Teaching is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most important vocation there is in the world today. I know that some people might argue with me about the importance of doctors and engineers – and I really hope that somebody argues with me about poets and musicians – but in the terms of social change, few people have such potential to effect positive improvements as your average teacher. Just by developing basic literacy and numeracy, teachers can change life outcomes for a huge range of people – people who might then go on to save lives and build hospitals and whatever else you may think of.
Some cultures – Scandinavian countries, Japan, South Korea – recognize the importance of teachers and demand that only the very best people become teachers, as well as according them the highest respect. In Western countries, perhaps in a way that is related to the cult of individualism that we venerate, there is much less respect given: we’ve all heard the old saying that ‘Those who can, do, while those who can’t, teach’. It’s crap, of course, but it’s no less popular for that. And something that I have noticed – especially now in my role as a teaching union organiser – is that the role of a teacher is becoming harder and harder. It is no great surprise that so many great teachers that I know – across the US, Canada, Australia and the UK have left the classroom – frustrated, angry, defeated – and moved into consulting about educational policy. I guess the same criticism could be made of my own move into organising.
And who can blame them? Let’s take one little example – child protection. One of the parts of my new role is to work with members who have had a child protection allegation made against them. It’s difficult work and takes an incredible emotional toll on the member in question. It’s important, too – I think the findings about some exclusive schools in the news recently makes that very clear – and I fully support the legislation regarding child protection. But here’s the thing: there needs to be teacher protection, too.
That might sound flippant, but it’s not. I’ve heard horrific stories about teachers being assaulted by children – physically attacked – and that becoming a child protection matter. Worse than that, stories about parents of children attacking teachers – and that being referred to the Office of the Childrens’ Guardian. Or occasions where a teacher has raised his or her voice to a child, and the parents of another child have complained, and it’s been investigated as a child protection matter.
Now I’m not saying none of those were CP matters – these issues are often complex and context is important. Nor am I saying that there shouldn’t be an investigation – the safety of children is paramount in any educational setting. But what I am saying is that I totally understand why the prospect of being dragged through such a process is depressing for a teacher – and why that prospect might be off-putting for someone thinking of being a teacher. When the processes in place are brutal and there appears to be little support for teachers against even the most vexatious of complainants, teaching becomes a profession that throws itself upon the goodwill of the wider community – and when the lack of respect that I described earlier has developed – that goodwill is often absent.
And it’s not like the pay is brilliant, is it? So who would be a teacher?
- A jack of all trades versus a subject specialist
- Vale, Terry Pratchett