Teachers, Prostitutes, Librarians and Chinese Doctors

Ah, how I year for those bygone, distant glory days when teachers were feared and respected by their pupils. When their profession prowess and the madness of their methods went unquestioned by parents, peers and the powers-that-be. Those days when teachers were pillars and not pillocks. Times gone when saying you were a teachers was a declaration of pride rather than a sheepish and rather apologetic admission that you only entered the profession because you couldn’t do anything else.

So, the profession has changed. Accountability, performance related pay, political correctness and the use of education as an election issue. Why are the politicians never content to leave education alone? Successive governments of all political hues always feel obliged to reform the education system. Had they left it alone in the first place, it still might be working decently.

The purpose of this post though is not to beat an educational drum, but rather to consider the sliding status of the poor beleaguered teacher.

My educational rant comes in response to the finding of a recent world poll on teachers, carried out be the Varkeys GM foundation – The foundation asked parents in 21 different countries to cite a job equivalent to that of teacher in terms of respect and value to society. The results are quite startling.

Of the 1000 parents polled in each country, it is Chinese parents who seem to value teachers most, putting them on the same respect ranking as doctors – a veritable veneration. In Germany teachers were put on the same footing as senior civil servants. In France though – this land where education is an essential pillar of the Republic – parents lumped teachers into the same bracket as social workers and librarians.  So, far from me to belittle the aforementioned professions, the association merely proves that teachers have lost their once venerated status as dispensers of knowledge and Republican, values to the nation’s youth and are now merely classed as public servants or (as one colleague once remarked – highly skilled babysitters – nose wiping skills a prerequisite but knowledge not en essential.)

So, this diatribe comes hot on the heels of a proposition by the UK opposition Labour party to give teachers a “licence to practise” rather like lawyers or doctors. Ed Milliband, the Labour leader has suggested that teachers in state education be given a license renewable every seven or nine years, but only after inspection. Oh so very far from the French model where teaching is a job for life rather than a job in a life. Yes, here is the reason why teachers are so maligned – lifetime job security and of course, those oh so long holidays – for which teachers are often criticised and which politicians would love to reduce to a minimum, with the popular approval of many parents and even some pupils.

As a qualified teacher of English in France, and thus a “fully paid-up member” of the nation’s five million strong public sector, I often cast a bemused glance across the Channel wondering what will be the latest education reform. Seems there is about one reform a week in English education. And when asked to explain the English education system to French colleagues… Ok do you have a lifetime to spare?  City Technology Colleges, Free Schools, OFFSTED – it was difficult enough when there were just state schools and private schools – with the latter being independent or public and then AAAAAAAGH – I heard recently that there are still grammar schools in the UK.

France still has what Britain doesn’t seem to have had since the 1970’s – a fully comprehensive state-funded education system. School is free, you’ve all got to go to school and nine times out of ten, kids go to their local neighbourhood school and in all schools across the land they are taught the same stuff – wow, that is so easy to explain – and whether politician are on the right or the left, the standard republican principle of free, universal mandatory state education for all from the age of six upwards is never questioned. Sure politicians tinker with the system. Every Education Minister likes to leave his mark with some kind of reform, but the fundamentals of the system are never brought into question. So we get reforms, where ministers in their wisdom, try to improve the quality and quantity. Better teaching. More teaching. More success. Lower failure rates. Playing around with the national curriculum by burdening teachers with more to teach when they already have problems getting to the end of their existing teaching program. For example was it a good idea to add the teaching of a foreign language in Primary Schools. Cosmetically it is fantastic – like extra glossy lipstick or thicker eyeliner. In reality though, the foreign language (usually English) is taught by the already hard-pressed class teacher, who is not a qualified linguist. And which minister in his wisdom that we should be teaching Civic Education? Yes it is a good idea, on the ground though, the responsibility befalls the history teacher, who already has enough to teach just teaching the vast history syllabus. Ah yes there are plenty of initiatives and even laudable ideas, but there is never an extra teaching time. All new ideas however bright, bold or bad have to be accommodated in existing teaching time.

