Noisy silence greets happiness survey

20th November 1998 at 00:00
THISFRIEND of mine - well, I suppose you could call him a friend - was telling me the other day how pleased he was when FE Focus first started up back in 1995.

At last, he said, there's a bit of the TES I can cheerfully use to line my cat litter tray with. Funny, but he also seemed to think it relevant that my photograph appeared at the top of this column.

For some reason this poor benighted soul (a schoolteacher of course, but someone's got to do it) came to mind when I was mulling over the result of an appeal I made a few months ago.

Back in July I challenged readers to write in if they could truly claim to be happy in their job. Being a realist I didn't put it quite as positively as that. I said it would be enough that they were simply not unhappy.

Now it did occur to me at the time to wonder (and this is where the cat litter man comes in) just how many actual readers I might have.

We have all heard those malicious stories about teachers who see the journalistic content of the TES as just so much blather to pad out the job adverts. And this was the summer. Wouldn't half my potential audience be at the seaside anyway?

My scope was further limited by the insistence that the person I was looking for must be a teacher rather than a manager or administrator. That cuts out 50 per cent of those on the payroll right away.

But still, I thought, surely there must be someone out there prepared to stick their neck out, some cheerful Charlie or Charlene not so ground down by overwork and underpay as to say: yes, that is me!

So I waited. And waited. And then, when I had almost given up hope, a letter appeared. This is it, I thought, as I ripped open the envelope: the one lecturer in Britain who is not unhappy in their work.

It wasn't. All right, the letter was from a very nice woman in the West Country, and yes she was currently teaching in a college.

But her real job was in accounts; her classroom activity was limited to one evening a week.

What she said was revealing though. She had recently taken a degree as a mature student. And having got back into education herself she now wanted to help others do the same.

"I love my subject (American Studies)," she wrote, "and can see no chore in having to mark homework from students who are writing on it.

It is a pleasure knowing some students will read further because of the fuel I've injected to start them off."

Most teachers can identify with that. Didn't we all come into the job for those sorts of reasons? But what she said next was also familiar: "I've wondered many times why the tutors around (me) look fed up and are usually moaning about their work."

And later in the letter: "You have worried me now that I too could end up looking as frazzled and peed off in years to come as they do. What changes them? Please let me know..."

Well, how long have you got? But no, that must be for another day. Because, for the moment, I don't want to lose sight of the main point.

What does it say about the morale of lecturers when not a single one is prepared to give a yea to the question: are you happy in your work?

Is it the same in other professions? Could it be that, if you asked lawyers or doctors or architects to answer a similar question, you would be met by such an overwhelmingly negative response? Somehow I think not.

Given the above then, surely it should come as no surprise to anyone that lecturers have finally put their collective foot down and rejected the Association of Colleges' latest offer on conditions of service. The proposed deal, negotiated by lecturers' union NATFHE and the Association of Colleges, would have put teachers into the classroom for anything up to 27 hours per week.

On top of that there would be no real safeguards for the 200 or so colleagues who have already negotiated their own local deals which are often much superior to the new "national" contract that is proposed.

Lecturers are not just "unhappy". After five years of fruitless wrangling over the contract, they really have had enough. As well as rejecting the colleges' offer, the recent NATFHE ballot also showed a clear majority in favour of strike action.

Classroom teachers hate going on strike. It turns on its head all the positive day-to-day work they do with their students. So shouldn't we be taking it as a measure of their desperation that they are now saying yes to the prospect of doing so en masse in the New Year?

Stephen Jones lectures in a London college of further education.

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