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?