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Teachers: The Internal Crisis (in 1981)

September 1, 2011

This article, which I wrote in Autumn 1981, was first published in the journal Social Science Teacher Vol.11, No.1.  It refers to post-16 education in England immediately after the 1981 riots. As now, thirty years later, the labour market for young people was fragile, quasi-monetarist economic strategies were in force, and social unrest and concerns about the future were widespread.  In these contexts it is unsurprising that teacher morale was under strain and the debate about occupational stress in education was beginning.

Three apparently separate observations have struck a deep chord in my mind in the last three months [Autumn 1981].

Firstly the HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate) report at the beginning of the year referred not only to the devastation being wrought in education by the present financial stringency, but also to the problem of ‘morale’ in the profession.

Secondly, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has come to the conclusion – so both The Times and The Guardian inform us – that teaching is now among the most stressful occupations in the western industrial world, resulting in ill-health and/or a condition referred to as ‘burn-out’ in up to 25% of the profession. (The report attributes stress to violence, over-sized classes, time-table pressure, low salaries, worry about career prospects and job insecurity) .

Thirdly, we are repeatedly told that the urban riots of this summer have very largely involved young people and even relatively small children.

Teacher burn-out and burning riots
Perhaps it is over dramatic to make a direct link between the HMI and the ILO reports and the riots in Toxteth and elsewhere. Personally however as a teacher of 16-18 year olds in Liverpool I think not . What now follows is thus an attempt to articulate the connexion between the evident unrest amongst the young in the wider social context, and what I feel to be the crisis in the educational system intended to serve them. Specifically I am concerned with the crisis in confidence amongst those who operate at the chalk-face:

On the financial front, the entire educational world is reeling from the onslaught. The ravages of quasi-monetarism, the supposedly laissez-faire economy, and the deep dislike of those now in government of public spending in general have produced a situation which is almost beyond belief:

Despite gross unemployment amongst teachers schools are understaffed, capital equipment is left unrepaired and useless, text-books are battered and out-of-date (or simply non-existent), and schools are threatened with closure, or actually close. Concurrently, those teachers in employment receive frequent reminders that some of their number may not be so much longer.

Dwindling resources, increasing demands
Even official sources at the highest level admit that the ‘quality’ of education (including such ‘luxuries’ as music and swimming lessons) is diminishing, although they attempt to deny that ‘standards’ (the Three R’s) have dropped. Such semantic distinctions fail to convince many teachers, who know for themselves the difficulties of motivating learners who are offered nothing to whet their appetites for what school has to give.

At the same time however as the State system, which serves well over 90% of our schoolchildren, suffers such critical cut-backs, the government has announced its eagerness to provide significant sums of public money for schemes involving assisted places in the Private sector (thereby inevitably inferring that the latter is in some way preferable to the former); another revision of the school-leaving examinations (with the unavoidable tensions of uncertainty for the teachers involved); and the provision of ‘prospectuses’ for all State schools (so fostering both the illusion that most parents really do have a ‘choice’, and the anxiety of teachers in schools where apparently ‘decent’ results must remain pipe dreams at present.

Little wonder that, as teachers see the devastation, and hear the criticism, around them, many despair.

An examination of the nursery and further sectors of education, even more than of the schools perhaps, brings home the point. Here then can be no pallid excuses that demand is dropping with falling rolls. The need is simply not being met.

Pre-school (nursery) education needs
The situation in the nursery sector is well-known. The enormous quantities of time (and money) expended by numerous parents to ensure that, despite the lack of State provision, their under-fives have some structured group or learning activity, speaks only too volubly of the unmet need. Inevitably, however, it is those children whose parents lack the energy, skills, imagination or confidence to devise their own alternative schemes who pay the highest price for the lack of State provision.

Unsurprisingly, those children least likely to have received any structured pre-school experience are also the most likely to lack the basis skills (social, manual, etc.) without which school success is elusive. Nonetheless, some of the same conglomerate of professional skills which were insufficiently valued by the authorities to be provided for under-fives are suddenly expected to work wonders, despite increasingly poor facilities and non-existent ancillary support when the HI-prepared five year olds go to school. Anything less than success is regarded generally as a matter of self-recrimination and personal failure for those teachers concerned.

