Reads of the Week #12

This week the best things I read were:

 Lindy West’s account of tracking down the cruellest of cyberbullies here 

Claudia Emerson’s poem Lock on Emily Dickinson, an interesting meditation on our desire to attach meaning to people, poems and things here

 James Theo on education as a two legged chair, an analogy for teachers constant search for stability and support here

Mike Dash on how a family of six were discovered in Siberia, cut off from the world for forty years here 

and finally

Anne Enright on Newfoundland, which isn’t Canada, but may be a little bit of Ireland here

Find all my Reads of the week on Twitter here

And the archive on previous posts is here 

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Reads of the Week #9

This week is a mix of Irish History, English literature, education, economics and a serial killer.

First, here’s an extract from Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book on Ireland’s ‘Revolutionary Period’.

Next, something fun: How To Tell If You Are In A Virginia Woolf Novel 

Here’s Alex Quigley on dealing with fads in education 

According to the ETUCE, the Economic crisis has left its continuing noticeable marks on social dialogue 

And finally: One Detective’s Quest to Identify A Serial Killer’s Lost Victims 

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Solidarity, Unity, Strength: Three reasons to vote yes this time


Last May the Central Executive Council of the ASTI adopted the following motion I proposed:
That in the event that the new Junior Cycle subject specification including it’s assessment component is introduced the ASTI will immediately ballot members on extending our industrial action up to and including strike action.

That ballot is now underway.

Why should you vote yes?

It has become very obvious that the current ASTI directives leave teachers, particularly English teachers, in a confused state. They have been directed not to engage with the reform but to teach the subject specification nonetheless.
You vote YES to protect those English teachers with the strength of the whole union. Leaving some to resist on the frontline without the backup of the whole membership isn’t what unions are about.

Our colleagues in the TUI have already put this issue to a ballot and received a strong mandate to act; it makes sense that the two second level teacher unions should be on the same page on an issue we agree on.
You vote YES so that all of us can act together, at the same time, for a change.

Negotiations at an impasse. No practical solution to bridge the gap between teachers and the Minister has emerged. So far our action is low level disengagement, extending it will focus minds and bring about a more swift solution or at the very least the prospect of teachers walking out, unpalatable as that might be, might show how strong the feeling of teachers is regarding the proposed reform.
You vote YES to say you belong to a union that takes action when its members speak, action that gives our negotiators a strong hand when they hammer out a solution.

Teddy Roosevelt was first to adopt a policy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, if the soft speaking doesn’t work, it’s better to have the big stick ready.

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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Leadership in Irish education


We hear about leadership all the time. In politics it’s used as a cop out when you want to make a decision without listening, in life it’s expounded on by ‘dragons’ with four hours of sleep a night and a ‘headcount’ to reduce.
But what is leadership in education?
Sure, in our classrooms and lecture halls we lead from the front. We’re that performance led type leader who leads by doing, showing, explaining, coaxing. Dedication to the subject, the methods we use, the technology we introduce, the voice, the heart, the enthusiasm all count for students and for ourselves.
But what of leading our schools, our colleagues, the communities that form around the buildings we visit everyday to lead students as set out above? The effort to do those things right that makes us leaders in the room often in the early days of teaching to focus exclusively on the students, rightly. Around us though in those early days there have to be people who show by professional example what it means to be a teacher. I had those people around me, they made me feel safe and gave me courage, when I had a problem they said: ‘here’s what you’ll do…’ And I did it and it worked and I’m still doing it.
So. There are classroom leaders and there are staff room leaders, and they crossover, they can be the same people, that’s a school you know is work.
Then there are teachers who become managers. They have to sink or swim, learning how to manage teachers, parents, students, as well as finance and set the tone for a school is no small task. In Ireland we don’t tend to see these managers as drivers of curricular change, but all that might change if we get the reforms some of them want: on top of reporting to the National Education Welfare Board, the Department of Education and Skills, not to mention the Boards of Management of their own schools the proposition of some Principals having control too over the curricular direction of a school at Junior Cycle fills some of them, and some of those they lead, with dread. Of course the further away from the classroom these leaders are the less their job is about education and more about being perceived as a leader.
I’m sure the Minister for Education himself, Ruairi Quinn would say he is ultimately the leader in Irish education. But swayed as he seems to be by business, the media or worst of all the money men in Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure (was there ever devised a more appropriate acronym for people who cut and cut than D-PER?), he doesn’t seem to lead so much as follow. He and his department don’t seem to bother with what the views of people in classrooms think. We have reached a roadblock that threatens standstill when a minister can ignore teachers entirely an unilaterally change the secondary school curriculum without even giving notice to teachers.
Why were teachers removed from the dialogue on education reform? How did education leaders let this to happen? Who stood up for education?
We teach in a world where the outside influences bang on the doors of our schools, and they have done for years, not least the deepening social consequences of the economic disaster no student of ours had a hand in. These and other political decisions like those mentioned above complicate the job of teachers and alienate them from the solutions.
We resist so little though. We are accused so often of lying down before these threats.
That is why we now need to strengthen our resolve through the only educational leadership I haven’t mentioned so far, our teachers’ unions. Battered, derided and ignored by many teachers without doubt, the teacher unions remain the only leaders that will listen when we shout, that will act on our behalf, nationally.
That is why the ASTI has filled the gap the Minister left when he decided to shift the ground beneath us on Junior Cycle reform by asking teachers what they think of the plan. They aren’t happy. They want leadership and they know that only by asking teachers who actually teach can you lead them forward. They also speak of demoralisation and being cowed into accepting whatever is thrown at them.
Only through concerted and united action will we able to say we stood up for education, that we were leaders.
Let’s leave the economics gurus to their crystal balls and the media to ‘top stories’, it’s time for educators to take back education.

