Good teachers have nothing to fear from a disciplinary process that finally imitates other professions
More than the members of any other profession, teachers can have a long and lasting influence on vast numbers of a country’s population.
The key role of educating a nation’s youth is a vital element of any functioning society and the job, indeed vocation, of teaching is one that brings with it a large element of trust and responsibility.
We are all familiar with how people who have enjoyed success in their chosen career can often point to the singular influence of a dedicated teacher and how they had a transformative effect on their young lives.
Most will also have had some experience of teachers who fail to inspire and for whom the job of teaching no longer fulfils the idealistic notions they maybe once held of being the genesis for a sequel to Dead Poets Society.
Like all professionals, teachers must be held accountable for their performance and it is incumbent on the state to ensure that those who fail to meet certain standards are subject to disciplinary measures.
To that extent, yesterday’s confirmation by Richard Bruton, the education minister, that the provisions to conduct fitness-to-teaching hearings for teachers are up and running is welcome, if long overdue.
Similar processes for other professionals — accountants, lawyers, nurses, doctors, pharmacists and dentists — have been operating for many years. They have acted as a vital safeguard for the public to deal with professionals who are guilty of poor performance and misconduct.
Because of their high level of interaction with so many young people, it is arguable that the existence of fitness-to-practise hearings for teachers is more crucial than for most other professions. Until now anyone with a complaint against a teacher only had recourse to the school’s principal and board of management. The impact of any adverse findings was limited to that school, which meant that a poor teacher could move elsewhere without further sanction.
While dealing with problems at the most immediate local level will remain the preferred method, the new process ensures that parents, students or other teachers have an alternative route, especially for more serious issues such as child protection.
The Teaching Council — the professional standards body for Ireland’s 93,000 primary and secondary teachers — will assess the merits of each complaint before deciding whether to conduct a hearing before its disciplinary committee.
Teachers, complainants and witnesses can all seek to have such inquiries held in private.
Teachers’ unions such as the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland have campaigned to have such hearings conducted in private only, using the argument that members who were vindicated would still suffer reputational damage if the hearings were made public.
The fact that a Teaching Council’s disciplinary committee will have a majority of teacher representatives has given some credence to fears that the new complaints process might be a cosmetic exercise with little real appetite for dealing with below-par teachers. Lay members generally predominate in similar proceedings by other professional regulatory bodies, such as the Irish Medical Council.
The constitution of the Teaching Council may give a certain veracity to the old adage coined by George Bernard Shaw that all professions are conspiracies against the laity.
However, judgment on the effectiveness of the new complaints system should be reserved until several formal hearings have been conducted.
Teachers are highly regarded in Irish society. Given their well-earned reputation few teachers should have fears about a system designed to weed out the “few bad apples” that exist in every profession.
As Tomás Ó Ruairc, director of the Teaching Council, emphasised yesterday, the purpose of having a formal complaints process was “about improving teaching, not punishing teachers”.
The new system will be a learning process for all parties involved and the value of lifelong learning is now beyond debate.