Katherine Roddy reflects on working as a teacher during the pandemic and what the crisis has meant for our education system.
Teaching in the pandemic has been a joy. It has also been hard.
I started my first teaching job in September 2019. I was just starting to get to grips with everything when, on 20th March 2020, the school buildings closed and teachers across the country had to adapt and learn to teach from our kitchen tables.
During the first national lockdown, school continued to provided structure for my day: I logged on to Zoom in time for registration, had break and lunch at the normal times, and looked forward to 4pm, when, at the end of the school day, I would leave the house for my daily exercise. In the midst of an international crisis, work provided a welcome escape from news updates and the realities of the outside world. We were living through unprecedented restrictions, but Year 9 still needed to learn to conjugate their irregular verbs and I was still preoccupied by the quality of Year 10’s homework. Teaching in the garden was also something of a novelty. Clearly, my experience of teaching in lockdown differed greatly to those of colleagues with children or other caring responsibilities.
However, as any teacher will tell you, we don’t enter the profession to sit in front of a screen. We are sociable creatures, and love working with young people, seeing them progress day by day. Towards the end of the summer term, it was hard to sustain the pace. We were worried about vulnerable students who were not completing their work and falling behind. Teaching to a screen is also definitely not the same as being in a packed classroom full of cheeky teenagers. I missed the banter, the energy of the young people, my colleagues and the staff room gossip. Finally, the summer holidays arrived, and, with a sigh of relief, the iPad was switched off.
As September drew nearer, I had mixed feelings. Mainly excitement, looking forward to seeing colleagues and kids after such a long time. However, as someone who is classed as ‘clinically vulnerable’, there was also trepidation and a sense of fear. After being safe in my bubble, scarcely going to the shops for months, I now had to re-enter the real world. Would I be safe in school, what would happen if I caught Covid? Yet entering the school building on the first day of term, after six months away, everything felt surprisingly normal. It was exciting to see my friends on the teaching staff, and to observe how the kids had grown over the summer. Despite the mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing, it was a joy to be back in the classroom. We laughed at the irony of doing our all to keep children in different bubbles apart in lessons, only to see them put their best mate from another class in a friendly headlock at break.
Then it got cold. To sufficiently ventilate the classrooms, in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus, all doors and windows were open in my school. For months, I taught in my coat. By October half term, the excitement of being back was wearing thin, and the second national lockdown brought with it a huge sense of frustration at being allowed to be in a room with hundreds of children every day, but not permitted to even go on a walk with family or friends. The first time a child in one of my classes got Covid, I felt sick with worry. The questions resurfaced: would I get ill? Had I always been far away enough from them? Clearly, it is right to place education as a national priority; but the emotional impact of the past few months on key workers must not be underestimated. Weariness is the key word to describe the situation. We were dealing with simultaneously teaching children in the classroom and those at home self-isolating; the pressures of a pandemic alongside the usual demands of the job. On the final day of term, I felt like I was crawling to the end.
The greatest support in the past months has come from friends, family, and school colleagues. I am also extremely fortunate to be working at a school whose leaders have dealt with this crisis calmly and compassionately. As a good friend said on the final day of last term, we must all give ourselves credit. For months now, we have acted like this is all normal, and continued to place the demands of normal times on ourselves. In reality, what we have all achieved in the past few months is extraordinary.
One of the fascinating things about being a teacher at this time is seeing the contrasting levels of status awarded to the profession by different corners of society. Family and friends have been in awe of what we are doing in school. Sadly, it has often been a different story in the media. When you and your colleagues are giving your all to ensure that the children in your care continue to progress and receive an excellent education, it is soul destroying to see reports of teachers ‘shirking responsibility’ and failing to step up to be ‘national heroes’. It is exhausting to see education used as a political football, with no clear sense of leadership or direction. Every time yet another poorly communicated, eleventh-hour decision has been made, school leaders, teachers, teaching assistants, maintenance teams and support staff have stepped up to new demands. It is time that the government recognised that, and the huge toll that this has had. There are a great many things which could and should be improved in our education system. The resilience and commitment of those who work in our schools is not one of them.