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.
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit