How to manage the strange teacher shame surrounding strikes

As emotions run high around strikes, we must remember the staffroom is a place to celebrate and nurture our collective purpose, writes David Murray

As emotions run high around strikes, we must remember the staffroom is a place to celebrate and nurture our collective purpose, writes David Murray

23 Jan 2023, 17:00

My college stands opposite a Royal Mail sorting office and a train station. I have seen plenty of pickets over recent months, and soon it will be our turn. The UCU have already voted in favour of strikes and the NEU announced this week that it will be joining them. No one casts their ballot lightly, whether they voted for or against action, and the implications are as potentially divisive in the staffroom as in the negotiation room.

Many of the teachers I know feel uncomfortable with the prospect of strikes, fearing we will not have the sympathy of the public. Commuters might be miffed by missed trains, most of us probably hardly even notice missed post, but people will certainly be annoyed if their children have to miss school or college because their teachers are on strike. The post-Covid context makes it all the more likely that teachers will be blamed.

As a result of media denigration (even before strikes), some of my colleagues never tell new acquaintances that they are teachers. Hackneyed jibes about long holidays or early finishes mean that for them, teaching is the job that dare not speak its name. Instead, they vaguely refer to management, academia or finer-sounding titles like lecturer to throw people off the scent. This dissembling is driven by a strange teacher shame.

And yet, many of us maintain that teaching is one of the very noblest of professions and properly should be recognised and remunerated accordingly. After all, the lesson of Covid is surely that teachers are essential. At a time of great concern for the economy too, improving colleges is vital to our future prosperity.

Becoming a hindrance runs counter to our profession’s principles

One key problem, it seems, is that education’s benefits accrue in the long term. Another is that education is rather more complex than the input-output model politicians, the media and management culture would often have us believe. So many factors contribute to a student’s educational success that it is impossible to tease them apart. Paying teachers more now for a benefit that may not manifest for many years (or paying them at all for results that are evidently mostly guaranteed by parental prosperity) easily appears as an unnecessary expense.

In spite of all of that, our latest PM has pointed to education, and especially further education, as a silver bullet – and he is right. Where else will our nurses come from? Or our programmers? Our engineers? Our musicians? Or even our bankers?

Still, the strikes will be unpopular and that will play to a narrative many of us have internalised. Choosing to become a hindrance runs counter to the principles of a profession which is all about going the extra mile. We must not blame those who, given all of this, opt not to join the picket line. We are striking for the health of the whole educational system, which won’t be helped by pushing colleagues away. If we can’t win their hearts and minds, what chance do we have of winning over a disgruntled public? 

We must also consider all of our colleagues who are not on strike and have no option to. Many are on lower pay – counsellors, administrators, cleaners, estates and security staff and many more. When you walk in through the doors of my college, it is Maryam you first meet. She sets the tone for the whole college with her cheery welcome and quick wit. I’d pay her fifty thousand a year, if I could.

Senior managers do a noble job too, striving to make pennies stretch into pounds. We all have to work together again regardless of the result of this action, and our students deserve motivated professionals and positive working environments no matter what. 

And this, in the end, is the winning argument. Our learners deserve more than is being invested in them. To make that argument, we must consistently model that this is our priority. And that means celebrating the whole profession – including those who can’t or won’t be striking with us. They’re worth more than perhaps even they realise.

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