By Jonathan Ablitt
This is an unapologetic defence of our teachers, whom for so long have silently and diligently ‘got on with’ the underappreciated and deeply challenging job of providing an education – formal and otherwise – to generation after generation of Gibraltarians. The day-to-day challenges that teachers face are ones that only they can fully appreciate, and a teacher’s job is done – more often than not – with genuine care for and devotion to their students. This care does not end when the bell sounds at 3.30pm. It manifests in different ways, and is moulded to a student’s needs. Some students simply need their schoolwork marked for the next day; others need to be cared for by more direct means. Teachers will find themselves on the frontline, as first responders – and interveners – in cases that some of us may not even realise occur in Gibraltar.
All the while, they are met with a two-pronged attack on their profession. Firstly, by an employer who will spend taxpayer money on shiny new buildings, but not remunerate them fairly or treat them with respect; and secondly, by establishment commentators who conveniently perpetuate the false narrative that they are glorified child-minders who finish early and have excessive time off. To perhaps point out the obvious: scheduled classes are only part of the job. A teacher’s working day starts before classes begin, and their work often runs through lunch breaks, only to then be taken home with them when classes finish. The 30 weekly contracted hours that they are paid for is just the tip of the iceberg, and the demands of a teacher’s job will regularly see many of them working 50 hour weeks or more. Added to this, teachers are unable to take leave throughout the year like other professionals can, and much of their summer is spent doing administrative and preparatory work for the autumn term.
Teaching is a vocation, and the education system has always depended on the unwritten expectation for well-intentioned teachers to go over and above their paid obligation. However, it is by virtue of this fact that teachers’ genuine commitment to their students is easily exploitable. Taking teachers’ goodwill for granted – and allowing the teaching profession to be devalued through the normalisation of their unpaid labour – is not sustainable and will come as a detriment to the future of education. As a university tutor in the UK, I have seen first-hand what the devaluation of educators can potentially lead to. Over 50% of academic staff in the UK are on casual contracts; some of us have taken actual hourly pay cuts; and we are expected to do more to justify increasing student fees. Working to contract (i.e. only the hours we are directly paid for) is now, in some universities, considered a breach of our responsibility and liable for disciplinary action. Money is spent on shiny new buildings, too.
It is brave of our teachers to take a stand. It is brave because they will no doubt expect criticism to be levelled at them. They will expect to be told that they do not care for their students if they take industrial action that may directly affect the normal functioning of everyday schooling. Indeed, UK university staff received these same criticisms when we went on strike last year, and it was the cause of much internal debate and self-reflection. Of course, we care for our students, and we uphold the virtues of quality education. It is for these very reasons that we take a stand. Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. What good is a shiny new building if the people tasked with teaching inside them feel so demoralised and undervalued? Soon we may have to ask: what is a school without teachers? If we value education, we must value educators.
Jonathan Ablitt is a Gibraltarian university tutor working in the UK.