Attend the public session on Junior Cycle Reform at the ASTI Convention in Wexford on April 2nd

Why do teachers feel alienated?

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return…

from Mirror in February by Thomas Kinsella

The right word to use for the relationship between teachers and the world they try daily to change one student at a time is alienation.
Teachers feel they are the victims of forces beyond their control: economic forces, political and social forces, the force of negative public discourse. None of this is new, it has been the case for years that education and those who deliver it have been frustrated by the way their professional opinions have been excluded from the process of decision making. They have felt for a generation that they have no real say in shaping their work lives or determining how best to use education as anything more than a clinical data gathering exercise.
Many teachers may not have come to understand this yet, many may not have articulated it or even had time to think about it, but they feel it. This alienation expresses itself in the shortness of many teaching careers, the ‘muddling through’ cuts to education, the unwillingness to enter into conversations about public service with neighbours friend or family, the inability to recommend teaching as a profession to young graduates. If we have become insensitive to the damage all this does to our profession, if we are fooled into thinking that our alienation is normal and a sign of how we are meant to react to constant criticism from political ‘leaders’ and media ‘commentators’, then we will never recover.
We are encouraged to turn on each other: retired teachers, younger teachers, or unions leaders are ‘the problem’. But education shouldn’t be part of the rat race, teachers shouldn’t be scrambling around, afraid to raise their heads or hands above the ramparts to reject this alienation and reject the pressure of society that would have you teach for any other reason than to educate children. Education is for growth not exams, for questions and answers, not for pat solutions or the easy way out. We have become addicted to silence in the face of a storm of negative commentary, the dignity and pride we should feel are stripped away and that alienated feeling is all that’s left.
Schools are places where the insidious pressures of society that seek out those who are to to blame should not hold sway. Those pressures force us to be silent in the face of injustice in case it damages our chance of fitting in to the rat race. Teachers, those forces strip away your dignity, your sense of justice, your instinct for fairness.
When they reduce education to economic arguments for making profit they reduce it to nothingness. There is no price too high for the emancipation an individual can achieve through education. It becomes, or course, a matter of control, not of freedom, and the concentration of power in fewer and fewer hands. When educators and those to be educated are excluded from decision making, democracy is replaced by profit and loss and you create a society where success is judged by the extent of your economic success, and teachers/students/citizens are reduced to units of production.
And that’s where the alienation comes in: somewhere someone makes the decision that education is measurable, that you either measure up or you are nothing; that’s what alienates teachers: they refuse to write people off. Considering what is human is not what the bean counters do. To measure educational attainment in terms of money spent denies us the opportunity to enrich the lives of all our citizens, we need to place education at the centre of our society, not marginalise it.
Give teachers credit, they equip people for life, not to be economic units, but to be social contributors.
Teachers: don’t give in to this pressure, don’t feel alienated from the world around you, keep on keeping on, they won’t realise it now but your work matters, and education shouldn’t be subject to financial straightjacketing.


A response to David McWilliams from a teacher

I’ve spent a few weeks rereading and rereading an article from David McWilliams about education. This post won’t intend to pick a fight with Mr McWilliams, because while I know nothing about economics, I don’t publish or speak publicly on the topic. Unfortunately, Mr McWilliams knows nothing about education, but doesn’t have the reserve to leave it to those who are in the know.
His article begins by stating that the time has come to discuss teaching and education so that we can ‘get the best out of our people’. Line one: first mistake. Education, despite what some might have you believe is not a factory in which ‘our people’ are turned out in regular form like planks from a saw mill.


