FORMER ASTI president Ann Piggott steered the fortunes of the trade union for secondary school teachers during the most turbulent year for education in recent history as the effects of the global pandemic created so much uncertainty for teachers and students alike.
The Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland is the main second-level teachers’ union. They represent 18,500 teachers in community schools, community colleges, comprehensive schools and voluntary secondary schools.
Despite the many twists and turns over the past year, the former president said she enjoyed her tenure as ASTI president.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my year. It was demanding and I devoted my entire time to that role. It was quite an unusual year in that I could have never imagined in advance that I would chair standing committee and central executive meetings on Zoom; or that my convention, scheduled for Killarney with hundreds of delegates, would effectively be conducted online.
“It was also a busy year for meetings with the Department of Education and public health representatives. The media frequently focused on educational issues, and this resulted in many interviews on radio and television,” she said.
Ms Piggott said her experience as ASTI president was invariably very different from all her predecessors. There were both positives and negatives she said.
“Other traditional sides of the role were non-existent. Meeting teachers in schools was not a viable option due to restrictions and any sociable interaction did not happen. However, teachers with young children and babies were able to attend meetings or training events online and have their opinions heard. This was a progressive step for women in particular who otherwise, due to family commitments, would not have been able to attend physical meetings.
“I also noticed that men far outnumbered women at some meetings I attended as president. Women should always feel confident and empowered to run for positions in organisations.”
Going back to where it all began, Ann attended both primary and secondary school in Ballincollig. She has great memories of her primary and post-primary days.
“I went to primary school in Ballincollig. In the beginning, the boys and girls were both in one building before a separate school was built for the girls. Scoil Mhuire was an excellent and highly progressive primary school. It had extremely high standards of education and magnificently caring teachers. As young children, we were always encouraged to speak in Irish.
“As a teenager, I attended Ballincollig Community School which had a remarkable structure. There was a central circular courtyard with classrooms spiralled around the core. The outside consisted of various bright shades of orange, yellow and cream glass reinforced polyester panels.
“Collectively the shape, colour and material made it a unique school construction that won European design awards. That building was replaced in 2003.
“I had several hard-working, dedicated and inspiring teachers,” she said.
The Cork native then progressed to third level where she studied English, French, Irish and maths in UCC.
“I initially began studying Civil Engineering at UCC. Unfortunately, and possibly because I had not studied technical drawing at school, it did not set my soul on fire. After a month I switched and was very happy to study English, French, Irish and Maths instead.”
Ms Piggott then advanced into teaching at Holy Cross College in Kenmare, Co Kerry. She loved her time teaching in the Kerry secondary school.
“I began teaching Maths and English in Holy Cross College in Kenmare. I loved my job enormously. I felt such pleasure going to work every morning and I enjoyed each minute of my interactions with students. It was a small school with 250 pupils, therefore, it was very easy to know everyone quite well.
“There was no uniform, no strict rules, a wonderful atmosphere and a good work ethic. I did a lot of debating and drama with the students. Eventually, the school amalgamated with another and became a community school with approximately 450 students.”
The former ASTI president said that being a teacher is ‘highly rewarding’. She loves assisting pupils with problems and revealed that teachers in turn constantly learn from students.
“Good moments occur when students grasp a concept being taught, or when the enjoyment of a topic is evident. It is always pleasing to help pupils do well in exams or assist with problems, personal or otherwise.
“As teachers, we too constantly learn from students. Teenagers often inspire us and there is great delight in bumping into former students unexpectedly years later.”
Ms Piggott said, however, that teaching has changed both from a positive and negative perspective over the years. “Positive changes include the support of SNAs, team teaching, better-equipped schools with more subjects on offer with less stereotyping of subjects.
“However, teachers have less preparation time than before as supervision and substitution have become mandatory. Extra hours have been added to a day’s work as teachers are obliged to attend several after-school meetings.
“This has left less time for extracurricular activities which teachers still try to engage in. Getting home late, with corrections and preparations for the next day does mean very long working hours. The pandemic for teachers also meant many excessive hours were spent online.
“Fundamentally, however, the pandemic has also exposed the sheer importance of schools as places of interaction, relationships, care and support for students as well as the prime objective of education,” she said.
