Dear Minister,

My daughter Hazel (5) and I recently had an interesting exchange concerning our education system which I feel compelled to share with you. To grasp the true beauty of this exchange, please take a moment to study the image below.

Inside the Box

Hazel: What are the kids doing mammy?

Mammy: They’re thinking inside the box.

Hazel: I thought they were sleeping?

Mammy: (spluttering into mug and laughing) some of them might be!

Hazel: I’m going to draw in eyes so they look like they’re awake.

Mammy: OK, good idea.

Hazel: Can I draw in the boxes?

Mammy: Yep

Hazel: What do you want them to be thinking?

Mammy: (who is also a teacher) Anything they want!

Hazel: (drawing) This boy is thinking about a cat zebra.

Mammy: Wow!

Hazel: (whispering)  …and he’s dreaming about being on a boat!

Cat zebra boat

Mammy: (smiling) What are the others dreaming about?

Hazel: (drawing slowly, concentrating, until finally…) A dog with a bunny tail, a  stripy cat, an alien and this girl is thinking inside the circle.

Mammy: Why is the teacher cutting the circles into boxes? (WARNING: leading question alert:) Is it so that they all think the same thing?

Hazel: They’re not all thinking the same thing so it doesn’t matter if they think in circles or boxes. (Putting down pen decisively) Can I have some chocolate buttons?

Mammy: ok sweetheart, but only if you give me a hug first!

——————

A few days later my daughter started school. I want her time in school to be wonderful. I want her teachers to care about her education. All of my experience tells me that the vast majority of teachers she encounters will care about her and about her learning, even if at times she doesn’t particularly care about her learning herself.

Five days into Junior Infants as we sat at the table doing her modest homework, she told me she needed to practice her sounds and her new letter but she didn’t need to do her colouring because the teacher wouldn’t look at it.

Some parents would tut tut at this revelation, I only smiled because:

(a) I like the sound of this teacher. The phonics matter, the colouring not so much. Time and resources are finite, and this teacher has 30 five and six year olds in a mixed class of Junior and Senior Infants. That is not something I would sign up for! Yet every night as my daughter is falling asleep she is practicing “guh guh guh, sss sss sss, ah ah ah“.  The teacher is doing a bloody great job and she’d better watch out or I may just hug her at the parent-teacher meetings!

(b) Hazel is already looking for shortcuts. Lol! Less than a week into her formal schooling, she has internalised the notion that if there is no audience, then there is no point. This scares me as a secondary school teacher, because for me to give each of my students just ten minutes of my time a week would amount to 33hours 2o minutes. But what each of them writes in a week would take a hell of a lot longer than 10 minutes to read.

[c.f. my calculations from a previous blog post on the new JC English specification:

22 hrs class teaching,
33 hrs individualised feedback of 10mins each x 200 pupils
12 hrs class preparation (a vast underestimation)
5 hrs subject department/croke park/school self evaluation/literacy and numeracy/ICT
3 hrs extra-curricular

75 hour working week
hospitalisation]

However, despite the challenges my job presents, very occasionally it seems like you, Dear Minister, understand the difficulties teachers face.. On the 8th of September 2013, a Sunday morning, I was sitting at our kitchen table preparing classes for the week ahead with the radio on in the background. I heard your dulcet tones and asked my husband to lean over from washing the dishes at the sink and turn it up. I was so delighted to hear you say something positive about me and the work that I do that I scribbled down your words, then typed them and tweeted them to the world. (If you need help with your PR in future, please don’t hesitate to contact me!)

Ruairi Tweet

The following evening I had hoped to take part in #edchatie for its 100th anniversary but it had been a very long day. We don’t often say it to the world but teaching – like nursing and social work –  is mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting and as  you already know, we now work under “extremely difficult circumstances”.  I fell asleep putting my daughter to bed.

Nonetheless, I woke up just in time to catch the last five minutes of the twitter chat. The topic was “Why Teach?” and people were finishing the night reflecting on what was the best part of their job. Due to my tardiness, my only contribution for the night was this:

Best job tweet

So if I love my job, despite the challenges, and you think I’m doing a good job, why am I writing to you? Right now, as you observed, we’ve got an excellent system (cf: http://brianmlucey.wordpress.com/2013/09/23/why-do-we-hate-teachers/).

