I’ve wanted to write about teaching for a long time. But I haven’t. Because I’ve not known how. I want to write about why I teach and about what the job really is about, but it’s hard to broach this subject without meandering into enemy territory and finding myself on the defensive: the CAO system; the points race; League Tables; the Department of Education and Skills and the warped agenda currently driving educational policy, including but not limited to industry and the economy; the role of students themselves; their parents; the burden of adminstration placed on school management and attempts of policy to more or less pit management and teachers against each other; the erosion of teachers’ rights and entitlements, pay and conditions; the contempt with which teachers are discussed in the media, and by your average Joe who really knows very little about education other than their own individual, and entirely singular, experience of education X amount of years in the past.
So, as you can see, it’s hard to enter this discussion without anticipating and inviting hostile fire, from any number of vantage points. Us teachers are paranoid, of course, but like the CIA, it behoves us to be so. Myopia certainly hasn’t done us any favours. Or our students, for that matter.
But I’m going to try to explain why I teach, in terms as clear and simple as I can. That’s the question I’m addressing, but I hope that in addressing it I will perhaps contribute to the general understanding and appreciation of what we, the vast and overwhelming majority of us, do as teachers, and why we do it.
My father was a teacher. That’s one reason I’m a teacher. I saw what he did. I saw his life, and on occasion, as a child, I watched what happened when he’d meet a past pupil in the shop or on the street. I saw how people talked to him. It seemed like a nice life, on that level.
In the darkest days of my teens, sitting in those old classrooms in Clonkeen College, I used to look up at teachers and think, ‘I might be back here someday. Doing that.’ I imagined, and have always been imagining, I realise now, ways of working with people and fantasising about being a positive influence on somebody’s life. Just think – what a waste! The things I could have been fantasising about.
Post-Leaving Cert, I eventually made my way to university. To London; University North London it was called at the time. I took English to try and make-up for the fact that I was an awful reader and I knew I needed to do some considerable catch-up if my vain ideas of being a writer were to come to fruition. It wasn’t just teacher I wanted to be. I’m not saying that. Footballer, writer, even actor for a while (even though I’d never so much as looked at a flyer for an acting class or drama group, and suffered from a painful lack of confidence). These are just some of the idle fantasies I entertained. But teacher was always in the background. Even as I pursued English for the purposes of making me a better writer, I thought I could teach while I was waiting for that inevitable success to happen.
What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that teaching for me is genetic and pervasive and environmental. It feels as if it is all over my life. All through my life.
As I neared the end of my degree in English, my girlfriend at the time had already begun applying for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). She too was on a road she seemed to have always imagined, but she was clearer in her focus. So I took her lead, applied where she applied, did the mock interview, as she had done, and all of a sudden I was on the road to being a teacher without really having given it much thought. It was more an instinctive thing. On the one hand, teaching was where I’d always been headed, but on the other it was just a stop-gap until I ruled the literary world.
I completed my PGCE, hating every minute of teacher-training and just wanting to have my own classes and get on with it. I felt like I knew what I wanted to do with a class and knew how to do it. I just needed the leash taken off.
I taught in London for a year, at Crown Woods School in Eltham. An emotionally tumultuous year, I recall, and while much of the administration involved in teaching in the English system – the Yr 9 SATs, the literacy initiatives of Greenwich County Council with their myriad of wacky ideas and the arcane array of educational jargon they were so fond of employing – was mind-numbing, I still remember my time in the classroom very fondly. I had a group of Yr 10s who I did A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE with that I was very fond of. I had a tutor group who I really liked, and an A-Level group that I liked too; kids maybe six years younger than me, who worked well for me as I found my feet as a teacher.
In the many evenings where I socialised with my colleagues at Crown Woods, the conversations were lively. And often, surprisingly, for all we protested about talking shop, they centred around education: our respective subjects; why the initiatives were missing the point; and ways we were working to make it better. We were teachers, we were young and naïve, and we really wanted to just teach. We almost did it despite the system, I feel now, as I look back.
I came home to Dublin in the summer of 2001, determined to stay only briefly, with my heart set on travel and seeing the world. Hell-bent on avoiding any measure of responsibility, I took a job in HMV for a month. Officially it was a month, but to the best of my recollection I was only present for eleven days of the month before I did what I was always going to do - quit. I quit to watch the 9-11 coverage on SKY NEWS. I sat in front of the TV for the guts of two weeks.
Then in late October I went for a small, short-term job as an EAL teacher in a Gardiner Street Primary School. I began just before Halloween and expected to be gone by Easter. Five years later I was still there.
I loved working with those kids but as the years slipped by I found myself being moved closer to the role of mainstream Primary teacher. Teaching primary-age kids English was one thing, but the thought of being in the mainstream classroom and trying to teach subjects that were really beyond my expertise left me feeling jumpy. Added to which, I had begun to feel unfulfilled and wanted more of a challenge, but one more suited to my training and my ability.
So, with a hard-won Contract of Indefinite Duration (CID) on the table at Gardiner Street, and my wedding imminent, I turned my back on that security and headed off in the direction of my alma mater, on a temporary and part-time contract.
Clonkeen College – September 2006. I remember my first day in Clonkeen, as a teacher, for a number of reasons. But the most significant was the moment I left the staffroom for my first class. I paused on the corridor, just outside my father’s old office, and looked down the corridor. It was so familiar and there was a physical sense of belonging for me. Something palpable.
