When ‘Thank You’ means so much more. 7

I should be very clear about this.  Nobody enters teaching because the salary is great. Though why this is so sometimes baffles me.  Governments (including those in waiting) often talk about wanting a ‘world class education system’ yet somehow fail to realise that this costs money.  The old adage remains unlearned – “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”…that applies to both personnel and resources.  The fact that, for example, 80% of the Irish education budget is spent on salaries, doesn’t necessarily say anything about SO much being spent on pay.  It can say as much about how little is spent on resourcing schools. Yes, if less was spent on pay, there would be more money to spend on resources.  But see the adage above.

I should also be clear about how much Irish teachers are paid.  Irish salaries are above OECD average.  But as any economist worth their salt will tell you, it makes no sense to talk about pay without talking about prices.  And as we know in Ireland, prices are still very high by EU and US standards. So the pay thing is relative. And pay and conditions are worse for younger teachers than for older ones because of changes in tenureship, salary scales and pensions.

There are many reason why people enter teaching; but it isn’t always for the teaching either.

I think I know why I entered teaching.  It wasn’t to change the world or to make a difference.  I may have been idealistic once but I was never that stupid.  It has more to do with that which was expected of me at the age of 4 when my new-born baby sister came home from the hospital. And one event in school at the age of 7 when I was asked by a boy if I would tie his shoe lace – I said I would show him how to tie his lace instead! I tried to escape this destiny/fate/God’s plan/psychological programming but to no avail. It may be I am here for a reason, but it is equally likely that I am just here.

I haven’t grown to love teaching – I have always loved it, as much then as now. It would take more than a few wild horses to drag from away from the ‘chalkboard’.  Teaching is exhilarating (except when Jonny’s dog has spilt coffee on his homework that his little sister tore up and left on the kitchen table!).  It’s six hours on stage every day, five days a week.  Ask an actor what that is like. There is nothing quite like the pleasure of seeing a child light up with the enjoyment of an ‘aha!’ moment – even if that child is 18! I think is a ‘job’ I would literally give up my life to do – and given the mortality rates of teachers post-retirement, I very may well be doing that.

Done right, it’s incredibly demanding – physically and mentally. ‘Switching off’ isn’t something that can always be done once the bell rings at 4pm. It takes a while to wind down and even then, one can still end up thinking how to handle an incident, or a particular students’ progress or even relations with a colleague.  Ask a counsellor what that is like.  Anyway, all of this means that little things can make all the difference.  Today someone handed me a little difference.

I have a boy in one class (let me call him ‘Jim’ because that is not his name Scotty!) who is most likely in the top 5%. I say ‘most likely’ because he hasn’t been tested. And he doesn’t need to be either.  He has no learning issues that need a diagnosis to enable planning. But he is very very capable. ‘Nuf said.

I haven’t ‘resolved‘ as a teacher to push him or enrich his learning.  It is something I do ‘naturally’.  Not that individual ‘enrichment’ is part of my job description.  There isn’t really a ‘job description’ as such for Irish teachers. But it was important for me for him to have his ability regarded.  So sometime ago I rearranged my seating and did one or two other things to extend regard for the abilities he has.  He is always engaged in class – either paying careful attention to my pronoucements, instructions or the general buzz of class and so a full blown-extra toppings differentiation hasn’t yet been something I feel imperative just now. Sometimes I guess,  gifted kids enjoy the ‘whole-class’ activities even if it is below their ability. Still, it seems to have lit a spark (or fanned a little one that was there).

