“The job satisfaction and goodwill of teachers has been decimated and there’s a feeling that your best will never be good enough- something that never existed before.”
Short days, long holidays; the teaching profession in Ireland was once considered the ideal, offering a perfect balance between work and home life. Drastic cutbacks have since led to a surge in dissatisfaction among teachers who are over-worked and under-paid. Is the profession headed for a crisis? As teachers reach breaking point, we investigate how recent changes have affected teaching attitudes, priorities, morale, and in turn, student’s learning.
“The short days and length of holidays has perpetuated the myth that teaching is an easy job”, says Ciara Mahony, a permanent primary school teacher based in Dublin. “A teacher’s job is far from finished when the school bell goes at the end of the day. During those ‘short days’ a teacher’s brain needs to be working at 100%, there’s no such thing as switching off, daydreaming or taking a coffee break when things get tough. You find yourself counselling, mediating, nursing, parenting and entertaining. All of which requires tireless energy”. Ciara, who has been working as a primary teacher in Dublin for the past five years, explains how there is “very unfair criticism of teachers in Irish society.”
Máire Ní Mhuire, a mainstream secondary teacher of Gaeilge and Geography, agrees. “I think respect for teachers has disappeared.” Máire, who has been teaching in Ireland for the past ten years, describes how the media has negatively zoned in on teachers, which has led to the general public directing their frustrations at the profession. “When the government treats teachers unfairly and with a lack of respect, you can’t expect society in general not to follow suit.” Shane Campion, a primary school teacher working in Dublin for the past four years, further states “teachers are portrayed as despots or people who opted to teaching simply because they failed at another venture in life.”
Yet, the public’s perception of the profession is far from the minds of these teachers who have been pushed to their limits. The profession has seen drastic wage cuts, large increases in administrative duties, an increase in hours, resource cuts, an increase in student numbers, and an increase in unpaid duties. In the meantime, standards have been raised in relation to classroom interaction and the use of technology, with a stronger emphasis being placed on literacy and numeracy, all of which means more hours of planning and preparation.
Máire outlines the key changes that she has witnessed over the past few years, pointing out the “huge increase in administrative duties, not just regarding self-evaluation and best practice for teaching and learning but regarding student behaviour and incidents.” Máire further points out the resource cuts, regardless of the “huge increase of special needs students now in mainstream schools”. With staff being forced to take on more unpaid work, along with the withdrawal of supervision and substitution funds, this means teachers are supervising more classes, but not getting paid for it. “Teachers are burnt out and feel unable to keep up with the demands of the classroom and school. The new Junior Cycle will only increase the amount of paperwork and class preparation for teachers.”
The new Junior Cycle is to be introduced in September of this year with English to be the first subject to take on the change. Over 27,000 union members have since taken to industrial action in an effort to curtail changes that they feel unprepared and under-trained to implement. The Millward Brown poll, commissioned by the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), has this month revealed that 89 per cent of teachers believe their school has limited or no capacity to implement the Junior Cycle changes proposed.
Sarah Keegan, a mainstream secondary teacher of Art, also based in Dublin, describes further changes to the industry since her introduction to the field three years ago. “It is progressively becoming more project based. Teachers are being asked to do more work in the same amount of time. We are also being asked to up-skill in technology but not being given the proper training. Teachers are expected to work as firefighters in mental health issues such as suicide and depression without being given sufficient training or adequate support.” Ciara further explains that within primary education, “the litany of standardised testing and the huge emphasis on maths and literacy results have made it particularly challenging.”
Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs) have been hit hard by recent changes, most being forced to carry out the same duties for a lower wage, without the added bonus of job security to motivate them. Recent figures have indicated that 27 per cent of Irish second-level teachers are in non-permanent positions. “Generally NQTs find themselves working longer hours preparing, organising and correcting as it is. I think cutting their wages could change attitudes towards putting in that extra work, leading to less organised, less enthusiastic teachers”, Ciara points out. “I pity anybody starting out,” says Máire. “Not only is their pay and conditions quite poor, they will be expected to carry out previously paid tasks [without pay]. This will become the norm and seriously impact on the time spent preparing for classes which will have a knock-on effect on teaching and learning for the students.” For NQTs like Sarah, job security is always an issue, making them an easy target. While aware that she is being treated unfairly, her priorities lie elsewhere. “If I do become permanent in 3 years job security is still not guaranteed due to enrolment numbers.”
Such key changes and unfair treatment among colleagues is sure to impact morale in the workplace. As tensions mount and stress ensues, “teachers are being pushed to their limits”, says Sarah. “Morale is at an all-time low”, says Máire. “People are burnt-out, stressed and have had enough. The life and soul has been drained out of each and every teacher over the past few years and you can actually see the effects physically.” Ciara adds “There is no drive for teachers to further their training and professional development when the workload appears to be getting bigger and pay is being cut. I think it has caused a lack of motivation and enthusiasm among teachers.” Describing how staffroom conversations have moved swiftly from “sharing ideas and resources and discussing lessons, to finding time for tests, copies and projects that need correction, meetings with parents, and organising after school activities”, Ciara expresses her concern that the visible lack of motivation among teachers will impact on their willingness to dedicate their free time to after school activities, clubs, societies and resource.
The Millward Brown survey has revealed that teacher morale and job satisfaction is at an all-time low, with just 44 per cent of teachers satisfied with their work, compared to 77 per cent in 2009. So with drastic changes continually being implemented and teachers’ welfare and morale suffering, what does the future hold? Most teachers seem to agree that the profession is in crisis, with many of them looking towards other career options.
“The younger age profile are being exploited”, says Sarah. “There is security in your job but only after a long time and having a Masters or PhD is no longer recognised in wage structure, therefore discouraging unskilled and a higher calibre of teacher.” “I genuinely believe that it won’t be long before people start seeing it for what it is”, says Máire. “I would certainly think twice about recommending it as a career to family members of friends unless things improve. The job satisfaction and goodwill of teachers has been decimated and there’s a feeling that your best will never be good enough- something that never existed before.”
With an overwhelming concurrence of opinion, it is evident that while most teachers are being pushed to breaking point, others are being forced out as the cuts and further pressure mounts. The future of the profession hangs frighteningly in the balance as teacher morale and motivation take a plunge. Perhaps the most poignant question that lingers is what does the future hold for our education system if motivated teachers become a thing of the past? Tragically, it appears that the passion for teaching so often felt by educators is being exploited to the point of no return. Although we may argue that most of us have had to endure similar cuts and changes in the current climate, the future of our education system is a priority that none of us can afford to ignore.
Photo Credit: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
Millward Brown poll: http://www.asti.ie/news/latest-news/news-article/article/schools-do-not-have-capacity-for-ministers-junior-cycle-changes-say-89-of-teachers-millward-bro-1//back_to/press-releases-2/