Further education
Similarly, demand for FE outstrips supply. For many adolescents it offers a chance to gain crucial qualifications, continued peer-group/contact, and the maintenance of self-respect via a greater degree of autonomy than at school, whilst avoiding the stigma, and future liability, of present unemployment. Increasingly, too, adults are seeking FE, as they find themselves unemployed, or as they recognise the need for paper qualifications in order to find a job. Many potential students must then, as demand rises, be turned away from the colleges because of already over-full classes, lack of teaching staff and equipment, and over-stretched premises.

As with the nursery sector, so in the future sector we see the official double-think. In brutal truth, those who control the purse-strings place insufficient value on FE to meet demand and pay up; yet those teaching at sixteen-plus are expected to produce ‘results’, especially in public examinations such as the GCE.

Consider, however, the problems: Textbooks are even more scarce than in schools, ‘O’, and even ‘A’, levels are frequently taught over a mere nine months, often to precisely those students who are least prepared for study and most likely to have had previous learning difficulties; and these students simultaneously suffer considerable personal insecurity whilst local authorities defer decisions, sometimes well into the academic year, on whether or not to award meagre discretionary grants.

Conscripts to training?
Two other problems are also particularly pressing for the teacher in FE. Firstly, a good deal of what limited time there is must be spent on basic skills teaching, and student reassurance, rather than on specifically subject-orientated work. Secondly, some students attend college on an effectively involuntary basis. Either they themselves reluctantly opt for college as a lesser evil than the dole-queue; or they are sent by employers or youth scheme organizers; or their parents have decreed that, no questions asked, they must ‘get on’ by obtaining further qualifications.

Such conscripts are likely to be passive and apathetic, and much energy and effort is required of their teachers if there is to be any hope of motivation and success. Even then, however, the end result is often heavily disheartening for all concerned.

That, despite everything, some students achieve excellent results in their examinations is more than justification in itself for FE, and the second (or more truthfully often first) chance that it offers; but let it not be imagined that those who teach in FE are immune from the examination failures of their less fortunate students. Nor, within reason, should they be.

FE teaching is tricky
Yet a lack of student success is regarded by many as a purely personal failure on the part of the teacher. And the problems of the young or unemployed in neglected cities, the large classes, and the lack of technical and library resources, for instance, are seldom freely accepted as adequate defence of the failure. In other ways, too, the college teacher may find himself beset by problems peculiar, in some degree, to FE.

Younger students may find difficulty in adjusting to the liberal atmosphere of most colleges, thus requiring considerable teacher guidance and help with regard to work and behaviour, whilst mature students in the same class, naturally anxious about their eventual performance, may feel that, in comparison with their own scho|days, discipline is very lax and that younger students waste class time. In such a situation, the class teacher may experience considerable stress in attempting to meet the needs of these different interests and perceptions.

Likewise, pressure of time to complete a course, and out-dated, if any, textbooks, can result in the necessity to spend hours of staff time preparing handouts, with the ensuing danger that complaints about lack of ‘proper classroom teaching’ will be made.

Blame the teacher
Students in FE, whatever their motivation in attending, are unremarkable in that they need defences against eventual failure; and their immediate and obvious targets, far more visible to the consumer than financial cut-backs, are their teachers. When this is combined with the new-found personal autonomy, and the easy access to senior personnel, which college students usually enjoy, the result can on occasion produce discomfort for even the most conscientious and professionally well-equipped of teachers, as many tales from the staffroom will testify.

In such a climate confidence in one’s teaching abilities is, for all but the most sturdy, difficult to sustain; but students (or schoolchildren) are quick to sense that a teacher has moments of doubt about his own worth, and thereby can begin a potentially vicious circle of student-reinforced self-questioning, with all its consequences in the classroom and examination hall.