I had a parent/teacher meeting and Jim’s parents were on my list (parents can choose which teachers they would like to see). His parents said ‘thank you’.  However, there was something different about this ‘thank you’. It wasn’t the polite ‘thank you’ one would ordinarily expect from, say, a run-of-the-mill social occasion. These are ten-a-penny.  Nice of course, but casual.  I have had ‘thank you, she says you are inspiring’ type ‘thank yous’  and ‘he talks about geography all the time’  ‘thank yous’ (parents are rarely negative directly to teachers but then they are so rarely negative at all). These ‘thanks yous’ are much nicer.  But this ‘thank you’ today was different.  This ‘thank you’ came with ‘we really appreciate what you have done.  It has shown in his other subjects.’ They said one or two other things and then said ‘we’ll leave you to your break’. Of course, I wasn’t having a break – parents arrive every five minutes in a speed-dating type way, still they didn’t stay for their full allotted 5 minutes.  It seemed they came simply to say ‘thank you’ as if content to leave their son’s progress in my hands. This has happened before, but not as deliberately.

I could say that I was moved by their level of trust.  But this is SO basic I wouldn’t allow myself this interpretation – a parent must be able to absolutely trust that their child will be cared for and given as good an education as possible by their teachers within the confines of the system.  The child may not be ‘precious’ in the eyes of the teachers.  Parents should keep this in their awareness.  But a child is precious in their parents eyes.  Teachers should keep this in their awareness.

So maybe it meant nothing more than the recognition that I am doing my job and doing it well in their eyes.  Well enough to motivate their child and for them to notice.

For a child who is precious to their parents, for whom they would go to the ends of the earth and bear any burden, it is impossible to say what a teacher should be paid.  One would think that this would be enough to at least ensure teachers had no unreasonable money worries to distract them from their job. It is crazy to expect high levels of service from teachers who are then forced by economic necessity to do two jobs, as they do in some countries. What ever the figure is, some pay levels would still not be enough for some teachers. But as far as this one is concerned, a ‘thank you’, sincerely and deliberately expressed, and the recognition by a parent that they are content their child is in good hands, is worth so much more – it’s priceless.

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7 thoughts on “When ‘Thank You’ means so much more.

  • Margaret Keane

    That’s an excellent article Peter. I agree completely about the pay levels, they do have to be put into perspective. My biggest gripe with the system is not the pay, because I happen to think that good teachers deserve every penny, if not more. They are absolutely worth their weight in gold. It’s the fact that bad teachers exist because it is virtually impossible to get rid of them. We have an inspection system that has absolutely no teeth whatsoever. If you are a permanent teacher you pretty much have a job for life (if they still exist!) regardless of your teaching standards it would seem. Schools are run like mini fiefdoms completely under the control of the School Principal. What BOM has ever managed to move a Principal or a teacher? I agree that the system works for a lot of fantastic schools who have wonderfully progressive principals who ensure that all of their students, regardless of their abilities get a fair crack of the whip. But what about those schools that are failing, they get an inspection and a report, but what then? And, don’t get me started on the quality of resource hours, a completely unregulated time in some cases. I’ve lost count of the number of parents who have complained to me about the use of resource time for their child, particularly children with dual exceptionalities. If we are truly to progress our education system we need a complete overhaul of how teachers train, particularly with regards to ongoing cpd programmes and how they are inspected.

    • peterlydon Post author

      Margaret, you be really pleased (!) then to learn that the Teaching Council’s provisions for CPD are phrased in terms of ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds’…quite disappointing. Permanent jobs have been very rare even before the economy collapsed. I took me 10 years to get one! But it is easier than ever before to remove failing teachers…though more could be done. The issue is a lot more complicated than, say, removing a failing sales person…it’s easy to define a ‘failing sales person’, less so a ‘failing teacher’ for obvious reasons. I may post on this at some point but it’s far down the line. I think the issue needs to be related to training. As someone pointed out on the LastWord tonight, ‘why would someone with an MA work for that money?!’ Undoubtedly some will, but unless society can talk more positively about teachers, the profession will continue to attract those less suited to it simply because more able graduates would rather be more appreciated, both socially and financially, than are teachers at present cf. Finland. Our education system is a mess. I just wonder if it is appreciated just how much of a mess it is and how much messier it is being made (so called university level ‘reforms’ for example)!