I’m not sure about librarians, but I certainly think that teachers in France a least,

are under as much pressure as social workers. The latter are required to “cure” societal ills. To repair and piece back together the nation’s broken homes and families or to detect and solve social problems in a happy, snappy TV soap opera way – we’ll all live happily ever after now that the Social worker has been. We are all disappointed when it never turns out quite this way. Equally there is pressure on teachers to turn out legions of doctors and engineers. There must be prizes for all and everyone must get first prize – the impossible to apply republican ethic of equality. Sorry kids, but you won’t all be splitting the atom – you might just end up sorting books down your local library or even something less glorious like driving a bus – so, engineers need bus drivers to get to work. And when kids become street sweepers, librarians, bus drivers or social workers when every parent wanted their kid to be a doctor – YEAH it’s the fault of the poor bloody teacher.

In France, you go to the doctor. He might not cure you, but for sure, after a twenty minute free consultation, you’re going to walk out with a list of prescription drugs longer than a couple of Volumes of Game of Thrones. Quantity is quality. Quantity is reassuring. Hey just look at the mountains of legal drugs the doc just gave me. The same applies in education. I think that many French parents are actually incapable of measuring education in terms of quality. Only quantity counts. Give the kids tons of homework. Give the kids extra, after-school tuition. Oh wow, send your kids to the private school down the road that offers extra Saturday morning classes. If your offspring is going to be an engineer, they’re gonna have to work hard and the more you work the better.

Formal written homework is actually forbidden in French primary schools, however from six upwards, kids come home from school with piles of stuff to learn. However it is always stuff to learn for an impending test. So you’ve got to learn to read, write, count and spell, but at seven years old what is the point of knowing every European country with its capital by heart for a test the next day? And if you fail – you will be a failure forever. Oh dear, there I was almost singing the praises of the French education system and here, it’s just as bad as anywhere else. you’re not here to learn, you’re here to be tested.

So, you go to the doctor. He says there’s nothing wrong with you. You come home drugless and disappointed. Hell, that guy is a bad doctor. Your kids come home from school with no homework. Hell they’ve got a bad teacher. We go to different doctors until we find one who gives us the diagnosis we want. We change classes or schools and send our kids to places where they will be made to work.

I guess the lack of respect for teachers begins very much at home. When we are all sitting round the dinner table, talking about our day. “How was school?” and our offspring give us a litany of teacher faults and parents then openly criticise the teacher – their methods, their grasp of the subject – how they teach, what they wear – everything is under the microscope – everything is up for scrutiny in the parental demolition job and … oh so many parents think that they could do better. In this kind of exercise as soon as the teacher loses the little parental confidence which they might have been accorded, the teacher loses all credibility in the eyes of the pupil , and no matter how much the parents try and do a repair job, the damage is done.

All things considered, when I see the lack of consideration given to teachers it makes me wonder why in the name of … any graduate would want to enter the profession. To this you can add the lousy pay and zero promotion prospects. Nearly all promotion in the French teaching profession is done on length of service and just in case you are rewarded for a job well done and progress a little quicker than the mass, then at some point in your career you will be held up so everyone else can catch up. I speak from personal experience.

My advice for those thinking of entering the teaching profession – BE A LIBRARIAN – far less hassle, and when you help  someone find the right book, the gratitude given will be one thousand fold compared  to  the thanks you get as a teacher in the state sector for doing a job well done.

Other careers that could be likened to teaching?  Acting? I often say that teachers are actors. No matter how you feel, every morning at 8am, you assume your teacher mantle and perform to a captive audience. I suppose it’s a bit like prostitution. No matter how awful you feel or how disgusting the client, you’ve got to make sure he’s happy. You’ve got to fake it. The only difference between teachers and prostitutes?  The latter get a variety of professional positions  to choose from. Teachers just do it standing up or sitting down.  I wonder what life is like as a Chinese doctor?