I’d looked down this corridor so many times before, over so many years, but not in a long time. It hadn’t changed much. It hadn’t changed at all, in fact. It still hasn’t; although in the next year it will as a new build is completed.
As I watched the students filing erratically up and down the corridor, and the light streaming into the corridors from open doors, I just felt like this was where I was meant to be. ‘It feels like coming home,’ were the actual words that I thought. I wrote them down a few minutes later, when I got to my first class.
But I felt nervous too.
However, before I had time to think too much about that one, Mary Sommers, one of my old teachers and then a colleague, came out of the Principal’s Office. I was looking at my watch, trying to sync it with the bell. ‘Relax,’ she told me, somewhat bemused by my over-eagerness as I stood braced for the first lesson of my tenure. ‘The bell hasn’t even gone yet.’
Mary retired soon after this, and sadly passed away during this last year, but in the year or two we worked together she, as a senior voice, is somebody I remember being most supportive, as I tried to find my feet and my identity, back in my own school, but in a new capacity.
That was nearly ten years ago and I’m still a teacher and still not even nearly a writer. My vain hopes in that regard are so significantly diminished as to be mere wishful thinking. But the funny thing is that now I’m of the opinion that even was I to be a writer that I’d still be a teacher. I think I might need, in some small way, to teach.
I love the classroom. I know a lot of my colleagues may wince at that kind of mawkishness, but I suspect that cynicism is a mask most of us wear out of necessity and that most of them also understand what I mean. There are other aspects of teaching, like all jobs, that I could gladly do without. But I genuinely love the classroom. I love teaching, and specifically English. And even more specifically, Leaving Certificate English.
And why? Because, I believe, I’m doing something that I’m reasonably good at. I think that I am able to enthuse students about my subject. I think that the atmosphere in my lessons is supportive, encouraging, sometimes demanding, and in it we, the students and me, engage with literature but also life. I believe that I communicate my passion to my students and that they respond to it. I believe that they improve both their appreciation for literature and their ability to write by virtue of being in my class. And I believe that these are things that enhance their lives in ways that none of us can quite understand, and that only one of them is their Leaving Certificate.
I teach because I find fulfillment and enjoyment in trying to enthuse students about language and how we use it. I teach because it is rewarding for me and because it helps my students. I enjoy the challenge of the classroom too, working with different personalities and group dynamics. There will always be students we can’t reach but I believe that I go out of my way to try and reach every student in my class, irrespective of their ability or their past sins. Teaching is a job where you must bury the hatchet on a daily basis.
I believe that I’m a good teacher. And what’s more, when I look around my staffroom, what I see are a room full of teachers who are all, each of us in our own distinct ways, doing our very best for all of our students. We teach because we actually like teaching people. We want to teach.
This is why turning on our televisions or radios and hearing our efforts and our profession rubbished, or snide comments made by parents, or sometimes by students, no doubt students whose parents who do this round the dinner table, is so demoralising.
I never expected much money from teaching but I did expect, and feel I have the right to expect, a certain level of respect. When I hear people discuss things like League Tables in the context of education, when I see different sets of results being compared against each other (as if all groups and every student is the same), I feel sick.
I have students who have worked their hearts out, and for whom I have given my all, who may get a C in their Leaving Certificate. But that C, if it comes to pass, will be as significant and as worthy as any B, A or anything else in that set of results. League Tables and statistics have as much place in the discussion of education as the weather.
I used to think that if somebody wanted to question us, as teachers, on the basis of results, then they should sit down with us, a let us go through them one by one and explain who did his work, who didn’t, whose attendance wasn’t great, who suffered a bereavement that year etc, etc. But in recent years what I’ve come to think is - Why are we defending ourselves all the time? We’re doing a good job. Why not let the students talk?
I would be happy for anybody to talk to my students and ask them how they feel about my classes. About their result, why they achieved as they did, about how I did or didn’t support them.
I’m not suggesting I know everything or that I am “the go to guy” for my subject. I’m not suggesting anything, in fact. But what I’m saying is that I know my subject and I work, to the best of my ability, to support the learning and the general well-being of every student who finds himself before me.
And, to be frank, I resent being questioned on my integrity in this matter. By anybody.
The only thing I have ever heard that even approached expressing my views in any meaningful and concise way was an interview I happened across recently. About a month ago I was in Armagh, with my wife and her extended family, for a family reunion – Armageddon! There was an interview from an RTE television programme (from the 70s, I think) with my wife’s grandfather, Seán O’Boyle; a wonderful and generous school master, by all accounts. He was asked in the interview about his impression or reaction or opinion about the new education system and the move towards standardisation and testing (this is my rough recollection, mind). His response struck me as being as a good a summation of what I believe teaching is about as any I’ve ever heard. I’m paraphrasing here but I believe what he said was that he didn’t really think much about it. He felt that his job, as a teacher, was simply to communicate his passion for his subject to his students. As simple as that.
My frustrations in teaching stem from a feeling that we are being judged on doing a job that we never signed up for. And that we don’t believe in.
I believe in education, not 'results.' I believe in process and learning as an ongoing, often immeasurable, process. It makes us better even when we can't show or quite put our finger on why or how. Sometimes it goes well, others not so well. But the process is what we're after. Education and real learning.
So, when I’m annoyed and frustrated and feeling under-appreciated these days, I think of Seán O’Boyle’s words. They make me feel better. Because I think that I do teach in the spirit that he encapsulated. I communicate my enthusiasm for my subject and I look after all my pupils – all of them! That’s the job I’m paid to do. And it’s a job I do well.