      • Margaret Keane

        Thankfully Peter I know more good teachers than bad and some absolutely insprirational ones too! But the bad ones are there and pretty much everyone knows who they are in their own school community. I think that we’ve come to a point in our history when we need to look at our whole public system, whether its education, politics, banking or healthcare and celebrate all the positives whilst ensuring that we have accountability and transparency. We don’t “do” accountability very well in Ireland but hopefully that will change. We have a fantastic opportunity for change right now but the Irish people need to wake up out of their slumber and decide what type of country it is that they want. One of my good friends is Finnish and you’re right they have a fantastic system but they pay for it with high local and federal taxes. Personally I think its a fantastic investment in their country’s future and it is paying off. On the issue of training, again I agree. We need to ensure the quality of that training and ensure that teachers are receptive to new ideas. Training though has to come with appropriate support too. The Irish classroom has changed dramatically in the last ten years and the stress on teachers is huge. We are forcing our teachers into a situation where they are pushing their students into a giant points driven sausage machine where critcial and creative thinking is lost. As you say the system is broken and we need new ways of thinking if we are to get out of this mess.

  • Catherine Riordan

    Speaking from experience, those moments when you feel appreciated for doing a job that you love are indeed priceless. And sometimes it’s the little things you do that make a difference. Equally, it makes a difference to be told that you’ve made a difference! We are fast enough to complain, but I wonder if we remember often enough to actually stop and say “thank you” when things are going well? You’ve inspired a new blogpost on DazzledandFrazzled.com!

  • peterlydon Post author

    Margaret, I think you highlight an important point about Finland and taxes. If people want top notch health and education systems, they have to be paid for. And if they want the best possible professionals, they have to be prepared to pay a competitive rate for their talents. Of course, there is more to any system than the people inhabiting it. But I think it is not too much to ‘demand much and reward well’. And if some people can’t stand the heat of the kitchen in which they find themselves, there is a simple solution.

    That said, it is almost axiomatic that there are less than satisfactory teachers, just as there are everything else. I think we feel it more sharply when it comes to teachers because we view education as a ‘high-stakes’ activity in our lives and those of our children. There is no way out of this completely. Even Finland has failing teachers. The challenge to judge fairly, with regard to the myriad of elements involved, what actually constitutes a failing teacher. The obvious examples are easy to deal with and these are usually clear cut and result in dismissal. What is less obvious is where, say, one class with a particular teacher is not progressing as well as expected against a fair and balanced set of norms (another concept that could occupy an entire site), while another class with the same teacher is performing very well. In ignorance of the second class a parent may make a complaint that could, under less than informed criteria, result in an investigation into the performance of a teacher, which could result in a worst case, a parent and a school being sued for libel. This is ironically even more likely since the advent of the Teaching Council which was established to cement the ‘professional status’ of teachers and which does so by requiring teachers to abide by a set of codes.
    As always, it is the gray areas that are most difficult to deal with. The only (and it’s partial) solution to this is to ensure that the systems that determine who qualifies as a teacher are robust enough to ensure that only those with the talent and the appropriate attitude become teachers.

    • Margaret Keane

      “As always, it is the gray areas that are most difficult to deal with. The only (and it’s partial) solution to this is to ensure that the systems that determine who qualifies as a teacher are robust enough to ensure that only those with the talent and the appropriate attitude become teachers.” Absolutely Peter. Teaching is and should be a vocation.

      Catherine you are right of course, saying thank you is so important to developing a good parent/teacher relationship. We talk about that in our webinar on How to be Your Child’s Best Advocate http://www.giftedkids.ie/webinars.html
      Complaining is not necessarily a bad thing but we do need to know how to complain appropriately – to be constructive, to offer solutions rather than simply point out the problems or deficits and all times to be respectful of the other party.

  • peterlydon Post author

    I love it when my pupils come to me and ask for help but what a compliment it is when one asks for more information (after class when the other pupils have left)- when the pupils asks, not when the parent complains (fairly rare, fingers crossed!). In that situation I don’t really need to know the child is gifted…but there’s clearly something going on. I would hope that most teachers would respond similarly to their pupils. If not, then complain.