In times of strife, I usually turn to Confucius and a large tub of ice-cream. As always, Confucius’ words of wisdom allow me to take a moment to reflect on the aspect of my professional life that has started to become irksome. Lately – and this may indeed be a result of the darkening days and a sneaking suspicion that the Tory government is not on my side – I have felt that teachers have been receiving the short end of the stick.
In so many societies, the concept of the teacher is valued; in fact, in some societies, the profession is venerated above all others. Confucius makes it clear what he believes the role of the teacher to be: “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” It is entirely ironic that I quote this particular snippet from the great Chinese philosopher. When I was 16, my head teacher – a man of charisma, with an unfailing belief in comprehensive education – borrowed four students on the eve of the 1997 General Election from their classrooms, put us all in a taxi and we were driven to Leicester Town Hall, where a fresh-faced, enthusiastic Tony Blair was last-minute canvassing for votes. For me, wide-eyed, uninitiated into the realm of national politics, this was the opening of a door. My head teacher managed to push the five of us to the front of the crowd, clutching a small wooden frame. He hadn’t showed it to us. He harnessed the attention of Mr Blair and handed him the wooden frame. It was read aloud; there was a vague promise that it would be hung in the bathroom. It said: “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” My head teacher revealed that his mother had embroidered it for him but that he believed the person running the country should have it to hand.
I started teaching in 2003, at the start of what I perceived to be a real shift in public opinions on teachers and teaching. I had grown up being told not to be a teacher, with that ever-present phrase “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” ringing in my ears. However, the TDA adverts that every teacher knows and loves (because we all take them outside onto a field to teach them about the planets at some point in our careers) had just appeared and Teach First was in its inaugural year. I joined the Teach First graduate programme because Tony Blair had said “Education, Education, Education” and that meant something to me. In 2006, in the research document entitled: ‘The Status of Teachers and the Teaching Profession: Views from Inside and Outside the Profession’ generated by the University of Cambridge and the University of Leicester, it was clear that by this time, perceptions of the teaching profession had become more positive. They revealed that in 2006, there seemed to be a “renewed optimism amongst teachers about their work”. It was the crest of a wave.
The research cited a renewed optimism because they had noted that their respondents had identified an exact period of time in which the public perception of the teaching profession suffered the most decline in the latter half of the 20th century – the years between 1979 and 1988. It is not rocket science, people – it was, according to the research, “a period of major review of education policies leading up to the 1988 Education Reform Act”. In short, the last time a Conservative government was in power, teachers and their social status suffered the most.
Is it any wonder then that now, under a Conservative government, the Daily Mail sees fit to call head teachers “lacking in guts and intelligence” for choosing to strike to protect their pensions? Is it any wonder, then, that the same newspaper declares that head teachers are “no better than the Left-wing rabble rousers who dominate the profession”, as if a teacher’s politics is more important than their ability to educate young people? Even the vanguard of the left has something to say about the state of education – Deborah Orr berating “the left” that “has spent the last decade excusing an education system that lets down the people whom it is supposed to care for most” nearly broke my heart.
It seems that teaching has never really escaped from a fatally corrosive virgin-whore dichotomy. On one hand, ITV celebrates teachers in a mawkish, quasi-celebritised manner in the Teaching Awards; on the other, the moment teachers decide to defend their profession and the benefits that make up for the decades of hard grind, they are vilified. As long as we are quiet, do as we are told and are willing to accept that our government does not believe that our work is fruitful, we may continue on without public abuse. Step out of that role for a moment, go on strike because we believe in something and we become the Hester Prynne of the working world, destined to wear a scarlet letter and harangued by the likes of the Daily Mail.
So, after all this, has Confucius made me feel any better? Well, no. There’s a tub of ice-cream somewhere that might help, though.