Few topics generate more heat and expose more ignorance than education. A couple of years ago I was on a radio panel with the everything-pundit Newton Emerson, who announced that talk of difficulties or even crisis within our schools was nonsense, our school system was very good and was operating perfectly well. I asked him if he’d had much experience of schools in the last year, and he told me that yes indeed, he’d been back into his old school a couple of months ago. For how long? For an afternoon, and he saw nothing but classes functioning perfectly well. I tried to persuade him that his old headmaster, who’d supervised his tour, was unlikely to show him the knuckle-draggers class, but Newt wouldn’t hear of it: he’d been in a school, he knew the score. Crisis, what crisis?
And now today we have a shock-horror report about how many sick days teachers here in the six counties take (ten per year, on average) and about the number of substitute teachers that are employed. Again I’m tempted to ask of those bleating about reducing the number of sick days: have you been in classrooms recently? Have you any idea what teachers have to endure from some of their pupils? I have and it’s not pretty. Not to mention the mountain of course work and general bureaucracy they must struggle beneath. The wonder is that there’s so little sickness among teachers. As for substitute teachers: when a teacher is away for whatever reason – illness, in-service training, field trip – his or her classes have still to be taught. To teach them you need teachers. These teachers are called substitutes. Now it might be more desirable that pupils are taught by their own teacher or it might not. It all depends on the quality of the original teacher and the sub. But taught they must be, and whoever teaches them is entitled to be paid. And if retired teachers are drafted in to do that job rather than young unemployed teachers, that’s because subbing is, even by teaching standards, a helluva hard job, and those who do it earn every penny they get. If you don’t believe me, try it sometime. You’ll emerge weeping and clutching my garments, saying ‘What a fool I was, Jude! You were right all the time – it’s hell in there!’
And that’s the crux of it. Those who haven’t taught can’t begin to imagine what it requires in terms of energy, judgement, knowledge, courage, compassion, firmness…The list is endless. If you find yourself whining about teachers, pause long enough to ask yourself ‘Would I do their job?’ An honest answer will end your whining and provoke feelings of deepest gratitude to those who, day after day, discharge the most valuable yet undervalued job in our society: the education of our young.