“We must ensure our staff are treated as humans first, teachers second” - teaching in the time of coronavirus

Teacher and author Dr Emma Kell reflects on the range of experiences teachers have had during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This has been the most bizarre school year any of us has ever experienced. As we gear up for the most well-earned break ever (please do take a proper break, we urge you), let’s take a moment to consider the huge range of experiences of school staff over the last five months.

The mantra ‘in it together’ feels about as far from accurate as a mantra can be: this period has laid bare the gulfs, not just within our society but in our school system, and that these cannot and must not be ignored.

Everyone’s feelings have been acute during this period. Everything we have known and taken for granted has been overhauled. This quote, attributed to Maya Angelou, feels more apt than ever: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The nature of the country’s response to the pandemic has meant that schools’ responses have been hugely diverse, with a matter of days in between government announcements and action. Time for collaboration has been almost non-existent.

Let’s not for a second forget the pressure school leaders have been under since March either – the vast majority have literally not had a break. Let’s be understanding of the fact that they’ve had minimal guidance and information to act upon when action has been required, and let’s be forgiving of perceived ‘mistakes’ in their unenviable position.

Teachers, too, have been under pressure. A few might be feeling contented-tired, in the secure knowledge that they and their schools have done everything within their power to support their young people and have done the best job they possibly could. More will be feeling that sense of something important forgotten – a job not done.

Others are feeling beleaguered by headlines which shout that schools have failed to meet the mark, have let their children down, have enjoyed an extended holiday.

Some are feeling well-supported, valued as humans as well as educators, and as if they have been well looked-after by their colleagues.

Others are feeling overlooked, abandoned or ignored – left alone to worry about their own health concerns, those of loved-ones, the never-ending juggle of childcare and work, or the biting isolation.

Many have been into school by now. Initially it’s deeply unsettling. You can’t get close enough to see the mischievousness in the children’s eyes, to check on the basic signs of neglect or distress that your professional instinct has taught you to do.

You can’t pat a shoulder or pass over a pencil sharpener or pick up an exercise book to show off a brilliant piece of work. But it’s so wonderful to see the children again.

Many will have been tactfully asked about how they are on a regular basis – through individual calls from line-managers or surveys. They will have been asked if they feel secure to come back to work and if their personal circumstances are likely to cause issues. They will have been consulted over timings and practicalities.

Others will feel that they have been pressured to go back at times and in circumstances that leave them deeply unsettled – not because they are ‘lazy’ as some media outlets might have it, but because, in the words of one school leader, ‘I don’t want to feel responsible for somebody in our community dying.’

Some will feel more passionately than ever about their choice of career. In the words of a new teacher, ‘I feel more convinced than ever that this is the right job for me’. Others will be feeling tired, jaded and doubtful about teaching itself or the context they are in.

Mistakes have been made. Struggles have invariably been experienced. Ultimately, we must ensure these make us stronger, as both individuals and as part of a greater system. It must be clearer than it has ever been that the huge responsibilities and high level of accountability that comes with working in schools can never be underestimated, we must also ensure our staff are treated as ‘humans first, teachers second’.

Going back to ‘how we do things’ is simply not an option – let’s take this holiday to recoup and regroup so that we can return with fresh perspectives and the strength we will need for the challenges ahead.

Teacher and author Dr Emma Kell reflects on the range of experiences teachers have had during the Covid-19 pandemic

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