Margaret Smith

13th May 2011 at 01:00
The incoming president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association is ready to stand up against workplace bullying and any meddling with the fundamental principles of the national teachers' agreement.

How would you describe yourself?

I hope I have a sense of humour - you definitely need that as a teacher. I am not a particularly political person, but I have a very strong sense of justice and I am passionately concerned about improving conditions for teachers. A disaffected, demoralised teaching force is in nobody's interest, which is why it is a crucial time at the moment - an absolute crossroads.

Why did you choose to become a teacher?

Australians have a tendency to travel, and one of the easiest ways to see the world was to take teaching jobs wherever you landed up. So I drifted into it that way. Also, there were not that many alternatives, particularly in Australia, for young women. I hope I was a successful teacher, and I had a passion for my subject.

Do you see your early career in teaching as "the good old days" or do you think teachers now are better professionals?

It's very easy to look back and say "things were so much better" - they weren't necessarily. Some of the things we have aspired to since the McCrone review (which led to the national teachers' agreement in 2001), such as the belief that there should be a higher degree of collegiality, are infinitely better. But I think there are far more attempts at political interference in education today, which is definitely negative. I think there was more recognition in the past that teachers knew what was best for the profession.

As an English teacher, is there anything you would change about the curriculum in your subject?

In many ways, it is already changing: the desire to get back to sometimes a more formalised approach to English teaching, recognition that there is a structure to language, that literacy is very important. It's all very well just to play imagination, but if you can't make any sense of what somebody has written, there is little point.

What is your opinion of teachers' literacy standards?

It does vary, but certainly the vast majority of teachers of every age are literate, well-educated people. I don't believe we should have literacy and numeracy tests for teachers. If somebody has gone through a proper degree, I think we should assume that person is literate. I think this is to some extent just tabloid nonsense.

As a member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, what is your view on teaching standards?

I think they should look to the very, very small number of teachers who have actually been brought to the GTC for incompetence. I know some people assume that is simply because the GTC is not doing its job - I don't share that opinion. Many people deemed to be incompetent are simply in need of support, and that is not always there.

At the last Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association conference you spoke very passionately about the bullying of teachers and pupil indiscipline. Why are these issues so close to your heart?

I think there is an issue with workplace bullying. The teacher who is deemed to be maverick, who doesn't toe the party line, is sometimes isolated and bullied. I think that is a real issue. Indiscipline speaks for itself. It makes the job impossible. Too often, teachers go to management and are told: "He is not a problem in Mrs so-and-so's class - maybe he hates physics." Children are very sophisticated and now, of course, we have issues like the use of mobile phones, Rate My Teachers, all this stuff. Some of it can be very nasty.

What will your priorities be as SSTA president?

To support members to the best of my ability. I hope to visit as many schools in Scotland as I can to establish exactly what people's concerns are - although, given the current climate, I could make a reasonable guess what these concerns might be. These are difficult times, to put it mildly.

What are your hopes and fears for the McCormac review on teacher employment?

My first concern is that there are no teacher representatives on this committee. It would have been common sense to have involved people who do the job. In some ways it is fairly obvious what the problems are at the moment and to some extent I question how much a review was necessary. McCrone was supposed to be about a teaching profession for the 21st century, but 10 years into it we are talking about abandoning some of its fundamental principles. It was meant to lead to greater teacher autonomy, more collegiality, and better conditions for teachers and pupils alike, and we are trying to throw it away. I wonder if we are rewriting something that was never properly implemented in the first place.

Looking back on your teaching career, what has been the high point?

It sounds corny, but when pupils that you don't anticipate are going to achieve do, and on the even rarer occasions where they come back and thank you, that certainly does stand out.

Have there been any low points?

Only when I have seen teachers despairing. Dealing with indiscipline day in, day out, without any prospect of it being dealt with is something that can lead teachers to genuine despair.

Personal profile

Born: Sydney, Australia; grew up in Melbourne

Education: Attended an independent school in England; studied English at Queensland University, Australia

Career: Taught in Brisbane, Australia; Alberta, Canada; British Columbia, Canada; then Scotland since 1984.

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