‘By Friday, I’m so tired I can barely see straight’: The rise of long-distance commuting teachers

Staff shortages linked to high living costs will dominate teacher unions’ annual conferences this year

The school day begins early for Aideen Clarke, a business teacher at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School in south county Dublin.

The alarm goes off at 5am each weekday morning and she leaves her home in Portlaoise by 6.15am.

“On a normal day, it takes an hour and 20 minutes, but if there’s a big crash on the way, I could be caught in traffic and end up late for work,” she says.

“Or, if the traffic is just a bit heavier, it’s over an hour and a half each way. By the time I get to Friday, I am so tired I can barely see straight. I’m home after 5pm every night and have to be in bed by 9.30pm. I have looked into public transport, but I’d need to leave the house at 5am to have any hope of being in school for 8.30am.”


Living in Dublin is not affordable, she says, so she looked along the M7 for a place where she could commute to south county Dublin and also go back to her home county of Limerick to see friends and family.

“A lot of people can be flexible, can work from home, or do their job remotely,” Clarke points out. “We have to be in the classroom for work, but have nowhere nearby to live.”

We saw it in members’ addresses during the recent [public sector pay] ballot. They’ve made the calculation that this is the only way to make it work

—  Teachers' union official

One senior teachers’ union official says they are coming across more and more members who are teaching in urban areas with high rents and property prices and forced to live in more affordable regional areas where daily commutes amount to several hours a day in the car. The number of members teaching in the Republic and living in the North, for example, is said to have increased.

“They’ve made the calculation and this is the only way they can make it work,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “We saw it in members’ addresses during the recent [public sector pay] ballot.”

These are some of the factors resulting in a recruitment and retention crisis, say unions, with many schools unable to find enough staff to provide teachers for all their students. Second level schools have, in some cases, been forced to drop subjects as a result, while at primary level many struggle to find cover for absent teachers. Many young teachers, in particular, are voting with their feet and working abroad where pay, conditions and, perhaps most of all, housing, are better.

These issues are set to dominate teachers’ Easter conferences with demands for action across a range of areas to help tackle the problem, such as calls for extra pay for those living in urban areas to attracting staff back from abroad with greater financial incentives.

But recent weeks have seen a new pay deal on the cards, with teachers in line for increases of between 10-11 per cent. Crucially, a new local bargaining fund will see somewhere between €175-200 million invested in restoring austerity-era cuts – and the unions will have a decisive say in how it is spent.

These two new developments mean, for the first time since perhaps 2006, the mood music is – whisper it – a little more positive. It’s unlikely that the Minister for Education will face, as happened in 2014 to Ruairí Quinn, a megaphone interrupting their speech to delegates.

But can the increased investment really resolve the problem of recruitment and retention, or is it merely papering over the cracks?

Last year at the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) conference, delegates instructed the union’s leadership to look into a weighted allowance for teachers in Dublin, where costs are generally higher than elsewhere. But the proposal gained no traction with the other 18 members of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and is quite unlikely to see the light of day.

I’m a professional teacher, with a level nine that the Government insists I have, but I was looking down the barrel of homelessness

—  Aideen Clarke

Geraldine O’Brien, president of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland, says that although her union does not support a weighted allowance for Dublin teachers, she would be open to the idea of a certain number of homes being reserved for key workers, including teachers.

Meanwhile, Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the TUI, says big investment in public transport could allow more workers to live outside the capital and commute into work.

As a single person on a State salary, Clarke says she has little chance of home ownership.

“Before I lived here, I was renting somewhere else. I had barely unpacked before I was given notice, with the landlord selling. I’m a professional teacher, with a level nine that the Government insists I have, but I was looking down the barrel of homelessness.”

In what little spare time she has, Clarke competes as a powerlifter. She also engages in continuous professional development to ensure her skills stay up-to-date, and is currently pursuing a postgraduate qualification in maths teaching.

Back when the banks were on the brink of collapse and the IMF came into Ireland, allowances for postgraduate and doctoral qualifications were abolished, removing an obvious incentive for teachers to improve their skills.

“At the moment, unless you do a specialist post-primary teaching degree [such as science teaching at DCU, PE teaching at UL or home economics teaching at St Angela’s College], you have to spend three or four years in college, and then do a two-year postgraduate masters in education (PME), at your own cost,” says Clarke.

Middle management work needs to be done for schools to function, but the adequate resources are not provided

—  Aideen Clarke

“And at the end of that, it is very hard to get much more than subbing hours. Or you may find that the only jobs advertised are offering four hours a week, with the contract tied to the school, rather than to the teacher. Without a permanent contract, and after six years of study, we can’t even get a credit card or car loan. Only in the last three years have I been able to achieve any level of security.”

Even where work needs to be done, jobs are not always available. Since middle management post were cut, principals say they have been overloaded with administrative tasks. Many teachers will hope that the local bargaining fund will see the restoration of those posts, thus relieving some of the burden on senior management, while also providing career progression pathways in the profession.

“Middle management work needs to be done for schools to function, but the adequate resources are not provided,” says Clarke. “We need these roles reinstated, giving opportunities and security to teachers.”

Teachers’ conferences: what’s on the agenda

Teacher shortages

The recruitment and retention crisis is likely to be one of the biggest issues at all three teachers’ union conferences, with calls for more to be done to ease the financial burden on educators.

John Boyle, general secretary of the INTO, says its conference is set to hear from special education teachers and practitioners, with a focus on how schools have been forced to use them to cover regular teacher absences – inevitably meaning that many vulnerable children are not receiving the education they need.

The ASTI conference is set to hear of proposals to ensure student teachers – whom schools increasingly rely on due to the shortages – are paid for their work placements.

Class sizes

“We still have big class sizes in many schools, with out-of-date IT equipment and teachers still feeling like they are in austerity”, says Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers Union of Ireland.

The INTO will also hear calls for Minister for Education Norma Foley to continue with a push to reduce class sizes at primary level.

While pupil-teacher ratios are at the lowest on records, they are still well in advance of the European average.

Leaving Certificate reform

“We are worried that a requirement for 40 per cent of Leaving Cert work to be project-based could disadvantage schools with older equipment,” says ASTI president Geraldine O’Brien. “That’s before we even consider how students could use AI to do their work.”

Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the TUI, adds: “We will also look at how artificial intelligence could affect senior cycle reform. And with worrying proposals around different pay in the technological universities, we want to ensure that all our members working in them are treated the same.”