Foreign scene, familiar concern

The Education Beat

Teachers: The problems besetting Ireland's education system may soon make an appearance in the Free State.

March 28, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

GALWAY, IRELAND - When it's not raining, visitors to this tourist mecca in western Ireland can watch the sun set on Galway Bay. They can also watch a remarkable drama play out: High school teachers strike while their students take to the streets to condemn the action.

The students carry signs reading "Stupid adults plus stupid government = ignorant students" and "We want our education - now!" And you thought students wanted to be out of school.

Labor in this labor-management dispute is the 17,000-member Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, which has been gradually escalating job actions for five months in search of higher wages and pay for extra duties. The union struck at some 620 high schools last week and was set to walk out for three days this week until it suspended the plan yesterday afternoon under heavy pressure.

Management is not the Catholic and Protestant churches that control most of the schools. It's the government that finances them (and pays the teachers) in a nation that unapologetically puts church and state in a Cuisinart. Bertie Ahern, the prime minister, and Michael Woods, the education minister, have taken a hard line and appear to enjoy a good deal of public support.

The issues - wages, pay for out-of-classroom work and the fate of high school exit examinations - are quite familiar, or soon will be, on the Maryland side of the Atlantic. And Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is quite familiar with the situation. Thomas O'Malley, 34, who heads special education at St. Joseph's Patrician College near downtown Galway, keeps his Baltimore cousin informed by weekly e-mail. (The two consumed some Guinness when Martin visited Ireland recently to inaugurate flights between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Ireland on Aer Lingus.)

To illustrate: Say Maryland goes through with plans to install tough high school exit examinations, beginning later this decade. Speculate further that these exams become an important determinant of where students will go to college. Say they need a score of 600 to gain admission to the University of Maryland or Georgetown University.

Say further that the Maryland State Teachers Association stages a statewide job action in search of higher pay in about 2008 and that part of that action is the teachers' refusal to monitor or grade the exit exams, either the tough oral exams in which students must demonstrate fluency in a foreign language or the weeklong written exams for which some have been preparing for five years.

This is the situation in which Emma Storan, a 17-year-old senior at Dominican College near Galway, finds herself. She needs 600 points on her "leaving certs" to enter law school, but her orals (which she must negotiate in Irish, French and German) are postponed, and the entire examination is threatened if the government can't find monitors and graders. (Primary teachers have refused to help.)

Demonstrating with classmates at a busy corner in Galway, Storan says she supports the teachers' pay claims - they're seeking a 30 percent raise - "because we see how hard they work and how little they're paid. But they're using the students as pawns."

On the St. Joseph's picket line a few blocks away, Thomas O'Malley and his striking colleagues beg to differ, saying they've tried nonthreatening tactics to no avail. Like their counterparts in the States, O'Malley says, Irish teachers are badly underpaid. With 12 years' experience, he earns the equivalent of about $31,000 in a country with a cost of living comparable to that of the United States. A public-health doctor in Ireland, he says, starts at about $40,000, and most public employees can earn more in the private sector.

Sounds familiar.

O'Malley says he could earn more in any number of professions. "Why do I stay here? Because I love teaching. I enjoy teaching mathematics and English, and in particular I enjoy directing the more vulnerable of our students in my role as school special needs director."

That, too, sounds familiar. Maybe O'Malley the mayor should recruit his cousin, O'Malley the teacher.

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