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 conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood