Teachers. Love them or hate them right now, it’s understandable, because the recent Teacher’s Strike did affect many people. Hopefully, here, I can enlighten those who aren’t 100% sure of what the strikes were all about, why teachers finally said ‘enough’, why they continued for so long, and what is happening next.
All the teachers I know are incredibly selfless people with enormous hearts. I see them comforting that child whose hamster died that morning, I see them buy breakfast for children who came to school without, I see them treating emotional children and parents with care and compassion.
But we are also human, and we are not perfect. It’s easy to forget that teachers have their own complicated lives too: divorce, deaths of loved ones, illness. We also just have to go through day to day life like everyone else: grocery shopping, appointments, doing household chores, being a parent etc.
The strikes started simply because, like pretty much all strikes, those actually doing the job felt like they weren’t being listened to after years of trying to be listened to. Unvalued and underappreciated. Disrespected in what used to be seen as a very prestigious and note-worthy career. And it should be. The many years studying and continuous training throughout a teacher’s career means that our own learning never ends. There is a never-ending stream of new teaching techniques to try, systems to get on board with, cutting edge research to practice and so you are never just a teacher. You are forever a student too.
Ask any teacher (and there are few left now) who have been teaching for 20 or more years and they all say similar things. Technology advances have helped – thank goodness for interactive whiteboards and online data systems. But many other things have gone downhill. Teachers have never been expected to do more and be more than now. And whilst all teachers go into the profession with an understanding of ‘this is NOT going to be easy’, we do it anyway. And that, according to some, means that we don’t deserve to complain. Or if we don’t like how the system is, then just find another job.
Any person, if their work has changed in a way that is detrimental to their health or the service they can provide, should be allowed to speak up. The strikes weren’t a quick, selfish decision. They were talked about years ago, when teacher’s pay and job satisfaction started steeply declining. And feedback was given, but nothing changed.
As school budgets have been cut for resources, staff and services, it’s the children who lose out. Yes, teachers and other school staff won’t receive pay rises, which is sad and unfair, but when resources are stopped and the people holding the purse appear to stop listening, that’s when the pot boils over. Teachers, like many others in community serving professions; hospital staff, care and social workers, emergency services – all providing the most necessary of jobs, somehow aren’t taken as seriously as they used to be.
Many teachers face daily physical and emotional abuse. Many spend thousands of their own money over their careers buying resources to fill in where budget cuts affect even the simplest things, like paper, pencils, rubbers and rulers. Let alone luxuries like art supplies, costumes for drama and science or sports equipment.
Speaking to Mrs X* (a friend who is a parent of 3 children under 16) about the strikes, her support was clear, but I felt her frustration and pain. Childcare costs are astronomical. How will she manage this month? What about her son’s exams? Why won’t the SEB engage properly with pay deals if that’s the only way this whole mess is going to get sorted?
I didn’t have all the answers to give her. Unfortunately, pay is a big part of ‘this whole mess’. And it’s great that it looks like after a month of action, there might finally be a deal on the table that is agreed upon by all. “When compared to average earnings, which have consistently exceeded inflation since 2008, teachers’ and lecturers’ pay will be more than 15% behind by 2020” explained Chris Keates, NASUWT General Secretary. So, all this comes at the end of what was a 10-year real terms pay cut, when school budgets were being slashed and teachers were stretched to their last resource and emotional breaking point. The strikes had to happen for things to get better, whether the teachers wanted to do them or not.
Of course, when you look purely at numbers, a teacher’s wage seems a good deal (apart from an £8000 pay cut for Newly Qualified Teachers). But many earn less than minimum wage by the time you add in those 60+ hours a week and money out their own pocket, when their rents, bills and life costs are going up too, just like everyone else’s.
In any job, when your job role changes, and you work longer hours and take on more and more responsibility, you ask for a new job title and pay rise to match the commitment you’re giving. Teachers nowadays perform so many roles. They give up lunchtimes, after school and Saturday mornings for clubs (often unpaid) because they want to enrich the school. But there is only so far goodwill and expectations will take a person. Teachers don’t ‘just’ educate. They are marriage and family counsellors, they work with so many different agencies such as Social Services and doctors, police and charities, to support families. They are expected to be listeners, researchers and problem solvers for all aspects of life that might affect the children they teach and their families.
The paperwork and general workloads are ever increasing, teacher mental health has never been lower, and in a recent study, nearly 45% of teachers leave within 5 years. Teacher retention and turnover is huge. You have to ask yourself why? What environment is being created that makes so many leave or turn to strike action? And what is that environment doing for the children? Wouldn’t you want better for your child’s education?
The strikes were an unpleasant situation, and regardless of how I personally feel about the strikes, having been in this system for 10 years, I still love to teach. And at the end of the day, when your child’s teacher goes home after a 12 hour day with no lunch or toilet break, with a stack of marking to do when they should be spending time with their own family, they are also thinking of that child who achieved something amazing that day, the cuddle they received that put a smile on their face, the ‘wow!’ exam score they helped attain, and they are going to keep doing it all over again. Because they love it too.