A long-serving member of the Cork South Branch of the ASTI, the secondary school teacher always possessed a lifelong interest in trade unions.
In particular, the “united sense of justice” and the ability to have a “strong voice” appealed to her, she said. “As well as protecting working conditions the union offers educational training and the ASTI has led the campaign on equal pay. The union offers protection if a teacher is wrongfully denied a contract of indefinite duration. Should a spurious or vexatious complaint be made, the union will defend. The ASTI provides legal consultations which might otherwise be unaffordable. The union offers support, advice and educational training.
“I have high regard for people whose search for justice has taken up much of their lives with huge personal sacrifices such as Cork woman Louise O’Keefe or Maurice McCabe who suffered in his exposure of injustice.
“I am inspired by Mary Manning, the Dunnes Stores worker, whose actions have changed the apartheid regime in South Africa. As an ASTI representative on ICTU’s Global Solidarity Committee, I learned of persecution against trade unionists in Colombia. Resulting from this, my CSPE students were instrumental in the release of Colombian trade union activist Rosalba Gavira Toro, head of a Women’s Movement for Peace and Human Rights.
“She was imprisoned without trial and her life was at risk. She subsequently travelled to Ireland to meet my pupils,” she said.
Ann joined the ASTI in 1988 and later held a number of key roles within the organisation as the years progressed. Ms Piggott was thrilled to be appointed ASTI president in 2020 having served for a year as ASTI vice-president.
“It was an enormous privilege to be elected president of the ASTI. I was on the executive for several years, on many occasions I had to run in elections for that seat. That prepared me for the election for vice-president in 2019. I have been very involved in my local branch and active as secretary, treasurer, vice-chairperson and equality officer. As well as serving on outside national committees I was previously president of the Cork Trades Council for three years.
“The role of president is a constantly busy position. It is not just a 9 to 5 Monday to Friday responsibility. The president is always in demand to attend meetings or to answer calls and queries from teachers and journalists.
“It is important to ensure that the best is continually being done for teachers. We are always conscious of the welfare and education of students. Feedback for the union this year has been very positive and encouraging from the public,” she said.
Ms Piggott is proud of the role the ASTI played in protecting the interests of its members in the pandemic.
“The ASTI attended regular meetings to achieve and provide the best possible protection for teachers during the pandemic. We took action as necessary during the year to ensure the health and safety of our members. We also gained concessions for high-risk and pregnant teachers. We also ensured masks were worn on the return to school and during oral exams for leaving cert students. We ensured through negotiation that written Leaving Cert exams and second components would go ahead safely with reduced content on exam papers.
“We constantly engaged with the Department of Education in relation to many circulars and documents which were produced during the 2020/21 school year.
“Overall It was a busy time. We had many meetings regarding safety measures in schools and the state exams. I even spent Valentine’s Day at a meeting with the Department of Education and other trade union officials.
“I want to thank everyone for their support, help and kindness. I am especially grateful to the members of my union and head office staff for their guidance. It was an absolute pleasure to have represented teachers as president of the ASTI,” she said.
Changes are constantly being sought and made to the education system with all stakeholders trying to provide the best possible education system for all. Ms Piggott hopes creativity and independent thinking are nurtured.
“We are not against reform and are in favour of changes such as oral exams for modern languages. In future educational reforms, we must ensure the mistakes of other sweeping transformations are not repeated. In any education charter, the entire school community must be represented.
“Any future adjustments to the Senior Cycle must protect the many positives we have. The exam is marked in a transparent fashion, external assessment is impartial, fair and standardised; many subject areas are encompassed, and educational standards must be maintained. Second components exist in several subjects and new subjects are added for examination periodically; recent additions include computer science, politics and society and PE,” she said.
Ms Piggott will take up a new teaching position in Cork city secondary school Coláiste Éamann Rís from the start of the new academic year..
“I am very fortunate to have secured a new job in Cork city. I am really looking forward to teaching Maths and English again. I feel great positivity ahead of my new role in Coláiste Éamann Rís.
“It is an impressive school with many active ASTI members. It is an example of how positive collaboration between management and staff leads to working conditions which are productive and beneficial for the entire school community.”