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View from a teacher No, we have not been 'sitting at home on full pay' in lockdown

One reader is frustrated at what she believes is the unfair portrayal of teachers throughout the lockdown period and ahead of term start in September.

READING THE COMMENTS on a recent article here about the Department of Education Guidelines made my blood boil. I’m a primary teacher. I most certainly have not been ‘sitting at home for six months on full pay’, as suggested by some.

I am, at this moment, exhausted and enervated, having spent the last three and a half months preparing work making videos, contacting children, correcting work and reassuring parents.

That’s all been happening while I’ve been curating an unfamiliar online platform, making sure everyone had work even if they had no internet, writing policies, completing monthly reports (for accountability, go ask your school for those and they will show you), writing end of year reports on children we hadn’t seen in all that time, compiling booklists and going into school to bag books for distribution.

Oh, and of course, all of this while waiting for guidance from the Minister for Education. This has not just been our school; this has been EVERY SCHOOL.

Ongoing schoolwork

At the end of the school year recently, I deleted the classwork that had been sent to me. I counted almost 1800 photographs of maths copies, textbooks and written exercises, videos of art, PE and science experiments, all sent to me by the 32 children in my class.

I can assure you, these children had plenty of work to do – for review and grading. If you’ve ever had to make head or tail of a pencil-written page, blurred or photographed in poor light and emailed to you, you will perhaps understand the challenge. This did not count the numerous online quizzes and exercises that I set and graded through the online learning platform that we used.

On top of that, I have three children of my own. One is in secondary school, and they were using an online platform. Thankfully she could work – more or less – without constant supervision.

My other two are in primary school. Daddy was working in the home office upstairs, so they sat at the table with me, doing schoolwork for a full day every day. It was not easy. I am lucky that my children are old enough to appreciate that Mammy was working too and to get on with it. They did get tired though. And things did have to be dealt with when they needed help.

Helpful technology

We were in the lucky position where we had enough devices to be able to muddle along – which brings me to another clever comment that someone made online. ‘Teachers should be giving video lessons every day.’ I wonder in the context mentioned above if many teachers could.

Given that we weren’t allowed into school, that many households don’t have the facilities to make a video or access schoolwork except on a shared phone, that many teachers were told that Zoom wasn’t a secure way of contacting the children and that parents would have to be present at all times during video interaction, it is small wonder that any video classes were offered at all.
I pre-recorded videos at the weekend using screencast software, which I purchased and paid for myself.

We are not a school in a large urban centre. Our school is not like the showcase schools that were shown on the news during the lockdown. No free lunches or science kits or even end of year treats (which the teachers usually pay for) in my school. No extra funding here.

Parenting and working from home

Add to this any normal household duty done by one or other parent. Lunch. Chores. Meals. Housework. Shopping for cocooning and vulnerable grandparents. All the tiny things that need to be done to keep a house running and comfortable – and which wouldn’t normally be so necessary because the children are out of the house for the same time as I am every day.

You will see that I have certainly not been ‘sitting at home.’ I am not in any sense complaining. I was and am happy to do the work. I know it’s my job, which I love, and I was doing it to the best of my ability, while keeping myself and my children safe. I am aware that many people have been doing the same things.

I appreciate that not everyone feels teachers are not pulling their weight, but the discourse around schools reopening lately, as well as toxic online commentary, have really weighed myself and colleagues down.

Here, I just hope to state the case for teachers who are, as always, castigated by people who have no idea what we do. Yes, our day is shorter. Yes, our year is too. But instead of looking at perceived negatives, look at the positives in that.

And if you are prepared to put your money where your mouth is, advocate for a change instead of resenting people who worked hard for the qualifications that they have and genuinely care about the work they do to help our children become our future.

Slow decision-making

Which brings me to the second part of this article. The Department’s so-called ‘Guidelines’ for opening. I know the new Minister for Education Norma Foley hasn’t been in Government a week, but these guidelines are very poorly thought out.

Take my school, for instance. My class has 32 children. A normal classroom in our school – a pre-1960 building with many other issues – is about 7×4 metres. One room is about 4×4 m. For the most part, these are big classrooms, true.

But to fit 32 children in there, a metre apart? There is no way we can do that. We will have to have half of the school in one day and half of the school in the next. Or do it in half-day shifts. There will have to be a wipedown. The school has no hot water in the bathrooms for hand washing. We have hand sanitiser but that’s it.

In my own children’s school, it’s not much better. I dread to think what will happen if my children only go back part-time and I go back full time. I have no childcare as my creche (another devastating blow for at least 50 families in our locality) has gone out of business due to the crisis. Granny and Grandad aren’t able. Will I have to give up work?

Another narrative around teachers I’ve heard recently was, ‘It’s the teachers who are afraid to go back to school.’ No, it isn’t. At least not in my school. I am not afraid. I am, however, at the median age for infection by Covid-19 and I would be considered ‘at risk’ because of certain issues. I know teachers who have vulnerable people at home and who are still not afraid. At no point have teachers – in our part of the country at least – been consulted about what they want or need.

The suggestion is that teachers are objecting to the guidelines because of this perceived fear. That’s not the case. We’re objecting to them because they aren’t practical and they won’t work. None of us wants to go back to blended learning. Please understand one thing: WE WANT TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL.

There’s my two cents worth. I’m sure that there will be plenty who won’t agree and will continue to believe that our jobs seem very easy and entertaining from the outside of the fishbowl, but why not dip your toe in? I often ask people with strong views on teaching, ever think of doing it yourself? The answer – ‘Oh no I can’t manage my own, let alone 30 of them all at once!’ Perhaps it is just the case then that teachers are doing a good job in difficult circumstances? You decide.

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