I became mildly hysterical last week when I realised that several lecturers in one of the vocational faculties I’ve nested in were not members of any union. Arms flapping, voice high-pitched, I explained the importance of the legal cover, the representation in employment disputes and…the legal cover.
I realised mid-shriek that I just don’t believe in the professional moaning that’s paid for with the rest of the subscription.
Before I got into teaching, I spent years studying the 19th-century Russian writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov. His provincial character Irina, in Three Sisters, famously longs for the glamorous dream of “Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!” – for me, this is analogous to the repetitive, dissatisfied whines of the teaching unions. Nobody ever remembers that another teacher in the play cries in counterpoint “I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied,” and that is how it feels to be part of the quiet majority in teaching who enjoy their job and who are devoted to helping young people.
“My life is far more difficult than yours. I receive a sum total of 23 rubles a month – and don’t forget you must then deduct my payment to the pension fund.”
Perspective on teaching
The plaintive voice crosses centuries, continents, and revolutions, yet it could have come from your latest unopened issue of the NEU teaching union’s magazine. Then, similarly to our union leaders now, the character Semyon in The Seagull fails to gain any real perspective of his privilege because he spends most of his time in a bubble of non-teaching “Bohemians”.
In my own short career, I have seen enormous improvements in the educational landscape: the progress agenda attempts to shift focus from one arbitrary attainment group to all learners. The new English GCSE has dispensed with the coursework production line and frees teachers to stir up passion and excitement in the classroom. Ofsted has ditched lesson gradings and no longer advocates narrow teaching styles.
It’s a joyous time to be teaching. Yet the message from the unions is indistinguishable from a line in a 19th-century Russian play that is mocking the transcendent image of the whingeing teacher. I’m ashamed that the image still has currency, but it only applies to a stereotype accidentally perpetuated by unions and not the reality of the committed, skilled teachers I work with every day.
Perhaps I am too privileged and especially lucky in my current context. But I know that teachers elsewhere, in that minority of institutions where senior leadership teams seem to be actively persecuting their staff, look on in frustration at unions taking ineffectual but headline-grabbing potshots at the government and at Ofsted, while they receive no tangible support on the ground.
It gets worse when the unions become indistinguishable from those they are meant to offer protection from. This week, the NEU has suggested that my vocation, teaching GCSE resits, is “causing damage” to my students. They call the policy “ridiculous”. I am astonished to see a union parroting the propaganda of industrialists such as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) and I can only assume that the TUC is not paying attention. A union opposing a policy that offers redress to the working-class children who have been let down by a loaded school system is an unforgivable betrayal. This is a timeless hypocrisy and it is illustrated in lines that were cut from Chekhov’s Seagull. Semyon, another stereotyped teacher, half-heartedly states that “The world is round.”
Dr Dorn: Why do you sound so doubtful?
Semyon: When there’s no food on the table, it doesn’t matter whether it’s round or flat.
The doctor identifies a lack of conviction in Semyon that renders him an unsuitable teacher. I’m paid too little – damn the students. The hours are too long – damn the students. There’s too much marking – damn the students.
While the existence of the unions rests upon dissatisfaction, they cannot resist the temptation to sow it. The voices of those with stoicism, resilience, and the willingness to keep trying remain unheard. In a week where the educational divide between disadvantaged and wealthier students has once again been starkly highlighted, I want the unions to be cheering on the majority who work their fingers to the bone attempting to close that gap, not putting out more demoralising press releases.
'I was tired and today I feel happy'
“Yesterday I worked from morning until 11 o’clock at night,” says Fyodor in Three Sisters, describing his work-life balance in a way that resonates more than a century later, but then surprisingly concludes “I was tired and today I feel happy.” To help understand Fyodor’s implication that being tired from teaching is the cause of his happiness, look to his school leader’s philosophy: “The chief thing in every life…the chief thing is its form.” Fyodor is content in his "form" of teacher and is therefore content in his life. He is often played as a foolish cuckold, but I think this is unfair. For me, the touches of warmth and humour he brings from the schoolroom should contrast sharply with the self-pitying nihilism of the others. He fools around wearing a false moustache and beard he has confiscated from “Those funny boys” while a gunshot, fatal to another character, is heard in the distance.
There are alternatives to the NEU. There are even alternatives to unions. It’s possible to have insurance and representation without contributing to groups preaching that the work you are doing is damaging young people. It’s enormously important to remember the benefits our work brings to our students and to fight for the ability to do that work for its inherent, moral good, without bowing to pressure over “logistical problems” or how difficult it is to “recruit and retain” staff – all sounding suspiciously like management concerns and the last thing our unions should be defending.
Irina commits to teaching at the conclusion of Three Sisters: “we must work, we must only work! Tomorrow I shall go alone, I’ll teach in a school, and I’ll give my whole life to those who may need it” and her sister Olya picks up the theme: “we won’t be remembered, they’ll forget what we looked like, forget our voices…But our sufferings can turn to joy for those that live after us.” While there’s probably no need for quite such a bleak view (that was Twilight Russia, don’t forget), the sentiments are apt. We, teachers, lay foundations for the future. All of the social injustices that we are so quick to highlight and retweet can be addressed through our work. But ours is a vocation that demands some self-sacrifice: our own self-interests are insignificant compared to the hope that we represent.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720