful about returning students work, it’s my biggest weakness in the classroom, but helping them to create a place where grades and points and the rest of your life all fit together is more important. I know after twenty years that the grade I give today is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy tomorrow. Trying to bridge the gap between a students perception of herself and what I think they can achieve is part of the reason I turn up for work every day.

It isn’t that I’m becoming institutionalised either. I’m lucky, I work with an amazing group of people who help each other when we’re struggling and never complain that I’ve eaten the same lunch every day for the last twelve years. Teachers are mostly amazing people, I love their energy, their support, their conscientiousness. I’m proud to say we take as much interest in the quiet kid’s dream as we do in those who would have gotten where they were going without any help.

Maybe it’s that I’ve been reading New Managerialism in Education which tells us about the insidious presence of the business model in Irish education. How the principles of the market are turning students and parents into customers and teachers into administrators and box tickers. Maybe it’s that the public discourse on education is now always about process and not experience or knowledge. Measuring not understanding: the neoliberal agenda has arrived where those who don’t measure up or who don’t understand are airbrushed from the narrative of education, excluded from success.
For teachers, practically it means longer hours, more competition, less care, less time. This is government policy, that’s depressing. It seems austerity or ‘the current crisis’ have provided an opportunity for the civil service to replace the cultural hegemony of the Catholic Church. (As an aside Ruairi Quinn’s crusade to end ‘the Catholic influence’ over Irish education is never challenged with the question: what influence will replace it? I teach in a Catholic school but I don’t teach Catholicism, and I don’t want to teach Quinnism either, thank you very much.) It’s all about control, and education should not be about control, it should be about freedom. It’s also narrowing the debate: even within education the discussion now is all about how to limit this influence, not how to reverse it.

We’re getting to the heart of it now.

The public perception of teachers is dismal. Editorials refer to teachers as ‘Impossibilists’ (no link to that!). The cheerleading for reform in the curriculum for its own sake is notable for the absence of reference to teacher opinion and is frightening. The ignorance of many who comment on education when it comes to what actually happens in schools never seems to deter them from pontificating. The ‘I went to school, I know how it works’ brigade. Yeah? I’ve been on a plane, but y’know…

It’s hard to be optimistic when your profession is suffering from relentless casualisation, where new teachers entering the classroom have less protection and face peripatetic careers with no stability for teacher or student. When, faced with the bizarre choice of pay cuts or worse pay cuts, the best teacher unions can do is negotiate softer cuts. When every facet of the work has to be measured, accounted and dissected. I’m not looking forward to any of this.

So. It’s the separation of education from teaching that’s worrying me. I have control over the teaching bit, I can do that I know, it’s the mob shouting about ‘shaking up education’ outside the door that distracts me. When did education move out of the classroom and into the market? When did the commentariat hijack the debate?

Maybe I’m just getting old, but it didn’t used to be this way. Did it?

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10 thoughts on “Separating education from teaching

  1. This is a very interesting post – reading as an NQT just about to enter the profession. I think, and correct me if you disagree, but you are, indeed we are, teachers.. and therefore you teach. In that, we have very little choice about being wrapped up in the ‘education’ system, but it’s something that (very sadly) we are currently not in control of .. I genuinely think the best we can do is to focus on teaching and engaging students, to focus on the classroom and, while still challenging the top down way things are done, to focus on changing what you can and your love of the job, inside of the school walls. ‘Education’ will change and is, by its very nature, cyclical as new politicians and idealists come into power. We constantly revisit ‘education’ from years gone only to challenge it once more, and start the cycle again…but, we are on the ground and it sounds to me like you’ve heard good things from your students. For things to truly start again, there must be destruction of what currently exists and I cannot see that coming soon. Ask yourself; why did you get into teaching? 🙂

    1. Thanks for that.
      It has to start and end with the kids you see in front of you everyday. If you do right by them, you’re doing your job. It’s hard to ignore the baying for over- accountability though, especially if, as I have done, you get involved in teacher representation. Then the unwillingness to consult, or even acknowledge the work teachers do is dispiriting. As individual teachers, we might like to ignore the ebb and flow of the debate, but it’ll catch up with us in the end.

  2. This is very true and perhaps something to which I’m currently ignorant. I have not yet truly experienced the accountability culture, and, if I’m honest, I fear it. I often wonder how you challenge such things, and how you move such ideas forward.. what do you think must be done in order for things to change and how do we change it as ‘individual teachers’?

    1. As an individual teacher your priority is your students. They need you most. But your colleagues need you too. One teacher can’t change the world but can influence a kid’s world in a way no other profession has the lucky opportunity to do. It’s worth thinking about that profession too though. One teacher can help redefine the view those outside teaching have of us. Get involved in teacher representation and you can make a similar impact in a different place from your classroom.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly and will certainly look more deeply into teacher representation – thank you for the advice. I have found myself, even from my year’s experience, constantly challenging the perceptions that people have of teachers and of the work that they do. In a similar fashion, I have also experienced a pride in telling people that’s my chosen career, and a pride in explaining to them why I would want to be part of teaching. Further, I have also experienced immense pride from friends and family who consider the career to be worthy and wholesome. It is extremely difficult to ignore the problems with the education system and the debate which writhes around it, but … change comes slowly and hopefully the perception of teachers which is negative will complete a 180 degree turn in years to come. More to this, I hope that I’ll take pride in knowing the positives of teaching.. even if others do not.

  4. What an excellent, excellent post, Fintan :/ It makes me smile that you seem to have peered inside my brain and taken all the thoughts out and re-presented them here very articulately. How did you do that? 😉 But the content itself makes me a little sad. I’m trying to look at the glass half full here and I am thinking that all of these factors adversely affect teacher motivation, so…what are the things that boost teacher motivation? Maybe a future post. What keeps you motivated Dint?! x

    1. Hey Ms Africa!
      The ability to peer inside other teachers’ brains? That’s because teachers are a bit like the Borg in Star Trek: many bodies, one consciousness!!
      Ultimately, the students are the motivation for me, the fun, the lightbulbs going off, the way education gets kids out of a hole.
      What motivates teachers is a good idea for a post, Ais, will file it away… x

      1. Your opener of “Hey Ms Africa” has me wondering here if I couldn’t have put myself as the Ethiopian Rose this year? Why didn’t I think of it before now?! Damn! Best ideas always come after the fact…or else while you’re in the shower and I haven’t had many of those lately so maybe that explains it. Anyway, I look forward to that post F 🙂 x

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