Managing FE in a challenging economic climate
So far we have discussed the position of the teacher who spends most of his/her time in activities directly connected with the learner. But what of those who have executive authority within the schools and colleges? Quite possibly, most senior staff find their loyalties divided. They have (usually) themselves had some experience of the classroom, but, on taking an executive role, and especially in the present financial climate, their attention and efforts inevitably tum to securing whatever they are able from the funds and other resources still available.

Much time has to be spent, particularly in the tertiary sector, in the pursuit of ‘high income’ and politically implemented courses such as those associated with the Manpower Services Commission (MSC). Similarly, staff in positions of authority at all levels of education are at present quite frequently obliged to expend considerable energy in the simple defence of the actual continuing existence of their own school or college.

In such a situation, whilst those in charge may have a genuine and humane understanding of the problems of their colleagues at the chalk-face, it cannot but be that any suggestion of failure on the part of classroom teachers is seen as a potential threat to the entire institution.

At a time when Heads and Principals feel a particular need to appear above criticism if they are to receive essential funds, it is unlikely that they will find it in themselves to receive bad news from the classroom with equanimity. Thus may the classroom teacher find that, as the circumstances in which (s)he is asked to perform become more difficult, so is (s)he less likely to receive a totally sympathetic reception if things begin to go wrong: hardly a situation which engenders mutual, or self, confidence at any level.

In other respects, too, it must be said that teachers may experience a crisis of confidence. For example: Many teachers are women, repeatedly noted for their relatively low estimation of their own worth; and authority in any form is now suspect, especially amongst the young.

Teaching as a ‘semi-profession’
Teaching is still regarded by many as simply a ‘semi-profession’, with little autonomy in the management of its own affairs, and a salary which reflects this. There again, many members of the general public, including large numbers of those being taught, believe teaching to be an easy option (the preparation, marking, administration and high risk of nervous illness are, after all, invisible) .

Finally, it is widely recognised that education has a crucial part to play in our technological, quasi-meritocratic society. One inevitable aspect of the teacher’s role is therefore that (s)he is significantly involved in the identification both of the bright and able, and of the less talented, of our future citizens.

Caring or categorizing?
Not only may this go against the grain for those teachers who regard themselves as members of a caring profession, and who hesitate to put on record their own judgements, sometimes to the detriment of particular pupils’ prospects, but it is also hardly likely to endear the profession to those who fall into this latter category.

Thus, as with money, so with education. Most people want what they believe it can offer, but rather fewer are especially keen on those who make their living dealing it out. Any of the factors mentioned above could be enough to make the conscientious teacher question his or her professional role and its execution; in combination they can produce a situation where self-examination results in a painful lack of self- confidence.

Further, teachers may find themselves in a Catch-22 position: The less their skills are valued, the more difficult it becomes to deliver the goods to the satisfaction of all concerned. At the same time, teaching jobs are under threat. Combine this with serious motivational problems, and with the acute anxiety of some parents, older pupils and students about employment prospects, and it becomes apparent that the position of many teachers is quite markedly unenviable.

Role strain and anxiety
In short, then, teachers are suffering from a severe case of role strain, and, with it, high levels of anxiety. They are expected to provide the means whereby their pupils and students will achieve employment; but the possibility of student success also involves the possibility of student failure. In this situation it is inevitable that there be a certain stress in the pupil- (or parent-) teacher relationship, especially as the world of work begins to be the virtual evaporation of educational resources and by an appalling employment situation, threatening to both teacher and learner, it is little wonder that teachers begin to internalise doubts about what they can actually achieve.

It is ironic that criticism of those professionally involved in education should be especially severe at a time when they have never been more highly qualified, or more carefully selected for whatever posts do become available. Such criticism diverts attention from the political and socio-economic problems which lie at the root of the whole contemporary crisis.

It is quite certain that teachers who feel themselves to be in a state of siege are not in the best position to work effectively towards the amelioration of that crisis. The majority of teachers do all they reasonably can, and some do more, to enable their charges to achieve whatever they may be capable of in the way of success.

The cards, however, are simply too frequently stacked against all concerned. in such a situation self-doubt and despondency within the teaching profession are perhaps the natural outcomes. For education the future looks bleak.

With thanks to the anonymous cartoon artist.

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