Well, since our decision to reject the Haddington Road Agreement, I feel you have forgotten your earlier wisdom. In fact, it’s quite ironic that at a time when anti-bullying procedures are being put in place in all schools, you attempt to bully us into submission by threatening us with compulsory redundancies. It’s even more ironic to listen to you and your spin doctors telling us to “think of the children“.

I do think about my students. All the bloody time. I twist myself up in knots trying to think of new ways to do my job better.

For me personally, and I can only speak for myself, this is not really about my pay. And no, we’re not rich and yes we do have a house in negative equity, in Ennis, that’s worth at least €100,000 less than it was when we bought it. I drive a battered ’06 Toyota Aygo which may or may not pass the NCT next January. My last holiday was to London for the weekend and I stayed with my sister. We’re not wealthy and of course no-one wants to take a pay cut. But we’re managing and money is not what motivates me in life, so we just get on with it and every month that there’s money in the bank at the end of the month is a good month.

For me, personally, this is not about money, this is about my working conditions. It’s about the fact that your government seem to want to make it impossible for me to do my job to the best of my ability.

There are two things which are finite in my job: resources and time. When both of these things start to shrink, I get worse at my job and it upsets me. A lot.

Let’s start with resources. You’re tired of hearing us rabbit on about class size but we won’t shut up because class size matters. The more students I teach the harder it is to offer them individualised feedback yet all of the research states that continuous quality feedback is the hallmark of great teaching and real learning.

The other resource all schools need is TEACHERS. A friend of mine who teaches in London recently told me they have 52 staff and 400 pupils in his school. We have 34 staff (including our wonderful school secretary and caretaker and our cleaner who works part-time) and 475 pupils. That says it all really. That’s 18 more staff for 75 fewer pupils. They have lab technicians and a full time IT person; they have someone in charge of curriculum and innovation. When teachers take on extra duties their teaching hours are reduced to allow them the time to work on these initiatives without compromising the quality of their preparation, teaching and feedback. In Ireland, rather than give more time, we used to offer more money. Now, with the moratorium on posts of responsibility we offer neither time nor compensation.

Right now alongside my teaching workload I’m working on our school’s Literacy Strategy, working with colleagues on a whole school approach to IT, I’m Head of the English Department, I’m trying to get to grips with the New Junior Cycle English specification – as yet still in draft form – due to be implemented from Sept 2014 but in-service has yet to commence; I’m liaising with the local radio station to give Transition Years an opportunity to learn about broadcasting and I’m trying to tune out the voice of my daughter who has said more than once in the last few weeks “mammy, you’re always working”  after I have yet again fobbed her off saying “I just need to finish this sweetheart“.

So it’s taken me a while to write to you Dear Minister because I’m busy and I’m tired. I love my job but your policies are making it very very difficult for me to be good at it. Today I’ve got poetry essays to correct and a daughter to play with and washes to hang on the line and classes to prepare for tomorrow and I have yet to eat breakfast but you’ve been on my mind so I decided to get this letter out of the way first. It hasn’t been easy to write but I’m glad I did. There’s a mantra I have stuck up in my classroom “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m saying it’s going to be worth it“. Writing my thoughts into words has been worth the effort because it will give me the strength I need to resist the negative propaganda which will engulf our profession in the next weeks and months and possibly even years to come.

Next Wednesday I have the privilege of returning to my Alma Mater NUIG to address the first ever gathering of the newly established Education Society so I need to prepare my presentation for that. I doubt I’ll have time to veg in front of the X-factor tonight. I’m not being paid to address the Education society (like everything else in education, they are no doubt chronically underfunded) but as I said already, money is not what motivates me.

Next Friday I’ll be heading to Dublin immediately after work to attend a CESI meet and to prepare for Feilte, a showcase of innovative teaching organised by the Teaching Council for World Teacher’s Day on Saturday. I won’t be breaking the terms of the ASTI industrial action because these are not Croke Park hours, nor are they nationally mandated in-service. Believe it or not, events organised by teachers for teachers are enjoyable and VOLUNTARY. Yes, despite the profound mistrust of teachers evidenced in the notorious and soon to be defunct Croke Park hours, when you trust us and give us a choice, we actually volunteer for CPD. It’s forcing us all to be in the same place at the same time doing the same thing (i.e. Croke Park hours) even though our needs are completely different that we hate and find patronising beyond belief.

