Teachers in Ireland (and indeed in many countries) get a really hard time. In terms of public perception, we rank somewhere between politicians and circus clowns. Many people assume we are greedy, lazy and that the interests of the students are the furthest things from our self centred minds.
I’m not writing this piece to defend the teaching profession, per se. I’m writing this to frankly and honestly discuss my personal experience with teaching and what being a teacher means to me. It is an incredibly difficult and challenging job in itself, and the constant public derision certainly does nothing to help. I would love to say that it doesn’t bother me; that the most important thing is my own dedication to the profession and that baseless criticisms from people ignorant of the career shouldn’t matter but…well, after a while, you start to have doubts. When people say teachers are lazy, you start to question your own work ethic. When people say teachers are only interested in their pay packet, you start to wonder if maybe there is some truth in that.
I have been guilty of previously making these assumptions myself. When I was in the early years of secondary school, I had little respect for the profession. Like many students, I had good teachers and bad teachers. Unfortunately, it is the “bad” teachers that stand out. When I say bad teacher, I’m referring to those who act unprofessionally and who have little or no passion left for their job. I’ve heard of teachers who didn’t know their students names after two years, who smelled of alcohol in class, who had little knowledge of their respective subjects or who flew into unprovoked and scathing attacks on particular students in my class. I’ve spoken to many people who were only too happy to regale me with tales of incompetent teachers. I’m sure you too, dear reader, have experienced teachers whose methods left a lot to be desired. But we can also agree that we have all had motivational, inspiring and capable teachers who have invested their best efforts and time into helping us to realise our full potential. I also think it’s fair to say that every school I have been in, either as a student or as a teacher, has had a large majority of brilliant and dynamic teachers. There is a rising standard of professionalism that ensures the very best teachers are emerging from training courses. The problem is, we tend to focus on the minority that bring the profession into disrepute.
It wasn’t until I was nearing the end of my time at school that I began to really appreciate my teachers. My worst subject, without a doubt, was maths. I lacked motivation and I didn’t really care if I did poorly in my final maths exam, as the outcome of that particular exam wouldn’t have affected my chances of getting into university. My teacher had other ideas. She didn’t care that I wasn’t aiming high. She refused to let me fall behind or slink to the back of the class and secretly read Jane Eyre. She was on my case day in, day out. If I didn’t understand something, I couldn’t pretend that I did. She knew I was lying. She would keep repeating the methodology of a sum until it clicked with us. She would give up her breaks and her free time to offer us free tuition. And in the final exam, I got an A. An A in a subject I had previously despised and feared. That grade made me realise that hard work and effort does pay off and it gave me a confidence in my own abilities that I have never forgotten. I also haven’t forgotten that teacher; a woman so dedicated to her profession I’m sure she must suffer from a permanent exhaustion that is only challenged by her unwearied assiduity to her students.
There were other good teachers too. There were those who made me laugh and who sparked interests in me that I don’t think any book or film could have. I started to realise that my teachers were having a massive (and very positive) impact on my life and were helping to shape my future in a way that I could never have imagined. That’s when I decided that if I could have such a positive impact on someone’s life, I would have found my dream career. I knew teaching would be a challenging career, but I also knew that it would make me happy, and that I could help students to learn new things every day, not only about the world around them, but also about themselves. This may sound cheesy, disingenuous even, but it’s the truth.
I studied hard to become a teacher. I did a three year degree course in my subjects. I then studied for a Master’s Degree. After that, I studied for my teaching diploma. During this time, I was supervised in my teaching by a former school principal who critiqued my methods with honesty. It was a very intense year, and I can safely say that it was the most challenging experience of my life (I also had to contend with a lot of personal and medical issues).
At the moment, I have been qualified for three years. I’m working in a sometimes difficult environment, where many of the students are unmotivated and ill-disciplined. I like the school I am in (the management and staff are superb) but I have shed tears, I have been ill from stress and I have had many sleepless nights. I have mounds of paper work to contend with, difficult classes and demanding parents. I’m not just speaking for myself here, I’m speaking for all teachers. Yes, classroom engagement time (contracted hours) might be minimal when compared to other jobs, but there is more to teaching than that.
The preparation that goes into a week of classes is immense. There’s also the assessment of our students’ work which takes up much of our evenings and weekends. All of this I can handle, as it’s part of the job and we must accept that. In Ireland, we are also expected to do unpaid overtime, thirty three hours a year to be exact (depending on your timetable), which had led to feelings of resentment surfacing in many teachers. We are also routinely inspected, which is fair and of course standard practice in many jobs, but it just adds to the pressure that is already placed on teachers by society at large.
This week alone, I’ve had a student run out of my class sobbing (a close friend of hers died and she’s finding it difficult to cope), a student get injured in the hallway, given detention three times, met a concerned parent, have a difference of opinion with a colleague about a particular student, refer another student for counselling…I could go on. What am I saying all this for? What am I hoping to achieve? I understand that there are many jobs where employees experience far more stress than I do. There are amazing doctors, policemen and women, firemen and women and nurses that provide such important and potentially life-saving services everyday. The thing is, I would never think of denigrating any of these careers. I know that teachers don’t save lives (usually), but I would like to think that we influence the outcome of some lives in a positive manner.
Despite all the disparaging comments that I hear (by the media, but also by people I know quite well), I wouldn’t change anything about my career. The other day, a student I have was struggling to understand what the different poetic terms were (alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, etc). I spent two classes explaining until finally he excitedly exclaimed “I get them, I get them ALL!” Seeing that “eureka” moment in a student is truly rewarding and it makes everything worthwhile. It makes me realise that the profession is bigger than my insecurities. It’s about the students. It’s about their potential. It’s about guiding and helping and being a positive influence. I’m learning to deflect the negativity and to remember why I decided to peruse this career: I wanted to make a difference to someone’s life. Even if it’s just a handful of people over my entire careers, I’ll still be proud.