In the supermarket recently I was surveyed on my shopping experience. After the usual questions about ranges of products and value for money, the employee from the marketing company carrying out the survey, having checked my age, finally asked my occupation.
“Retired, at least semi-retired,” I responded.
“Okay, at what did you work before you retired?”
“I was a teacher.”
Never has admitting my profession excited such a powerful response. She told me that her company had been carrying out research on Curriculum for Excellence on behalf of a Scottish government agency, surveying learners, parents and teachers and that in the course of that work she had experienced some of the rudest behaviour she had ever met. “And it wasn’t from the pupils or the parents,” she asserted.
“There’s a huge bitterness,” she told me, “among a lot of teachers, especially the older ones. Retirement is the one thing to which many of them look forward. They hate the changes they’ve had imposed on them but change is happening to everyone. The world changes. We all have to change.”
What she could not accept however was the discourtesy. Neither she nor her company were responsible for the changes, yet the spleen of disillusioned professionals had been vent on her.
I suggested to her that change indeed happens to us all but perhaps the speed and frequency of the curricular changes had left teachers reeling. She accepted that and also agreed that, in fact, many of the teachers to whom she had spoken had been positive and courteous, but she returned to her astonishment at the discourtesy of members of a profession who should know better and behave better.
It vexed me also. Now of course her experience may have been atypical. Her observations may even have been inaccurate. Yet I suspect there was a degree of truth in them.
There is an underlying anger among many in the teaching profession in Scotland. Recent changes (most I believe for the better), perceived as emanating from government, have challenged many traditional approaches to teaching and have redefined many aspects of the curriculum, and at the same time the burden of preparing the teaching material and devising the daily (and hugely magnified) assessment procedures has landed firmly in the lap of the classroom teacher.
While the Scottish government and the local authority management structures have reiterated a mantra of relentless optimism, unwilling to even concede that the model delivered via Curriculum for Excellence might require testing and further amendment, teachers have rapidly had to deliver this curriculum to young people anxious about exams and qualifications.
All of this has occurred in the context of a referendum debate which may indeed have added to the Scottish government’s determination to portray everything in its own garden as rosy and possibly even to ignore teacher morale. Interestingly, the main opposition party in Scotland, Labour, has also been unusually muted in its critique of government, but Labour after all introduced Curriculum for Excellence.
There is a sense of impotence among many teachers. It is about the rate of change, the sense that change is being imposed but also that the teacher on the ground has to carry the can for any failure.
All that notwithstanding, teachers might stand back and ask whether frustrated rage and discourtesy help their cause. We wouldn’t accept it from our pupils.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.