Must try harder not to be so trying

28th April 1995 at 01:00
The prospect of a return to teacher strikes is too depressing to contemplate. At the end of the 1980s our family had to move abroad, and we were glad to go, so bruised and battered did we feel by the constant disruptions to our children's education. For five glorious years we never heard the words "teacher" and "strike" coupled together. The memory of education as a political football faded fast, and the only time our children didn't go to school was when winter blizzards dumped a foot of snow on the roads overnight.

But now we are back: and back, it seems, in exactly the same dismal place as we started.

Striking is never a smart thing for teachers to do. It does not elicit sympathy, only the fast-rising fury of parents as they see their children's one and only shot at schooling under threat.

It throws the lives of working parents (mothers, usually) into chaos, demoralises pupils, sets school and home against each other, and drags the whole education debate into mud-slinging and stalemate.

It is also instant death to the credibility of teaching as a profession; instant fuel to the Socialist Worker notion of teachers as one of "the newer sections of the working class in routine white-collar jobs," as Socialist Worker editor Chris Harman would have it, alongside clerical workers, British Telecom staff and further education lecturers.

Most parents want to be on the side of the teachers. We really do. But teachers so often seem hell-bent on making it hard for us. We might glimpse, through our children, something of the long classroom hours many of them put in, of their commitment to, and concern for, their pupils. Yet, how little of that ever surfaces in public.

Leaving aside - if that is possible - the nasty scenes at this Easter's conferences, even teachers' day-to-day presentation of themselves often seems tinged with complaint or defensiveness or just plain ineptitude.

I can't be the only parent who has gone in to school to discuss my child's progress, only to spend the entire time listening to a great unburdening of woe about something else altogether. Nor the only parent to have had my proffered hand left hanging in the air, ignored and unshaken. To have slunk away from a meeting with a teacher feeling that, whatever we've been discussing, it's all - entirely and without question - my fault, as a bad or neurotic mother?

Much of the problem is that schools offer an hermetically sealed world, and that teachers who go from school to college and straight back to school again know little about life beyond education.

Their lives are spent with children, not with adults, and although they dwell endlessly on how hard they have to work, and under what dreadful conditions, there is little in their daily routine to prompt awareness of how hard people with other responsibilities have to work, and under what conditions.

In Britain's culture of envy, we are all guilty of looking over our shoulders to see who has a better deal than ourselves, but in the staffroom, where gripes fester and multiply, the Envious Tendency can come to reign supreme. Everyone in the world is better off, in every possible way, than poor, overworked, underpaid, worn-down, stressed-out, put-upon teachers.

And that can be exactly how they put themselves across to the outside world.

At a school open evening recently, I joined a graphic designer and a lawyer for coffee. We'd all been doing the rounds of different teachers, and the designer and lawyer were brimming with criticism of the rambling, unfocused presentations they had had to endure.

"If I pitched my ideas like that, I'd never get another commission from here to Kingdom Come!" fumed the designer.

The lawyer was scowling at her watch. "The whole thing could have been done in quarter the time," she snapped. "I mean, what did they even tell us that we hadn't read in the prospectus before we came?"

I, to be honest, had not found it as terrible as all that, although I had badly wanted to whisper to the chemistry teacher that a black dress wasn't the best outfit for someone with dandruff like hers, and to tell the music teacher to pull his shoulders back and cultivate more eye contact.

These might seem petty things, but as every professional politician knows they all add up to a telling attitude. Without a smart suit, a sharp haircut, a firm back and a straight gaze, you are nothing. With them, you are ready to start presenting your case.

Add in clearly marshalled arguments, an unwavering view of your priorities, and the absolute certainty that you are right, and you are halfway down the road to claiming the attention your arguments deserve.

What it is all about, of course, is power, and it seems to me that teachers have rarely been in such a potentially powerful position as they are now. Parents and governors are more ready than ever before to join with them in supporting schools and protesting against education cuts. We know how hard the past few years of change have been, and how impossible it is to do a good job as class sizes rise and rise.

But if teachers vote for strikes, that support will vanish faster than the genie in Aladdin's lamp. Because when it comes to the crunch, parents put their own children before anything, and parents would rather have their children in big classes than no classes at all.

Also, we have long memories. We're still sore from the last time around, and have no desire to be thrust back into the bad old days of the 1980s.

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