Stand up for yourselves

26th September 2014 at 01:00

"It's times like these you learn to live againIt's times like these you give and give again"

Foo Fighters, Times Like These

The independence referendum motivated many people to take part in politics for the first time. Lots of teachers developed a taste for participation, whether it was posting thoughts online or pushing leaflets through doors. They talked about the sort of society they wanted to see and translated that into action.

As a trade unionist, I see an irony and an opportunity. The irony is that many of those same people are not involved in defending their own working conditions, nor in shaping the future of Scottish education.

In the referendum, 97 per cent of Scots registered to vote and turnout was over 80 per cent. Commentators put this down to a sense that votes would really have an impact this time and that the question truly mattered.

Schools are seen as essential for developing active citizenship in young people. But do they offer teachers the opportunity to grow as active citizens? We need to support and challenge school managers to fulfil their responsibility to operate in a collegiate manner. We will never instil responsible citizenship (let alone other capacities) in pupils if we do not also encourage it in teachers.

It is also important, however, that teachers themselves challenge a lack of democracy in their workplaces. They must take issue, too, when professional development is denied or bureaucracy gets in the way of young people learning.

But the opportunity I see is that if teachers become active in their trade unions, they can do all of these things and ensure that schools put learning and teaching centre stage. Teacher action is needed to push for better conditions at local, national and global levels.

The point of a trade union is to take collective action to better the conditions of members. Teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions. And neither will be improved by teacher apathy. Each union is only as strong as its members make it through their involvement.

Those of us who are active in unions have to create opportunities for participation. We must also help members to believe that their involvement will have an impact. Too often, unions are passive, organising events and simply hoping that people will come along. We need to find new ways to engage with members. This includes the online world. As I have argued in TESS before: if people are spending increasing amounts of their time online, it is into this space that organisations have to move. Failing to do so may mean failing to maintain relevance.

The challenge for us is to strengthen ourselves, to defend our conditions of service and to create the conditions for members to become active and to "give and give again".

Robert Macmillan is principal teacher of social studies and citizenship at Lochgelly High in Fife and vice-president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association

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