Guest Contributor: Séamus O’Connor
The Teaching Council has been under huge pressure from its members who feel they are simply not being listened to. With concepts such as CEPP, Droichead and Cosán seemingly being steamrolled through and now with the news that teachers were falsely informed that they had to register to remain in the profession for a number of years, its credibility is at an all-time low. Step in, Mr. Séamus O’Connor, a primary school principal who is putting himself forward to be the Munster representative on the Teaching Council.
O’Connor believes in the potential values for a Teaching Council in Ireland but says that “the current ‘cosmic divide’ between the council’s initiatives and the reality of day to day life in schools needs to be conquered.” He sees there is a “severe mistrust” of the Teaching Council amongst teachers and given his background working with and for NQTs and school conditions, he believes that being on the Teaching Council will give him the ability to constantly engage with the almost 11,000 teachers in Munster to ensure that what teachers want is secured in all Teaching Council initiatives.
We asked him a number of questions about his thoughts on the Teaching Council and why he wants to be part of it.
What have the Teaching Council ever done for us?
Ironically, this was a question I asked at all the recent INTO District meetings in Munster. The only answer that was given, related to “Section 30 and qualified teachers” registration. However, currently there are a number of anomalies (or loopholes) which exist in this system. Currently for example, Hibernia students can attain a Teaching Council Number from the day they commence their two year course, while other students cannot. Why? Why have the Teaching Council not campaigned for the re-instating of the academic qualification allowances, which would encourage more teachers to undertake further study
Outside of this, I personally cannot name anything that has impacted positively for me.
A fairly damning start, so what do you think is the Council’s biggest challenge?
Credibility, trust and communication. Droichead, Cosán, Fitness to Practice. Absolutely none of these initiatives have been favourably received. It actually doesn’t matter how good or bad they are, once you mention these names…eyes roll up to heaven! I have given the undertaking to vigorously oppose anything which my electorate do not agree with. However I will work as hard as I can to gain changes so that can be workable and possibly received more favourably. If I feel I’m making no headway, I will communicate this to the teachers of Munster and together we will decide how to proceed. For example, in relation to the public hearings element of ‘Fitness to Practice’, why can’t the Teaching Council hire some teachers, run through scenarios and see how their systems work? Why not record and publish them? How can teachers trust a set of procedures they have no experience with?
Do you think it’s possible for the Teaching Council to gain the trust of teachers in the short term? How do you think they can do this?
Yes. There are a number of colleagues other than myself running in these elections whom have a similar mindset as myself and are driven by the hope of empowering our colleagues to have a meaningful say in Teaching Council initiatives. They are Greg Kerr in Dublin as well as Máire Lineen and Stephen Marken in Leinster. If a group of diligent and concerned teachers can be elected to represent their colleagues, not initiatives on the new Teaching Council, I believe this will be a strong start to gaining confidence. It will have to be followed up though by much more open and positive levels of communication between the Teaching Council and those who pay the annual €65 to be a part of it. I realise, for example, that the Teaching Council currently organise an annual event (Féilte) to promote their work. However this means nothing to the vast majority of teachers in this country at present.
What are your thoughts on Droichead?
Droichead involves both mentoring and induction. We have all mentored NQTs and colleagues for as long as I can remember. However, I never wanted the task of formally signing off on a colleague’s career for the next 39 years. This initiative cannot work in small schools. It also seems a terrible structure for any colleague who is not doing too well. Staffrooms and the teaching world here in this country are too small. The external option of inspection will come to an end in a couple of years time and what will we be left with? The answer unless we stand up now as a profession, is Droichead. I have opposed this initiative since its initial roll-out, indeed I was present at information meetings for CEPP, the predecessor to Droichead which again I opposed as it was equally as unworkable.
Cosán’s report has done nothing to appease the fears of staffrooms in relation to compulsory CPD. This was added to further by Mr. Harold Hislop’s recent statement at the NCSE conference where he told everyone that mandatory CPD was coming.
Not a serious questions but speaking of the above, what’s with all these initiatives with Irish names? Have they run out of three letter acronyms?
It’s a tongue in cheek question; however it’s ironic that a new induction programme was called “Droichead”, when you consider that INTO members completely rejected JobBridge. Talk about not being in touch with the teachers who are paying €65 per year. Further to this, why did the Teaching Council allow “Dips” to be completed by those who were exploited under the JobBridge Scheme? Their own rules explicitly state that a teacher cannot complete their probationary period while working voluntarily. “JobBridge” is absolutely classified as a voluntary scheme! Who informed the Inspectorate that this process was OK? Therefore somebody somewhere has questions to answer.
The Teaching Council was set up to make us a professional entity. Do you think teachers need to be more professional than they are?
Teachers are trained to be self reflective and with this in mind, I believe that we are all constantly striving to be better than we are. Our profession needs to constantly evolve and personally I am very comfortable with where we are today. Imagine what we would achieve if our pupil teacher ratio was 17:1 rather than 27:1!
Secondary school teachers were up in arms about correcting their own kids’ exams. Primary principals seem to be up in arms about probating teachers. Are we being too precious about this?
I support the stance taken by the ASTI members because I believe (just as in Droichead) external evaluation fosters consistent and genuine results. It also alleviates the pressure for teachers and their relationships with staff/pupils. School communities are too small and external examiner’s will ensure a continuity of positive relations.
Isn’t this just proof that we aren’t professional enough to do a professional job?