Rather schools are places where individuals move at their own pace, encouraged by their teachers and their parents, and where achievement is unmeasurable, a bit like trying to calculate how an economy will perform, it’s not an exact science.
The education system ‘as currently devised’, Mr McWilliams asserts is based on ‘rote-learning,… a grind based reward system’ and it ‘terrorises many hundreds of thousands of children, scarring them with stigmas and insecurities which they carry with them for life.’ Strong stuff, but lazy thinking from start to finish. The education system isn’t based on rote learning, in fact students with independent thought are reward for their work above a baseline understanding of facts and figures that any economist could, or should, grasp. Strikingly he assumes that success for students depends on them getting grinds to supplement their class work, it must appear so from Mr McWilliams’ vantage point, let me point out that many students do not need grinds because they work well within the schools they attend and their parents don’t see the need to undermine the strong work done by their children’s teachers in schools which are under resourced, and under staffed. The idea that thousands of people are left terrorised by their education would be laughable if it did not try to discredit the work those same thousands have done to succeed in whatever way possible. We are used to hearing economists declaring unsupported ideas like half-cocked hunters firing blunderbusses skyward in the hope of felling a single bird, but the idea that there are ‘hundreds of thousands of brilliant Irish people walking around today who believe that they are not brilliant’ because of the education they received must rank up there with the bank guarantee as a half-baked theory.
‘How many exceptional people do you know who will say to you “I hated school”?’, he asks, who were ‘stigmatised’ by their education into believing in a ‘single-answer narrow, group-think’. My answer? How many people have been stigmatised by their banks, how many have been subjected to the groupthink of property speculation, and how many schools teach banking, property speculation and financial mismanagement?
The desire to blame education for having a punish/reward system that creates self-consciously insecure people or over-confident zombies would hilarious if it weren’t so awfully pass-remarkable. Teachers do not as Mr McWilliams states ‘drone on about the need for the education system to create a good educated workforce’, teachers ‘drone on’ about education, education, education. Sometimes even, education as an end in itself, imagine!. Rather it is the economists, the politicians, the business people who demand an education system that puts kids in perfect round holes so they can have their perfect drones for their money-making schemes. Education is the opposite of all that. Education sets children free, a point Mr McWilliams makes repeatedly about his own story, lucky to get a good education he was prepared to take the chances that came his way, and flourish. He would do better to think on the stories of those kids who won’t get those chances because they’re stuck in classes of 30+ in primary school, or who won’t get to read the subjects they love in secondary school because one cut or other or one ‘reform’ or other destroyed that chance. Sure the economy changes all the time like he says but so do schools, basing his opinion of schooling today on a conversation with his daughter about subject choice in first year and his own recollection of streaming in schools in the 1970s and 80s (a practice completely discredited 30 years later) is so wide of the mark that it invites one to wonder what would happen if we applied the economic thinking of the 1980s to our current mess, what would happen? Coalition implementing austerity then, coalition implementing austerity now: and it’s schools that foster group-think? And for the record any school that ‘implicitly or explicitly’ labels students as ‘stupid’ or encourages other students to think that way isn’t a place I’d like to work or send my children to be educated, in the 1980s when I went to school myself, or indeed ever.
It’s pretty desperate to see Mr McWilliams writing that he has no answer when his children find school unchallenging. Part of the job of schools is to encourage students to reach outside themselves, and if a parent isn’t on board with the school it makes the kid’s life far more difficult. The creativity he marvels at in children (they play computer games) is something good schools harness, but part of school too is taking the time to challenge ourselves to solve the problems we find more demanding and outside our ken.
In the end, Mr McWilliams’ criticisms boil down to a dislike of schooling back in the day. The problem of reform of the method of assessment today, as Junior Cycle reform proposes, is that it drives a wedge between teachers and students, it puts parents and teachers at odds over the way the students are rewarded and it insists that paperwork at local school level is more important than an external national certification programme.



Schools back then, and schools now

Junior Cycle reform deserves better coverage than quick off the mark dismissal of teachers and schools who fear changing assessment, not because it doesn’t work, but because for the vast, overwhelming majority of students, parents and teachers the current system does work and they weren’t consulted on the implications of the changes being pushed upon them. Just think, Irish people having decisions made for them, without their prior consultation or approval, that sounds like something only economists could do…

The McWilliams article

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