Diary of an Irish teacher: I want to get back to work. But I would like to do it safely

Last week, I shared my lockdown experience. I asked for a more uniform approach, should there be another lockdown. I explained that I worked mornings. Maybe I should have been more specific: working 8am to 1pm without a break, I gave feedback and covered the curriculum, using our school’s online platform. In the afternoons, I looked after my three kids (all under ten) while my husband worked. It was a challenging time for everyone and the uncertainty around what I should have been doing as a teacher made it harder.
Diary of an Irish teacher: I want to get back to work. But I would like to do it safely
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Last week, I shared my lockdown experience. I asked for a more uniform approach, should there be another lockdown. I explained that I worked mornings. Maybe I should have been more specific: working 8am to 1pm without a break, I gave feedback and covered the curriculum, using our school’s online platform. In the afternoons, I looked after my three kids (all under ten) while my husband worked. It was a challenging time for everyone and the uncertainty around what I should have been doing as a teacher made it harder.

Many online responses to my article were critical; some were vicious. Teachers complained that they ‘squirmed’, saying ‘I could have done more.’ It created ‘ammunition.’ I lacked ‘solidarity’ with my profession. Non-teachers described me as lazy, dishonest – a national disgrace.

Clearly no other parents worked in shifts.

Clearly my efforts didn’t meet their standards.

This returns me to the point of the article: what standards? What are the standards if we have another lockdown or if we have a delayed return to work? As responses revealed, people’s experiences differed hugely and that’s not good enough. I don’t want all schools to be identical, but there should be a common approach, at least alongside such blanket criticism.

Like most people, I was prevented from doing my job. No definite guidelines were provided for lockdown teaching. I did everything bar teach lessons. I’m okay with criticism when I’m being measured against something. It’s how we all learn and improve ourselves; we ‘fail, fail again, fail better.’ But I’m still stuck in the blindfold of my dream and nobody’s lifting it. As it turns out, my dream was a premonition; the ‘waves of silent criticism and derision pounding in my ears’ were always going to come, no matter what I did.

Such is the life of a teacher in Ireland. Because nobody talks about what the job means, what it should entail, even in normal circumstances. Is school a place of learning, a gateway to university, or is it a second, sometimes more available, parent? The expectations of schools and teachers are nebulous and shifting. Our school system sprawls like a diagram of a lung, with branching bronchioles and alveoli, each school operating within its own pocket of patrons and boards of management, without a national approach. And it isn’t working. It isn’t getting enough air. Nothing you do in this system is the right thing. People can simply say ‘it’s not good enough.’ They don’t need to qualify it, do they?

One reader said I’d failed to ‘respond appropriately.’ I would love the same reader to tell me what I should have done. Zooming was mentioned a lot. But what about the students who wouldn’t have logged on? What about siblings with scant supervision? Or not enough devices? Or no connectivity? My school felt that providing work and feedback was more egalitarian, under the circumstances. A number of parents actually asked us to reduce the amount of work we were sending. Should we have carried on regardless, simply to appease potential critics?

Some cities are now in a second lockdown, so we don’t have time to attack each other; we need to have an action plan in place.

We don’t. We’ve another vague document from the department without any consultation with educators. Principals received it the same day it appeared on the RTE news. In the media, teachers are being blamed again. According to many, teachers are ‘putting up obstacles’ and need to ‘get it together’ and ‘get back to work’ and stop ‘hiding behind their unions.’ The Irish people are willing to accept health advice in every other context: in shops and restaurants, on buses, in doctor surgeries and in their own places of work. But schools? Really? Apparently, if we listen to health advice we’re being difficult. Teachers belong in classrooms with their students, in the same way green grass belongs in our fields. It’s that simple.

Incidentally, my school doesn’t have a field. In fact, we’ve no communal space or sporting facilities. We don’t even have a school building. We’ve students crammed into classrooms and corridors belonging to another college, and our students come to school on school buses. Many rooms are unventilated. We’re told to have a ‘common sense approach.’ But there’s no funding yet so it’s difficult to make real preparations. We’re told we should avoid masks because they ‘conceal facial expression and can make communication difficult.’ We should ‘maintain a minimum of 1m and where possible 2m distance’ in our crammed environment.

I want to get back to work. But I would like to do it safely; I have children and I’m also a carer for my vulnerable parents. I’m not unique in this.

So, what can we do? Could we share school sites and resources? Could some schools have a ‘blended learning’ approach, using nationally agreed and organised online options? If so, can we ensure that all students are supported from home? Could school inspectors be used to check standards across the country? Maybe we reshuffle the school year and have TY students provide some kind of community service for the initial weeks?

We need the Department of Education to work in collaboration with schools, striving for equitable experiences for students and their families.

I’m happy to be a punching bag if people need to have one.

But can we also get down to work?

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