This time of year teachers come together to talk about teaching. Often the talk is about pay and conditions but there may be teachers who would like to talk less about pay and conditions and more about what they have to teach and the level of stress they have to endure. Teaching should be a happy occupation, often it is stressful, and sometimes disastrously so.
In a second level school some years ago one of the staff brought students together and talked about the stress endured by teachers. “We know students are often under stress but so are teachers, so could we bring both together and discuss how to make life stress-free and pleasant for us all?” Students found it hard to believe they were really damaging teachers, even after hearing how in school staff rooms there were obvious signs of it, signs of tension and sometimes breakdown. After all, there has always been a kind of battle going on between the learned and the learners, in which pranks and sometimes insults were weapons. But on this occasion teachers were just as hard to convince – if they talked on level ground with students would they possibly lose authority?
Years before that we had seen and wondered at an American film called Blackboard Jungle and people said, Thank goodness we don’t have that problem here, teachers afraid to turn their backs to their pupils. But times change and what is in America one day can be in Ireland the next and schools do have problems: some of them are attacked, some destroyed, some unhappy. That attempt to bring students and teachers together to create a more enjoyable environment came to nothing. However, as time passed schools came to rely on good friendly relations between students and teachers more than on rigid external discipline and everybody was the better for it. Looking at the result today you see a new level of self-appreciation among young people, a new level of enjoyment.
But some things seem to have question marks over them. One is the things people are expected to learn and how much of it really enhances their lives; another is whether we really believe education should mean learning how to find out things ourselves as well as happily receiving facts. An old idea of education was that we should control not only what pupils learn but what they should not learn – people even talked about schooling as an inhibitor of learning rather than introducing students to a world in which there is an infinity of things to learn if you only know how. Trouble is, some of the things some people want us to find out are awful.
Nowadays with nearly every student clutching a tiny instrument that scans the world – or the universe – who can hope to control searching and learning ? Education then becomes a life- enhancing discovery of everyone’s own ability to decide what is worth knowing and what is worth avoiding. The old external discipline – or rather disciplining – was symbolised by uniform, rules, marching, rote learning, much of it now disappearing in a cloud of digits. For some of us frightening, for others exciting and liberating. As for what else should be learned, maybe some time the schools and university programmes will be decided by teachers, parents, students and other educational providers and receivers meeting together every year at conference time to make that decision. What an educational revolution that could be.