I was also asked to go on national radio next Friday morning to discuss World Teacher’s Day and to offer some balance to the relentless negativity around teaching which has swept through the media since we rejected the Haddington Road Agreement but I turned them down because they wanted me in studio, which would mean taking a full day away from my classroom. I’m not willing to do that. If they’ll do the interview over the phone, I’m game because I do think it’s important that the public gets reminded that we’re not the enemy. Teachers are just ordinary people, many of us parents, trying to do a good job. And if we say enough is enough, allow yourself to think outside of the box for a moment and consider that this might not be about money. This might be about far more important things than that.

Meanwhile industrial action looms and you will dig your heels in and we will dig our heels in and God knows where we’ll all end up. It’s sad really because we both want the same thing. We just don’t agree on how to achieve it.

Sincerely,

Evelyn O’Connor.

38 Responses to An Open Letter to Ruairi Quinn

  1. John Heeney says:

    Great piece Evelyn. Lots going on but all hitting the mark.

  2. Kathleen Ryan says:

    Well written Evelyn. As always you echo the sentiments and experiences of hundreds of teachers around the country. Teachers who love teaching will inevitably find it mentally, physically and emotionally draining. Like you, I doubt I’ll get to veg in front of Fair City tonight! And like you, the extra hours trying to prepare, correct, give feedback as well as guide the debating, poetry competitions and more, (that we love to do for the sake of our students’ education), as well as being on the lunch-time voluntary literacy team and so on might well lead to the hospitalisation of some of our teachers. I really admire teachers with young families! There just aren’t enough hours in the day! So what is Minister Quinn doing about ‘the extremely difficult circumstances’ that we operate under? He does not seem to recognise and acknowledge the time commitment that goes with quality teaching. Teachers are delivering, but the Minister continues to cut, impede and insult our professional integrity.
    Like you, Evelyn, I must get back to correcting sixth year essays on the poetry of Yeats! And like you, I also believe that teaching is a privilege and the best job in the world. Thank you for your words and for continuing to speak openly. All the best.

  3. Orla Drumgoole says:

    Bravo Evelyn. Considering one myself. Now you have inspired me to add my voice to the fight.

  4. John O Driscoll says:

    Great stuff Evelyn. I have, by a long shot, encountered mostly very talented teachers.Excellent communicators along with innate intelligence and big hearts. The minority are indifferent. Politicians are swimming in a shallow ideology that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. And they are wealthy and can buy education for themselves. They are in a bubble. If voting could change anything it would be against the law.
    Your good work does not go unnoticed. You will get your reward.

  5. johnkilleagh says:

    Thanks for writing this, so clear and so compelling.

  6. Thanks for your comments. I just hope it’s not only the teachers who are listening…

  7. Amy McGrath says:

    Good article. I would add that a key problem for Irish teachers is the persistent use of one year contracts. In other jobs, permanence is not even questioned. It is deeply unfair to ask teachers to live for four years with no job security. I teach in England and permanent jobs are the rule rather than the exception. The Irish government needs to change this fast in order to give teachers a fair chance.

  8. Brendan O'Sullivan says:

    Excellent letter. Sums up exactly how I feel.

  9. Amy says:

    Well said, Evelyn!

  10. Denise Donlon says:

    This is great. You’ve summed up perfectly what I’ve been thinking all week and I find myself agreeing with you whole heartedly. Keep up the good work (despite the psychological setbacks).

  11. A wonderful article Evelyn, thank you.

  12. Carmel Gray says:

    Brilliant article. Thanks.

  13. sandra doody says:

    Great article. In addition to number of teachers on temporary contracts, the fact that in UK teachers employed on temporary contracts know that they have jobs for September before the end of the previous school year helps significantly especially when it comes to robust planning.

  14. Sinead says:

    Really brilliant, Evelyn, Thank you.

