When will you respect teachers?

Over the course of the pandemic, the suspect regard for teachers and the teaching profession is a consistent trend in the public debates about education. Where public sector workers in healthcare are rightly being cherished, the same credit has not been extended to educators. Where teachers share concerns about teaching in schools during a pandemic out of control, newspapers like the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph have headlines and stories that question the integrity of teachers. Lazy, workshy, and ever hankering after more holiday.

This should not come as a surprise. Schools have long been blamed for failing to address society’s ills. How often do we hear or read in the media that “schools should teach X to solve problem Y”? How often is a celebrity trotted out in the media to demand the curriculum of schools, that is developed over many years, be suddenly adjusted to cater to their latest fad that gets them trending on social media?

Over the course of the pandemic, schools have been criticised for not providing sufficient online learning. Yet it is not the fault of teachers that the Department for Education’s scheme to hand out laptops has not worked properly or that some families do not have the purchasing power to get all their children laptops and Wi-Fi installed at home. The more guilty suspect is a government whose austerity programme has harmed deprived families and furthered social and economic inequality.

“Those who can’t do, teach” is an adage that embodies the British cultural attitude to teachers. Unlike other service professions like being a dentist or doctor, there is a view that anyone can have a pop at teaching. Think of the people you know who trapse off abroad to ‘teach’ in downtrodden schools in developing countries or people in the UK who volunteer to ‘teach’ once a week at a community centre. Teachers preside over a system that has never quite been fit for purpose. There is a mismatch between the lofty ideals of education and the grinding reality of school. Winston Churchill once commented that “The only time my education was interrupted was while I was at school.” Albert Einstein quipped “Education is what remains when we have forgotten everything that has been learned at school.”

Yet to say that teaching and learning is simple is patently absurd. Teaching is a craft that is both an art and a science. Going into a classroom is entering into a whole new ecosystem. The number of different things going on, the complexities involved, the inputs and outputs. The things you can see but, so much more than that, the things you can’t see. It’s far more than a binary affair of someone stood in the class talking and students soaking it up. Try explaining the concept of hyperinflation in Weimar Germany to economically illiterate 14 year olds. Lee Shulman commented following 30 years of research into classroom teaching that it “Is perhaps the most complex, most challenging and most demanding, subtle, nuanced and frightening activity that our species has ever invented…The only time a physician could possibly encounter a situation of comparable complexity would be in the emergency room at the hospital during or after a natural disaster.”

The idea that teachers are workshy is a baffling myth. A UCL study from 2019 showed that teachers work 46 to 49 hours a week. The working time directive law in theory does not permit UK workers to work more than 48 hours a week. Yet one quarter of teachers choose to work more than 59 hours a week and 10% work over 65 hours per week. This is not the norm in society. The ONS has average weekly working hours for full time workers at about 37 hours. Headteachers and Senior Leaders have worked flat out over the Christmas ‘holidays’ contact tracing, preparing schools for mass testing, and deciphering the shambolic communications of the Department for Education.

Many teachers knew full well coming into the profession it would be hard work and often thanklessly so. The challenges of workload and factors like behaviour and the pressures of teaching on mental health help explain why 40% of those who train to teach aren’t in state funded schools five years after training. If teaching were so easy, why do so many quit?

For many teachers, the demands being placed on them in the pandemic are too much. My colleague put it aptly as we had a socially distanced lunch at different ends of a classroom in the last week of term, when cases were spiking among staff, student year group bubbles were closing and panic was palpable in the school: “Teachers didn’t sign up to be on the front line and put our health at risk”.

We have heard from the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer that schools are safe. On one level this might be true. The average age of pupils and the staff body mean that those in schools are unlikely to suffer worryingly should they catch COVID. Yet go into a school — which few people have had to do, protected in the relative safety of their homes — and try to maintain schools are entirely safe places as you see busy corridors, children playing with each other and children sat next to each other in unventilated classrooms. The Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance advises that you should act as if everyone you encounter has the virus. Imagine the toll that takes, being in an environment of 1,500 people all of whom could make you and your loved ones ill? The mismatch between what is proclaimed on the air waves and what it feels like on the ground epitomises the tin ear of officialdom.

It seems though that since teachers are not respected, the views and challenges of school life are not heeded by the government. The government likes to tout the line that education is a priority. If it really were, it would show greater gratitude to and understanding of teachers beyond purring banalities about ‘how thankful we are for how hard teachers are working’. But the government merely operate in a culture with an ingrained view of teachers. If teachers on the frontline in a pandemic can’t boost respect for the profession, what will?

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