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Cathal Crowe: We need substitute teachers, so why not use teaching students to fill the gap?

The Fianna Fáil TD and former teacher went back to the classroom to help after a shortage of substitute teachers.

Cathal Crowe

IN RECENT WEEKS there has been an acute shortage of sub teachers available to work in our nation’s primary schools.

Last Friday I swapped the suit, shirt, and tie for a pair of jeans and a jumper and rolled up my sleeves to teach in Parteen National School and Thomond Primary School.

This subbing day, which I insisted would only be undertaken without pay and on the basis that no other sub was available (the last thing I want to do is displace a newly qualified teacher vying for work) was arranged over a series of Whatsapp messages with Parteen’s principal.

I graduated from Mary Immaculate College, Limerick as a primary school teacher in 2006 and had been a member of staff at Parteen School right up until I was elected to the Dáil in February 2020.

Back to the classroom

Tuesday, 14 January 2020, was my last day working in Parteen. It was action-packed, memorable and eventful; I was deputising as principal on the day and the sewage system for the entire school backed up and had to be suction pumped.

Shortly after I finished my mug of tea and ham sandwich in the staffroom at lunchtime, Leo Varadkar called the general election. I scrambled over to my classroom from the principal’s office a few minutes before the school bell rang for ‘home time’ to bid farewell to my 3rd Class pupils, not knowing if I’d be back with them again in three weeks time or would be elected to the Dáil.

Last Friday’s return to Parteen School and another school was as just as action-packed, memorable and eventful as that day of last year. I was covering a Special Education Teacher (SET) who was absent so my day largely involved helping individual children with their literacy and numeracy material and taking groups from classes for additional support.

I began the day by greeting colleagues and promising I’d catch up with them over a cuppa later on in the day. I then completed Covid compliance paperwork in the secretary’s office and collected a briefing sheet for the day, prepared by the absent teacher. This document gave detailed information on what content to be taught, where I needed to be at all times and what children I would be working with.

First off I worked with another SET teacher to help a group of children from Senior Infants sort and match jigsaw pieces before helping them to piece together images of characters from Paw Patrol and Disney’s Frozen.

Challenges for schools

There are many reasons why schools are finding it tough, sometimes even impossible, to get substitute cover right now. One of the main factors is teachers being absent with Covid-related symptoms.

Teachers are pretty tough and resilient and most I know would ordinarily drag themselves through a school day if they had a cough or a sniffle. These days those ailments could be considered to be Covid symptoms so the teacher, leading by example, has to stay at home, get PCR tested and wait a further day for the results before even considering a return to the classroom.

At best, a sick-leave absence is now for three days. Principals scramble to get sub cover but prospective substitute teachers (you can’t blame them!) will always choose a school that requires a fortnight’s cover over a school that only needs them for three days.

Minister Norma Foley and officials in the Department of Education have taken action to address sub shortages including a major expansion of the Primary Schools Substitute Teacher Supply Panels, which now employ almost 380 teachers and provide substitute cover to over 2,500 primary schools across the country.

Last week it was announced that approximately 100 teachers are to be added to areas where significant challenges have been identified in sourcing a substitute teacher.

The Department of Education has also adjusted its payroll operational arrangements so that the restriction on the number of days that teachers on a career break, such as myself, could be employed as substitutes has been suspended and teachers who are job sharing are allowed to work additional hours in their own or other schools.

What needs to be done?

I will be raising this issue with Minister Foley this week, and wish to stress to her that final-year trainee teachers should be used to plug some of the subbing gaps right now.

Hundreds of students, nationwide, are currently on a 12-week long block of teaching practice as part of their final in-school placement before graduating.

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This stint is six times longer than when I was in my final year. I think schools and trainee teachers would all appreciate it if the 12-week placement was cut short for this academic year and more trainee teachers were deployed to frontline teaching with pay.

I think students would benefit much more from thinking on their feet in a classroom, like I and so many other sub teachers had to do last week, than having more rigid college content given to you on teaching practice placement.

My return to Parteen School last week was definitely an eye-opener. Most importantly, the children seemed to be very happy, they were all engaged in active learning and they were generally being shielded from the stressful world of Covid.

The teachers on the other hand were doing the very same work as they would have done pre-Covid but now with added challenges and levels of difficulty. Their collective skill set was shining brightly and for this, they deserve massive credit.

I intend to sub teach for a couple of more visits this month and again in December. The Covid health crisis has manifested itself in many ways in schools but right now the major problem is teacher shortages. Politically and practically I will do what I can to help out colleagues and ensure children are not losing out on contact hours with teachers.

Cathal Crowe is a Fianna Fáil TD for Clare and the party’s spokesperson on Tourism & Aviation.

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