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How we can help ease teachers' angst in 2004; Many in profession remain unfulfilled and even bitter.

Byline: Jenny Rees

CHRISTMAS is meant to be a time of great happiness, yet it is also one of great sadness.

There is the company, the pigging out, the TV films and the blessed time off. But there is also the loneliness for some, the domestic disputes for many and the human wreckage that descends upon marriage guidance clinics and doctors' surgeries early in the new year.

It is paradoxical that at a time of such great happiness there is such great sadness. It is also paradoxical that at a time when so much has been improving in teachers' lives, they remain so unfulfilled and indeed often so bitter about their professional lives.

Opinion polls show that they like their jobs, but are highly critical of government and of the pressures on them from wider society. What has gone wrong? Why unhappy when they should be happy?

So much has gone right for teachers in these last 10 years that teachers' unhappiness is sometimes hard to credit. Which other profession has its annual 'Oscars' in the shape of a prime-time television programme that gives 'Teaching Awards'? The starting salaries for the job are now over pounds 20,000 a year if you start teaching in London, and about pounds 18,000 a year if you teach elsewhere, which is higher than in other professions like law.

Even if one does not go into management in the hope of becoming a head of department or deputy head or head teacher, teachers can still get into the high pounds 30,000s a year as excellent classroom teachers. Teachers are greatly respected by the public, normally kicking in at number three or four in the league tables of public esteem, after doctors, vicars and the police.

The politicians that so upset our teachers are usually rated in these tables so low as to resemble a variety of pond life.

Teachers have the most generous public expenditure settlements in years, have been delivering record results year after year and have politicians queuing up to point out their importance. What's wrong with them?

Part of it is that in spite of all the praise from politicians, the latter speak with forked tongues. They smile warm smiles but still keep in place, particularly in England, a regime that publishes school results, assesses how well pupils do each year as part of the annual performance management cycle and inspects how good schools are, publishing the results in reports to parents which invariably get picked up by the media.

What happened is that, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a breakdown of trust between teachers and our politicians who represent the broader society. Progressive primary education, comprehensive schools that tried undifferentiated teaching in a differentiated world and teacher training institutions that developed their trainees' capacity to problematise everything whilst at the same time being sure of nothing, all devalued education.

Innovations that rooted without evidence of effectiveness, emotional spasms that masqueraded as thought-through policies and child-like enthusiasms for the new, all had their effects.

So, teachers are deeply unhappy that politicians purport to believe in them, whilst at the same time having policies that suggest that they don't trust them an inch. What else is wrong?

Being on the receiving end of parental power and at the sharp end of parental choice irritates teachers, especially when parents are more and more expecting schools to transmit and uphold values that many parents have themselves abandoned. Being on the receiving end of complaints from pupils about everything from incompetence to sexual abuse and having these complaints listened to because of the paranoia of the age irritates too. Being expected to generate pupils who are creative, thin, ICT literate, vocationally orientated, clever, non-racist, non-sexist and who at the same time can perform fantastically well in examinations, all smacks of impossible expectations.

So, if these are the reasons for teachers' angst, what can we do to help? Reducing the perceived intolerable and mutually exclusive pressures on them is partly the answer. Avoiding speaking with a forked tongue that suggests support but still embraces policies that indicate distrust is another.

Accepting that it may take a decade of good treatment to eradicate the results of two decades of bad treatment is another contribution we could make.

Happy Christmas to all readers, especially to all teacher readers. 2004 really is going to be better!

David Reynolds is Professor of Education at the University of Exeter and is one of England's leading education policymakers. He lives in South Wales where his children attend Welsh-medium schools.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 18, 2003
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