Spring, and a load of hot air;Talkback

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Philippa Nettleton laments the season of unnecessary and damaging union outbursts

April is the cruellest month - TS Eliot was right. It's the time when teachers lurch towards their Easter break only to see the profession shamefully parodied across the media.

As teachers, we're used to feeling embarrassment at our profession. Too many of us on holidays or at dinner parties find ways of avoiding admitting we're teachers. My earliest professional feeling was the humiliation of watching Grange Hill, where the kids ran rings around the hapless teachers and only the caretaker could maintain discipline.

But at least that world was fictional.

The cruellest part of the Easter ritual is that the people who present us so crassly are members of our own profession. The teacher unions, conscious of the opportunities afforded by a seasonal lack of hard news, get their publicity machines into top gear and off they go, giving the tabloids a field-day. As a result we're depicted as inhabiting some Please Sir world of elbow-pads and bumbling amateurishness.

Here's this year's crop of headlines:

"Disaster, disaster, disaster" Literacy hour "burden" Pupils shun teaching over "low pay and stress" Rough ride for Blunkett Teachers back industrial action Teachers reject five-term year Teachers reject pound;31bn pay package No wonder our best graduates give us a wide berth and head off for more glamorous professional waters.

Amid all the whingeing it's easy to forget why you came into teaching: the joy of a successful lesson, working with optimistic youngsters, belonging to a team, love of a subject, striving for successes beyond the merely financial. These, for many of us, were the aspirations that kicked off a passion for teaching, a passion for a career that, however grim the day-to-day reality may get, remains genuinely rewarding.

It would be good, from time to time, to be reminded of that.

But at the teacher conferences there's no sense of joy or passion or making a difference to the lives of children. Instead, old battles are fought and re-fought: governments are lambasted for daring to interfere, school management teams and governors are dismissed for incompetence or brutality, and parents are condemned for apathy or treating teachers as childminders.

No one can win in this stereotypical world of teacher heroes against the villains at the school gates. The child is a remote, often troublesome, figure. Learning is never mentioned. And the profession charged with preparing a generation for a new century talks the language of 50 years ago.

Roll on the General Teaching Council. Let's get some professionalism into the profession - first by talking about the real issues: how to raise our status, reclaiming the moral high ground of raising standards, building a profession that people compete to join.

And let's get some professionalism into our relations with the media, dismantling the old cliches ("All teachers are good teachers"), and showing that we're a profession which can engage in genuine dialogue and not just catcalls when the Education Secretary takes the platform.

Because if we can't do that, we might as well use union subs to send everyone a gun and make the whole process quicker and cleaner. Instead of this annual ritual of public masochism, let's just each shoot ourselves privately in the foot every Easter and be done with it.

Philippa Nettleton teaches in Suffolk.

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