Before becoming a teacher, say a prayer to St Cassian

1st April 2011 at 01:00
A touch of divine intervention may be necessary as the profession endures a severe tightening of the belt

Pick up any newspaper and it is clear that education is about to experience a significant reduction in funding. Does this mean teaching is no longer a sensible career choice? As a young teacher, I am often asked by friends and acquaintances whether I would recommend a life in the classroom. Up until very recently, I would have had little hesitation in answering "yes".

I would tell them that I love my job and that working with children is an incredible privilege. I would probably tell them a funny story that had happened in my classroom that week, and I would assure them that if you are prepared to work hard, you care about children, and you have a sense of humour, then teaching is the best job in the world. Today, however, perhaps I would hesitate.

Nothing about my love for the job has changed, but knowing how many of my peers from teacher training have struggled to find a permanent position, and looking ahead to the tough times we face, I might be slightly less enthusiastic about their career prospects.

Perhaps it's as well there is a patron saint of teachers. I only recently learnt that, in 363AD, St Cassian of Imola was beatified by the church after his pupils stabbed him to death with their pointed iron styli. The Pope, deeming him to have died a martyr, tasked him with providing divine assistance to all those in our profession - as well as parish clerks, shorthand writers and the now 9 million residents of Mexico City. (Like most teachers, he was obviously a good multi-tasker.)

Cassian was sentenced to death for refusing to commit sacrifices to the Roman gods. His pupils apparently gleefully accepted the task of his execution, in retribution for the cruel punishments he had inflicted upon them.

Times have changed and discipline approaches have been refined over the years, so it is no longer stabs from students, but cuts from governments that worry teachers most.

At times like these, when tense negotiations between teaching unions and the Government are ongoing, it is worth keeping a sense of perspective. I am sure many private and public-sector workers would look at the pay, holidays and job security of teachers with envy. One doesn't have to look very far in my local region, the north east of Scotland, to see the devastating effects of stringent government cuts on people's lives. The families of RAF workers and the communities of Lossiemouth and Kinloss would surely testify that things could be much worse. Nevertheless, one can't help but wonder what effects the cuts will have on our classrooms and, let's be honest, our careers.

Most of my friends and colleagues have accepted the idea of a two-year pay freeze because they recognise that everybody has to, in the words of an ex-army friend, "share the pain". If that is the case, teachers should be no different. However, one can't help but be concerned by some of the other proposals put forward by the Scottish Government and Cosla, not to mention the recent Hutton report into public-sector pensions.

If my basic understanding of these two documents is correct, then those teachers who are lucky enough to have a job are going to have their employment conditions "dramatically worsened", as the EIS puts it.

If commentators are to be believed, class sizes are going to rise, newly- qualified teachers are going to find it increasingly hard to get a job, and supply teachers will see their pay drastically reduced. On top of this, we will have to work longer into our dotage and receive significantly less in the way of a pension once we finally clear our desks and retire to enjoy the fruits of our labour.

If all of this does come to pass, then our profession is going to have to, collectively, endure a severe tightening of the belt. At worst, teachers will become demoralised as they are forced to carry an even greater workload.

Coupled with the cuts to "per capita" funding already coming into effect, curriculum transformation on the grand scale envisaged by Curriculum for Excellence may well become an impossible dream. Good luck trying to build a brand new junior and senior phase curriculum which meets all of your CfE experiences, outcomes and entitlements when you can hardly afford glue sticks and jotters.

Furthermore, with the anticipated reduction in support for learning, I envy the teacher who will be able to meet all the needs of the children in their care. Whatever the outcome of the cuts, it is clear that education is about to experience a hard time, for a long time. Teaching increasingly looks like a tough career choice.

The truth is, though, that however ambitious a person is, he or she does not become a teacher purely because of the career prospects. We do it because we want to work in a job that is constantly rewarding, constantly challenging and constantly changing. We do it because we love working with young people, and we want to make a difference in their lives.

So, if somebody asked me today whether I would recommend teaching as a career, yes I would hesitate. I probably would be honest and forewarn them of the struggles that lie ahead, but my answer would not change. I would still say yes because I still think it is the best job in the world. I would, however, recommend that they say a quick prayer to St Cassian before submitting their PGDE application.

Thom Sherrington teaches history at Aboyne Academy, Aberdeenshire, and is UK and Ireland Young Thinker of the Year.

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