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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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.