“Would you like to be a teacher?” asks the textbook.
Only three answer “yes”. One of them says, “Yeah, so I can give loads of homework”. One says, “It’s cool”’. One says, “Yes, because I want long holidays and good pay”.
Twenty-three answer “no”. Mostly there is a blunt negative, some are more forthcoming. “I would not like to have to do all the marking”. “School is boring as it is, being a teacher would be really boring”. One child, from a professional family, writes “No, I have more important stuff to do with my life”.
Perhaps it is just the perspective of middle class suburbia that skews the answers and that the same question asked in a rural community, or in the inner city, would produce a raft of different answers; perhaps there has been a shift in perceptions.
In rural Ulster in the early-90s, traditional attitudes persisted. The principal of the local village primary school was referred to as “Master McCann” rather than “Mister McCann” by the people of the village. It seemed a quaint but pleasant custom, perhaps an acknowledgment of times past when the schoolmaster was one of the few people of learning in a mostly unlettered community, but, probably more importantly, a mark of respect for the post. Had the people not held the principal in great affection, they might have called him many other things.
The school was at the heart of the life of the community, its calendar shaping village life and its joys being joys shared by the whole village. It would be hard to imagine that twenty-three out of twenty-six children would have dismissed the thought of teaching, while only one of the other three responded in sincerely positive terms. The school teacher for them was someone held in respect by their entire community.
Something has been lost along the way when the brightest and best in the class would not contemplate a career as a teacher.
Growing up in rural England, the teachers at the village school would have been treated with a respect similar to many of their Irish counterparts; there was a respect, even a fear, felt towards them. Had we been asked a similar question forty years ago, we might not have been anymore enthusiastic, but we would almost certainly have been a good deal less dismissive.
Perhaps everyone is more educated now and feels less in awe of those who have had third level education; perhaps industrial disputes have led to mutterings in homes about teachers, mutterings that are inevitably picked up by children’s ears; perhaps teachers themselves are less confident about their status than they would have been in times past; but perhaps there also needs to be the shaping of a culture where teaching and learning recover the place of esteem and priority they once occupied. Ireland probably long ago ceased to be a land of saints, it would be a pity if the scholars also disappeared.