  15. Linda Sice says:

    Well done Evelyn

  16. Well done . You said what needed to be said in a fantastic fashion.

  17. Anne Turner says:

    As always Evelyn SUPERB piece, beautiful illustration by you in the anecdote of the engagement of you and your daughter 🙂

  18. livia says:

    Fantastic letter Evelyn! !! You’ve nailed many issues! You’ll have my vote should you ever decide to replace our current minister of ed. 🙂

  19. Deirdre Markham says:

    Thanks Evelyn, I needed that, especially after reading the stinging vitriol heaped upon the entire profession by Emer O’Kelly today in the Sindo.

  20. cliona says:

    Great letter Evelyn. I wish more people were aware of all we do for the good and love of our students. As principal I’m delighted that I’m not singing a solo on the damage those Croke Park hours have done to the spirit of volunteerism within teaching, they haven’t killed it but it has greatly reduced the number of volunteer hours people are able to give because they now have extra hours forced on them that they would have used to volunteer for extra curricular activities in the past. And finally as a primary teacher I’m delighted to hear our work being appreciated by a secondary teacher.

  21. Margaret Marron says:

    Fantastic article Evelyn. Sums up just about everything I want to say but simply don’t have the energy to put down in words.. On behalf of teachers everywhere…Thank You.

  22. MsTumelty says:

    Great letter and so very true!!

  23. Catherine Mangan says:

    Brilliant My Friend

  24. Peter McCabe says:

    So eloquently written. Hope Ruairi hears all that. Bravo

  25. marc362 says:

    Excellent letter Evelyn, well-stated and to the point, thank you. However, I think you may also be right when you suggest that only teachers may be reading this! Deirdre – give up the Sindo – and the Indo – so anti-teacher…

    • Deirdre says:

      Don’t worry, I never buy the rag, unfortunately followed a link to it. Hard to believe someone can harbour that much contempt and bitterness towards an entire profession.

  26. Excellent Evelyn – a great piece and to the point. Well done.

  27. Josephine Conway. says:

    Tremendous energy, thought and integrity as always. Look after yourself. Regards, Josie.

  28. Denise Buckley says:

    Thank you. I too feel lucky to teach a whole generation of eager, intelligent and fun loving teenagers. You are right the workload.is increasing to the detriment of innovation and burn out approaches rapidly… See you on Sat..

  29. paul dunne says:

    I wonder if anyone read Matt Williams article on economics in the Sunday Times? and on how the government is currently borrowing to pay public sector wages – in a private sector company this would result in lay offs or the closure of the company. I don’t wish to take sides and I certainly don’t think we should be engaging in private vs public but he had some very relevant points in the article. I work from 65 to 90 hours some weeks yet don’t get paid for many of them (at least 25 – still not hospitalised…)
    ps teachers do an amazing job – most of them – but many teachers have told me of fellow teachers who are just turning up and have no interest in their jobs – might be more idea to find a system that removes them and adds ones there on merit thus reducing some of the burden and workload – as takes place in the private sector…keep up the good work.

  30. Marie-Therese Walsh says:

    I’m not a teacher and I agree with everything you’ve said, I can see it as a parent volunteer in my daughters’ primary school. Many of us parents are behind you

  31. Miriam Smyth says:

    Evelyn, brilliant letter. Why don’t you actually send this to Ruairi Quinn and make sure he sees it or have it published in the offending Sindo.

  32. Mary O'Neill says:

    Evelyn, brilliant letter. What about the newly qualified teachers who will never see the inside of a classroom or even get a job? I am out of college over 1.5 years now and I have not been offered one hour of any kind of teaching. No-one is willing to give me a chance because I lack the experience to teach Leaving Cert.
    To me teaching in Ireland is a like a closed shop and it is impossible to “break” into it. Teaching was my life’s dream and I am so broken hearted that I cannot get a chance to follow my dream.

    • Hi Mary, thanks for your comment and sorry to hear about your difficulties getting work. I can imagine breaking into the profession is incredibly difficult these days. When I started teaching during the boom times in 2002 people thought you were an idiot for choosing teaching as a career but it did mean I got a full teaching position as soon as I qualified. How times have changed. Still, keep the faith. The number of pupils is on the rise all the time so you would imagine they’ll have to start hiring again, at least in the bigger cities.

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