I have to admit ambivalence about today’s NUT strike in London. I went to work today, not because I disagree with the concept of fighting for my pension, but for the rather more prosaic reason that I belong to another union, who did not choose to strike this time.
Where does this ambivalence come from? From weariness, perhaps. From sheer, dogged tiredness at fighting something that seems so unfair. From the fear that no matter how many times we teachers go on strike, it does not and will not change the relentless march towards ‘reform’ touted by our government and those they have appointed.
This is ‘reform’ that seems not to care whether I am there at the end of this journey. The house must be cleaned, the bath water thrown out and the baby with it. In fact, ‘reform’ is so high on the agenda, I am all ‘reformed’ out: my teaching has been thoroughly scrubbed and investigated, my progress over time is hanging out on the washing line and my pension has been turned inside out and given a good whacking with the dust beater. I should be feeling squeaky clean, but actually, I feel…quite wiped out. It is now, at the age of thirty-one, that I have come to realise that protest is exhausting.
How long have I been protesting? I can tell you I was there on the NUS march in Central London over ten years ago, standing under the University of Warwick banner, protesting against tuition fees. I shouted as loudly as them all: “What are fees? Cheeky! How cheeky? Very!” My academic year was the first to pay them. I did pay them and accrued a considerable amount of debt – most of which I am still paying. I was there at the NUS march against top-up fees, to prevent a generation of students being in a worse position than I was. Top-up fees were introduced and duly increased to what for some families might be astronomically inaccessible levels. My insides have protested against other aspects of education for the ten years I have been teaching – most recently against Boris Johnson’s assertion that the riots last summer were caused by poor schools who did not do enough to raise levels of literacy. In the same ridiculous public ramble, he stated that “there are some boroughs like Hackney that are very good at tackling this problem in schools” and that there are some schools that are “chillingly bad”. Boris, my inner placard read, Hackney was at the centre of the riots even though most schools in the borough have outstanding results – and ironically, the other borough where there was a distinct problem was Enfield, the site of two mayoral academies. Maybe my inner placard wasn’t loud enough to be heard.
I’m not the only one tired of protesting. The news today barely covers the strikes in London – shortage of fuel is more alarming than teachers walking out of their classrooms and withholding their labour. The story doesn’t make it onto the headlines on the BBC News website. Squint and you might see it in the education section, no bigger than the story about the anti-insect wheat trials being underway.
Does that mean I have given up, moved beyond caring? No, definitely not. When Nick Gibb says: “This deal is as good as it gets and takes the right balance – guaranteeing teachers one of the best pensions available, but keeping a lid on rising costs for the taxpayer”, I have to laugh because if I don’t, I might cry instead. I am not just a teacher, I am the taxpayer. My costs have risen every year, but my cost of living allowance has been frozen for the last two years. My taxes pay for nuclear defence programmes when I’d much rather they paid for teachers’ pensions. In attempting to balance the books in this way, the government has failed to see one major flaw in the plan: the economy may be saved, but the damage to the collective consciousness of the teaching workforce may be irreparable.
My protest today took entirely a different form. I did not form a picket line, or hold a placard because from my own bitter experience, I can see that has not worked to change educational issues. I decided that the best form of protest today was going into work and doing my job to the best of my ability so that Sir Michael Wilshaw can’t say that I am not doing it properly. I helped Year 11 students become more literate so that Boris Johnson can’t tell me that it was my fault that London burned and so that my students could go on to live productive lives. I supported my colleagues by creating and sharing resources so that I could model to those in government what collegiality means in education. I arranged mentor observations so that I could help young teachers become good at their jobs and so that they could alter futures, change society and address educational disadvantage. I did what Mahatma Gandhi said I should do: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” I wasn’t on the streets, but my soul was there, chanting: “What are pension changes? Cheeky! How cheeky? Very!”