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The real reason for the teacher shortage, say teachers: It’s a terrible job

In most parts of the country, the new school term will begin this week or early next week. And, as was reported some weeks ago, Irish schools will re-open with a shortage of fully 1,000 teachers across the country. On August 14th, there were 643 vacancies for Primary School teachers, and 456 vacancies at second level. Taken together, these mean larger class sizes, fewer options for students, and less one on one time for children who need it.

The most commonly accepted reason for the shortage is the triple whammy of poor pay, the cost of living, and the housing shortage in Dublin. Yet these are unsatisfactory explanations because the shortage of teachers is not just in Dublin – take a look at the adverts, and you’ll see multiple openings in places like Westmeath and Longford and Cavan, which have not been disproportionately hit by the housing crisis. In fact, if the cost of living in Dublin was the issue, then we should expect to see a relative exodus of teachers from Dublin to cheaper parts of the country. There’s zero evidence that this is happening.

Full disclosure – as regular readers may know, your correspondent is married to a teacher. But what follows here is not in any way a list of complaints received from her. It is based on conversations with five or six others in the profession over the past few months and years.

Talk to teachers, and you will hear that morale amongst them is – by their own description – at an almost all time low. Ask them why, and you’ll hear complaints about mounting paperwork; an explosion in the number of children with special needs; an almost complete collapse in discipline; a school curriculum which forces them to dumb down; endless pointless meetings on foot of the Croke Park agreement; and the apparent loathing of them by the public.

Covid 19, in particular, had an impact: For many teachers, working from home was a stressful experience. And yet, there was an unending drone in the media about how many of them were not really working at all, and the perception that they were “taking advantage” of the pandemic to have more time off. That arises, teachers say, from a public jealousy of their summer holidays which is unwarranted and largely based on an outdated notion of how many holidays they get and how good their pay is.

The starting salary for a secondary teacher in Ireland is about €41,000 per year, and about €38,000  per year for a primary teacher, both before tax. Teachers pay a higher proportion of their salaries in deductions than private sector workers do, between union dues and social funds and pension contributions. After paying the average rent in Dublin, a teacher would be left without much more than €200 a week to cover everything else. By way of comparison, a long term unemployed person living in council accommodation and receiving the dole would have about as much left in their pockets.

Financially alone, then, what’s the draw for the job?

There has also, teachers say, been a notable reduction in the prestige associated with teaching. Thirty or forty years ago, when most older teachers entered the profession, teaching was seen as a prestige job in most Irish communities – relatively better paid, and granting with it a social perception of higher education and higher trustworthiness. All of those pull factors have also gone: As education levels have risen, the relative education level of teachers to the rest of the population has fallen, as has their pay. Teachers are also seen as far less trustworthy – this is a common complaint.

Where once, they say, they could tell a parent that a child was underperforming, to do so is now a risk because parents are much more likely to say that their child is being let down by an unperforming teacher than they are to accept the truth. There has also been, they say, a pathologising of difference in a classroom – “where once we accepted children were just different”, one said, “now every difference seems to be a disability. Every class has half the kids where they have ADHD or a learning disorder or a reading issue and all of them need to be accommodated specially, which is exhausting, and most of the time seems to me to be bullshit”.

In recent years, teachers have been leaving the job in record numbers, to the extent that the Department of Education has had to clamp down hard on things like career breaks and job sharing, because applications were going through the roof. “We’re all looking for a way out”, one teacher said to me, “it’s just very hard to see one”.

Would you advise a young person to take up teaching? “No”, was the common answer – but it was also accompanied by a complaint by one older teacher – “the job has become so unattractive that we’re now getting in only those who couldn’t make it elsewhere, and the quality of teacher is falling”.

Pay, in other words, is only part of it. The bigger problem is that teaching is a job nobody wants to do, any more.

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