Today
Mon 1 March 2021

The UK’s brilliant educators don’t deserve to be pilloried by talentless right-wing commentators, argues Nathan O’Hagan

George Bernard Shaw’s line from his 1903 work Man and Superman feels as old as the teaching profession itself. “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” We’ve all heard it from parents, grandparents – and probably uttered from our own mouths. But where does this dislike for teachers come from? 

It’s easy to understand a generational aspect to this; the image of the old-school (as it were) headmasters, whacking children with a cane for the most minor of transgressions. It’s conceivable, and understandable, that a century of this kind of teaching has caused many generations to grow up with a deep-seated suspicion and dislike of teachers.

However, the canings, beating and board duster hurlings are a thing of the past. Even those of my generation – I’m in my early 40s – came of age when teaching, although perhaps not exactly progressive, certainly wasn’t defined by the kind of bullying and belittlement that caused Morrissey to sing “belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools”. Yet a dislike remains. Why?

Many myths still seem to abound about a teacher’s working life; a misconception that they have it easy. The perception often seems to be that a teacher starts work at nine, finishes by four, has a six week summer holiday, two weeks at Easter and frequent half terms. I live with a teacher, and can assure anyone this is most certainly not the case.

My wife arrives at work around eight in the morning, and rarely leaves before six. She spends half her weekends and several evenings a week on her laptop working at home. Not an excessive working week by many standards, of course, but these facts should go some way to dispel the narrative that teachers clock in around the time most people are having their second meeting of the morning, and clock off a couple of hours after you finish your lunch break.

The holidays are long, yes, but the notion they have their feet up and a pina colada in hand is a fallacy. Summer holidays in particular are broken up by extensive preparation work for the coming term, particularly for reception class teachers, who spend a couple of weeks of the holiday on home visits with new pupils. Although often just an opportunity to meet the pupils and their families before they start, these visits are often used to assess any special educational needs, as well as safeguarding issues, that affect the child. 

Teaching is one professions that everybody has a strongly-held opinion on, with little or no knowledge of what teaching actually involves. Right-wing political commentators – now there’s a profession unsuitable for anyone with a basic level of intelligence – have never missed an opportunity to portray teachers as lazy, feckless hippy lefties.

Toby Young was so opinionated on the issue that he even felt compelled to open up his own free school in 2011, in an attempt to show teachers how it should be done. He left his role at West London Free School in 2016, admitting he didn’t realise how difficult it was to run a school. “As someone coming into education from the outside, the bits you see of other schools are only the tip of the iceberg,” he said at the time. “You think, ‘well, I could do better than that’, as you are pointing to the tip of the iceberg, without realising how much more there is to it.”

Young’s baseless criticism of an entire profession is a perfect illustration of the mythical assumption that teaching is somehow a cushy number – an easy, low-stress and reasonably well paid line of work. Teaching, in reality, is far from low-stress. A study carried out last year by the National Foundation For Educational Research found that teachers are more likely to suffer from work-related stress than any other profession. More teachers report a dissatisfaction with their work-life balance than in any other line of work. 

No doubt Toby Young would put this down to most teachers being lazy liberal snowflakes who wouldn’t last five minutes in the private sector, rather than ever-escalating demands on the profession – such as growing class numbers and workload – coupled with under-resourcing and poor pay deals. If the teaching profession was such a cushy number, there wouldn’t be an all-time record number of people leaving it, as is currently the case.  


A Crisis Compounded

Of course there are bad teachers; we’ve all experienced them. Maybe it’s the disproportionate influence they are perceived to have on our children that makes people default to, at best, a position of suspicion, if not outright hostility.

The central role they play in the lives of children means they need to be accountable for the work they do, and they are certainly held accountable. It’s hard to think of many professions where employees are so closely monitored and assessed, with such frequency. Not only are they held accountable by school heads, parents are also given frequent opportunities to grill them, in the shape of parent’s evenings. 

This idea that teachers are lazy and disruptive has only intensified during the COVID-19 crisis. As the UK eased out of the first nationwide lockdown, many teachers expressed concern with the return of children to schools and how that would be managed. Social distancing is difficult in any classroom environment, but almost impossible in Key Stage One classes.

Would teachers or pupils be required to wear, and be provided with, some level of personal protective equipment? One of many reasonable questions designed to understand whether children and staff could return as safely as possible. Overwhelmingly, teachers were worried about the threat to the children’s, their own, and their families’ safety, but wanted to return to school. What were reasonable questions were instantly characterised by the usual voices as teachers, supported by the radical unions, trying to block a return. 

“Teachers need to show some courage and get back into the classroom,” screamed the headline of a Joanna Harris article in The Times back in April. This was before a decision had even been made about when schools would return, and despite the fact that – while the country was shut down and most people were working from home – teachers had been working the entire time. They had been looking after vulnerable children and those of key workers, as well as doing their utmost to ensure some level of school continuity by using Zoom and various online teaching methods. 

We are at the outset of a second national lockdown. The majority of businesses have shut up shop, but the schools remain open, despite significant risks to pupils and teaching staff.

It’s hard to imagine just what teachers would have to do – what lengths they would have to go to – in order to rid themselves of the stigma they receive. This goes against the image teachers have in other cultures, but, in Britain at least, it seems unlikely to change any time soon.

Article corrected to “Social distancing is difficult in any classroom environment, but almost impossible in Key Stage One classes.” 16 November 2020


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