Years of hard graft at the chalkface for what?;Platform;Opinion

17th December 1999 at 00:00
Fiona Norris says firebrands who burn out should be given decent worthwhile work, not derision and early retirement.

WHEN I was a young teacher, fizzing and popping with the electric challenge of the classroom, I had a colleague - let's call him Bob. He was a terrible teacher: he didn't prepare thoroughly, his lessons were haphazard, the kids ran all over him. Parents complained about Bob. To his principal teacher he was a liability, a dead weight in the department. I remember getting angry about him: why was he allowed to remain in the post when there were enthusiastic young teachers desperate for a job? He was clearly incompetent - why couldn't he just be sacked?

Then a colleague shocked me with a description of the Bob she had started teaching with 30 years previously. She talked of a young hothead, someone who had come to the school bursting with ideas, a firebrand admired for his inspirational teaching. I remember feeling, for the first time, an uneasy sense of my own vulnerability - could this happen to me? Could I become a "burn-out"?

And the answer 20 years down the line is yes, of course I could. As could any of us. For burn-out cannot be laid at the door of the individual. People who burn out aren't lazy or manipulative or incompetent. It's just that they no longer possess the enormous reserves of energy required of the first-rate full-time classroom teacher. For the real job of the teacher, whatever the subject, is to be a kind of generator. I sometimes think of pupils as rows of light bulbs - it's my job to light them up. And when lessons go well, when pupils are interested and enthusiastic, the creative energy is almost visible. It's a great feeling and a real sense of achievement.

But teachers' achievements are written on water. You cannot put your hand on something and say, "look what I've done". You can't measure the days and years of endless hours of preparing and teaching by pointing to a string of research papers, or a solid pile of books. Or, indeed, a fat salary. All you have are the responses of your pupils, and the respect of your peers - and you are only ever as good as this year's work.

The demands of the work are huge. In addition to the "day" job, there are excursions with pupils, weekend rehearsals, parents' evenings. Sunday afternoons, of course, are for marking, holidays for writing materials. I say this with no bitterness. I have always accepted that to do this job well, you have to sacrifice a lot of unpaid time. But what I also know, what I "feel in my water", as my mother would say, is that I will not always have the vast amount of energy required to fuel the process. So, what choices are there for long-serving teachers beginning to feel the strain?

Well, they can struggle on, fighting an impossible battle with ever-diminishing returns, knowing that eventually something will have to give - they may succumb to illness, they may even die before retirement. Or they can decide that their lives are more important than their jobs and ease back. They can bow out of after-school commitments, stop trying to be the classroom generator, stop writing new materials, and lose the sense of self-respect that comes from doing a good job. Or they can leave.

This isn't good enough. First of all, because this is no way to reward people who have given the best of their youth and energy to the job. We hear constantly about our duty of care towards our pupils. We deserve to be cared about, too. But also, and perhaps more important, because it is a deplorable waste of talent. Senior classroom teachers - and by that I mean all those, including principal teachers, who have been in the classroom a considerable number of years - represent an enormous reservoir of talent and experience.

Perpetuating a system which forces people to dissipate their skills and confidence isn't only a waste of individual talent. It's also a terrible loss to the cause of creating a stimulating learning environment. And yet, it is within the powers of the McCrone inquiry to change this, to restructure career pathways so that appropriate work, valued work, is available to everyone, whatever their age and experience.

It does not take much imagination to see ways this could be done. Long-serving teachers could choose to reduce their teaching load and take on other responsibilities commensurate with their skills. They might, for example, become teaching and learning tutors who offer help and support to younger colleagues, perhaps through some form of peer-coaching. They might take part in the training of student teachers, becoming professional mentors. They might be used as primary secondary liaison officers. They might take on research and subsequent in-service training. They might form regional writing groups, producing materials for younger colleagues to use.

The possibilities are endless. All it takes is the will and creative energy to take the inadequate career structure and shape it into something which really uses people, instead of just using them up.

So here is my challenge to the McCrone committee: by all means find ways of encouraging and rewarding youngsters - we desperately need them in our classrooms. But also create ways of helping older colleagues to find work through which we are able to build on the years of hard graft at the chalkface.

Offering a few people early retirement is fine, but it doesn't address the problems of those who would like to remain in the service to which they have dedicated most of their lives. Help them to end their careers feeling stimulated by their work, and valued for their experience, instead of allowing them to become increasingly inadequate for the task, and then castigating them for it, or encouraging them to work themselves into an early grave.

Fiona Norris is principal teacher of English at Eyemouth High School.

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