Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tales from the frontline

During the economic boom, private industry seemed to be the place to earn the big bucks.

Now that the Celtic Tiger has slunk away, a pensionable job in the traditional public service sector seems an attractive prospect once again.

But has the job of Garda, teacher or nurse really been a steady ship throughout the years of boom and bust?

We asked three workers who have been on the frontline of their professions for 30 years how their jobs have been affected by changes in the social, political and economic landscape.

Brendan Broderick has been a full-time secondary school teacher since 1984, and teaches science, physics and biology in Templeogue College in Dublin.

"The status of the teacher has almost come full circle since I started teaching. There was an air in the Celtic Tiger years that you were 'only' a teacher, but now that's changed to being seen as privileged -- at least you have a job.

"I think of teaching as having three stages: first, you're their big brother, when they try you out; then you become like their father, and then like their grandfather. The easiest part is when you are the father figure. But the policy is to get teachers to stay in the classroom for longer and the truth is it's no job for an older person. That's a recipe for an early grave.

"The curriculum has changed significantly over the years. When I started it was narrower and more theoretical. Now it is more rooted in learning by investigation. It makes subjects more relevant and interesting and more enjoyable, as they are now engaged in hands-on practical work.

"But the issue of resources has always been a problem. The Government wants to encourage the uptake of science, but the grants are far more limited than people think. I remember when the new physics syllabus came out, I was at an in-service day and there was a module on electronics. When someone pointed out that there weren't computers to teach on in schools, the instructor suggested getting eggboxes, sticking them together and putting numbers and keys on them. This was the attitude.

"Society has changed so much over the past 25 years and I believe changes in society are always reflected in the classroom. One big change over the years has been the earlier initiation of kids into adult roles. They are more sexually aware at a younger age and, I suspect, more sexually active. And when I started teaching, few if any 5th or 6th year students would be working. Now they hold on to summer jobs during term-time and it interferes with their studies.

"In a sense, they were exploited in the Celtic Tiger years and had no down-time for themselves. Some made up for it by over-indulging at the weekend. It used to be unheard of for a student to come in smelling of drink. There isn't a school in Ireland now that doesn't have some experience of drug issues.

"What hasn't changed is that we are in loco parentis for students. Kids can be very open and come up to you after class about problems. You're kind of there as an amateur psychologist. The way I approach this is to think, 'If this was my child, what would I do?'

"The thing that keeps me in the job is that most students are amenable, and altruistic and decent people."

Clinical Nurse Specialist Paul Ahern entered nursing in 1978. He now runs St John's Men's Health Unit in the Mercy Hospital in Cork city.

"After my general training, I went to the Mater to specialise in theatre. The world of theatre nursing has changed hugely over time. It is much more technological now and the nurses took all those advances on board.

"In the early days, the consultant was God but from the late-'90s onwards, the nurse became more autonomous. I think the status of the nurse has changed in that respect. It's a degree-level qualification.

"I would think the relationship between nurses and doctors has also changed. Especially in UCC, where they amalgamated the nursing school and medical school, so that the student nurses and doctors are on the same campus.

"The nurse was once sort of seen as the handmaiden of the doctor. You might occasionally see a few young doctors come in and go, 'I'm the doctor, you're the nurse,' but they are whipped into shape very quickly.

"The resources issue for hospitals has been here for years. As far as the HSE is concerned, in my view, the patients are a hindrance to running hospitals. It is all about keeping within budgets. It's up to us (nurses) to keep the patient to the fore. I tell doctors when they arrive as interns to remember that the patient is the punter in the bed paying your salary to do a job for them. I tell them to treat every patient as if they were their own mother or father.

"I took this post 10 years ago and since this unit opened in June 2009, I have loved dealing with the patients. Rewarding is the right word. Because the Mercy is the main urology hospital in Cork, it gets lots of referrals. We remove patients from the Outpatients department, so it hugely speeds up the process.

"I end up being a centrepoint in the patients' treatment; their advocate and their follow-up. They know they have a contact in the system.

"I was diagnosed with prostate cancer myself two years ago: I can tell the patients that I know how they're feeling. The unit brings together my personal and professional experience.

"That gives me great hunger for the job."

Garda Sergeant Trevor Laffan joined the Garda Siochana in 1979. He is now Sergeant in charge of Community Policing at Anglesea Street station in Cork City.

"When I trained, it was six months at Templemore and then a two-year probation that was like an apprenticeship. Back then, we used to go out on the beat on our own and you didn't have any great fear.

"Our communication system was archaic enough: we didn't have enough radios to go round. I remember one time telling this to the sergeant and he told me to 'stick near a phone box'.

"We are still very lucky as a police force because we have the general support of the community. But there wouldn't be the same regard for the uniform as there was. Serious criminality has taken violence to an extreme level with firearms involved, but even on the street the nature of violence has changed.

"At one time, a simple argument between two guys would end with a punch and one guy going to the ground.

"Now you'll have three guys kicking him until his head is twice the size it was. I don't know whether it's to do with what people see in movies or video games, or the rise in drug culture, but there seems to be less regard for the consequences.

"In a way, my role as sergeant of community policing is to try to bring the role of the garda to what it was 30 years ago, where you could identify your local guard and he knew you. Over the years, as cities got busier, we tended to lose that contact.

"Community policing has now got a national model and there are resources being put into it. Commissioner Fachtna Murphy launched it last year. No one agency can solve all the ills of society, so we work closely with the health service, with local councils, with support groups for immigrants and so on. It's a holistic approach.

"I don't ever remember thinking this job wasn't for me. It's the ordinary, mundane encounters you remember. There was a family one time in which the father left home coming up to Christmas, leaving the mother and three kids. The mother had a nervous breakdown.

"Between the district nurse, myself and the St Vincent de Paul, we called up to the house and kept the show on the road, so to speak. We organised Santa and Christmas dinner for the kids in the house and they were looked after until the mum came back out of hospital.

"Years later, that woman came into the station looking for a passport for the youngest child and I didn't recognise her until she introduced me to the child.

"She said, 'You have no idea what you did for my family'."


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