No. Ireland has a unique culture where everyone knows everyone else. The ‘teaching world’ is also quite small. Plus, a large proportion of our schools have small pupil numbers. This is something which needs to be embraced, not scrutinised. I think teachers need to be allowed to focus on teaching and creating relationships, without the burden of worry of correcting exams at a local level can bring, let alone being part of a committee which signs off on a work colleague’s career! It’s all ok with positive results, but it’s an horrendous minefield if things are not going well.
Moving to a completely different area, do you think the Teaching Council have a role with regards to the patronage debate?
I think this is more an INTO matter however if this discussion comes up in the Teaching Council, I will gauge the views of the Munster teachers and carry them to the table.
I need to press you further on this. Even if the majority of teachers agree on an issue that you don’t, do you feel you will have to represent this view even if it seems morally absurd? For example, let’s say Droichead changes to a point where most teachers are happy but you still are not. What are you likely to do?
That’s a fair question. Again this comes down to having the debate, communication and then democratic representation. My entire experience at Union level has been to represent the alternative argument, be it relating to pay agreements or JobBridge. Sometimes I have been successful in persuading those around me to support my ideas, such as the Directive re JobBridge and other times I’ve lost! The main thing for me is being a position to nourish the opportunity for teachers to see ‘both’ sides of an issue, debate the various “pros and cons” and then come to a decision. I have absolutely no problem representing decisions which I may not agree with myself, as long as the process which I have outlined takes place. It’s also one of my main aims, to engage as many of the 11,000 teachers in Munster as I can, so that we can make key decisions together.
As an aside, I have been very vocal as to how “Droichead” could be made workable, unfortunately they have up to this point been ignored.
What then do you think is the difference between the INTO and the Teaching Council in terms of their role in education?
In my opinion, the INTO is terms and conditions, while the Teaching Council is professional registration and development. However, in reality it absolutely isn’t as simple as that. For example, are you telling me that Droichead (if it came in unopposed) wouldn’t add to the workload of already overburdened schools? I believe that an ideal candidate should have ample experience and knowledge of both sectors to succeed and this is one of my strengths.
Is there any representation on the Teaching Council that shouldn’t be on the Teaching Council? Why?
I think there is a balanced representation, however I believe from what I hear that the third-level reps seem to have a lot more sway in relation to the direction that decisions are taken. This is something I will firmly tackle, particularly in relation to developments in the Primary Education field.
Should there be so many representatives from the INTO structures? If one isn’t a member of or supporter of the INTO, doesn’t this exclude a number of potentially excellent candidates?
As far as I am aware, any teacher who receives the supporting signatures of 15 teaching colleagues may put their name forward for the coming elections, regardless of INTO endorsement or not. The INTO have two nominations out of 37 on the Teaching Council. The other elected 9 places are open to “Primary School Teachers”, whom up to this point have mainly being INTO activists.
If I am elected, I will represent Teachers not initiates or INTO Policy.
Do you think teachers should have contracts?
Yes, both to protect them and their employers. Currently the vast majority of primary schools in Ireland are under the auspices of the CPSMA. This body can provide contracts for teachers to sign for both fixed-term and permanent appointments. I’m honestly not sure of the arrangements in all schools but this is something I could take on board to clarify if elected in 2016.
It’s been said that we should be careful what we wish for in terms of a contract. It could be argued we have a high degree of autonomy that could be lost with a more detailed contract. What do you think?
Contracts exist to protect all parties and particularly the conditions of a teacher. There is a difference between curriculum policies for schools (which I know and believe need to be more open to interpretation) and contracts. A national standardised and agreed form of contract is the only way and I look forward to seeing how this issue develops in the coming years.
Does it worry you that the CPSMA have a huge amount of power, perhaps more than the Teaching Council, INTO or even the DES in terms of terms and conditions?
I definitely worry that there seems to be ‘gentle agreements’ between the above mentioned bodies and all of them seen to react poorly when questioned or have ‘loopholes’ pointed out. For now my focus is on the Teaching Council and where they are taking us. I also worry about the DES releasing the “Autonomy of Education” action paper just before Christmas, which is looking for submissions in relation to that topic. For me, this is an incredibly dangerous concept. Look at the devastation that such ‘autonomy’ has created in the English Educational System, let alone the high cases of “Teacher burn out”. This is why I really want to be elected to the Teaching Council now. As I said before, this is one of the most crucial elections in all of our careers and I believe that teacher engagement is imperative at this time, to protect our profession for the next generation of pupils and teachers who are coming up.
Do you think teachers should have non teaching time built into their day?
This would be a fantastic gain for our profession! We need to generate ideas as to how this time could be created, particularly in small schools.
Does it mean that the school day must be extended or what other ways can you see it working well for pupils?
Well currently we are in the top five countries in Europe in relation to contact/educational time per day so I think the way to do this is to create funding for external extra-curricular support which could extend the school day but not add to teacher’s workload.
Some biographical notes on Séamus O’Connor:
Graduated in 2000 from Mary I and completed an M.Ed in I.C.T. in Education in 2003. Principal in Scoil Bhríde Crosshaven since September 2009. Presentation all girls school, 206 pupils.
I believe I am very innovative and honest. I welcome open debate, as it gives me a chance to assess the ‘other side of the argument’. I don’t mind if people have a different opinion from me, I just enjoy the discussion/debate.
Active in the Union since I became a Principal. Predominantly I have spoken for NQTs and against TC initiatives from the outset. I have also supported motions in relation to assault leave, maternity sickness, job-sharing and swapping…..
Currently working as PRO from Sciath na Scol Chorcaí.