A lesson in appreciation: why don't we care about teachers?

"Tough Young Teachers" on BBC 3 has exposed some of the difficulties of life in the classroom. So why do we still undervalue a profession from which we've all benefited?

I’ve never much cared for teachers. Consequently, I was quite an intolerable student. I thought myself rather brilliant because I knew the meaning (not to mention the pronunciation) of the word "synecdoche". I once locked the deputy head out of the chemistry lab, because I thought work was overrated. I released an "underground magazine" - that's four sheets of paper, bound with a single staple - because my head teacher didn’t like my piece on faith schools in the student newspaper. Take that, authority.

Admittedly, from my nice south-west London state school, I wasn’t exactly fashioning shanks out of table legs. But my actions revealed a clear lack of respect. George Bernard Shaw famously quipped "those who can, do, those who can’t, teach", and as a student I was convinced that the people trying to educate me were just irrelevant OAPs with right-wing tendencies who fetishised equations. Watching Tough Young Teachers on BBC3 this week has completed the transition in my thinking - taking me from condescending antipathy to pure admiration.

The show, which follows six new teachers fresh from the Teach First graduate scheme into the classrooms of struggling schools around London, is an endearing look at what it’s like to be chucked in at the deep end. Tough Young Teachers - somewhat gleefully - depicts the various slip-ups that the teachers make, after only six weeks of training. Children don’t listen, skip detention and misbehave, and teachers are, understandably, reluctant to give up so much of their time (and dignity) for their students.

"A kid said to me the other day, you should be up till midnight marking my work because that’s your job. You know, they’re taking us for granted," says Oliver, one of the teachers, from Scotland. Claudenia, a young science teacher, disagrees, as they sit around eating pizza: "I think that’s wrong. We agreed, when we signed that contract that ... we were going to go in and do whatever, because if anyone owes anyone anything, we owe them our best. We’re the adults, they’re the students. We owe them".

This conversation reveals some of the difficulties teachers face. The profession requires a patient selflessness in order to deal with apathetic, lazy, disinterested students, brimming with a sense of educational entitlement. A teacher I know recently posted the following on Facebook: “Teachers still do not get paid enough to put up with rude, disrespectful children that ruin everyone else's learning by taking the fun out of it.” The bitterness is easy to detect, even in less strident teachers. While we accept that having an education is essential, as soon as this appreciation is extended to our teachers, we can be reluctant to make the connection. We still see the profession as unimpressive. The pay is good, but not exceptional. The hours are longer than you’d think, with marking, lesson plans and after school activities, not to mention how emotionally tiring the job can be. A former teacher of mine described it as "training in resilience". Tough is not an overstatement.

And yet we still don’t care about teachers. There are many of them, and we’ve all met them, so they tend to be disregarded. It’s hard to see a job as prestigious when it’s one of the most common jobs in Britain. Considering this, it’s also difficult to moderate. You’re always going to get bad teachers into the state system because there is no foolproof arbitration system, which drags down our perception of the quality. It is also tempting to presume complete autonomy when it comes to education. People are often reluctant to admit they had help in achieving their grades. Teachers are the people we are last to thank.

As a society, we need to change the way we view the profession. If we expect little from teachers, we get little in return. Of course, there are barriers – the "talent drain" to better-paid jobs at private schools, or the impossibility of defining what makes a good teacher, for example. Nonetheless, we need to avoid becoming a culture which fails to appreciate their importance. Don’t suffocate them with an overly rigid curriculum. Pay them more and make the most of their academic interests. In Ireland and Switzerland, the teaching average is around $50,000 a year, though this does include the private sector. It’s an investment in a brighter society, which results in a richer, healthier society. Education lowers unemployment, health issues and reduces poverty levels.

It’s incredibly counter-intuitive to degrade the profession, when education is one of the best tools we have for social mobility. We need to discuss education as a nation, and to value it.

Also, just incase you were wondering, it’s pronounced “syn-ek-da-kee”.

Harder than you think - BBC3's "Tough Young Teachers". Image: BBC Pictures.
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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt