The Secret Teacher: Pandemic pressures have hardened us to our bashers

We have bigger things to worry about, as absences from class create unsettledness

Schools remain open, and the news that one of the main unions plans to ballot does not mean teachers are hungry for strike action. Photograph: iStock

Schools remain open, and the news that one of the main unions plans to ballot does not mean teachers are hungry for strike action. Photograph: iStock

 

I have never been prouder to be a teacher in Ireland.

We have been back in the classroom for several weeks and all I have sensed in the profession is support and solidarity.

Schools have remained open, and the news that one of the main unions plans to ballot does not mean that teachers are hungry for strike action. Not one teacher I have spoken to has any desire to down tools. Balloting for a strike does not mean there will be one. Our critics would rather emphasise strike than ballot, in line with their tendency to jump to hasty conclusions.

Demonstrating curiosity about what it is like to actually be a teacher, or perhaps even asking questions, seems unthinkable. We would be delighted to answer them – we are well used to questions, after all.

Instead of being asked for our views we are instead told what they are: teachers don’t want to work, teachers had six months off this summer, teachers will strike, and so on.

The pressure of the pandemic and its impact on our students has hardened us to the teacher-bashers. We have bigger things to worry about.

Public pressure to reopen schools was enormous, and the sheer number of people who had to get back into schools meant that our working conditions simply could not adhere to the same criteria as other workplaces. We voiced our concerns but got on with it anyway when the ideal public safety standards could not be provided.

Make no mistake about it, we are delighted to see our students and they are delighted to see us. We all want to remain in school – online teaching was no holiday for anyone who engaged in it properly, and most of us did.

Absences, especially those that last more than a day, create a new unsettledness

Long days in masks are no picnic either, and there is no denying that this was one advantage of school life online. So many normal things about school are no more, or only exist in some warped version of what they previously were. Even the long-running partnership between playgrounds and ball-playing has fallen victim of Covid due to the risk of contamination.

No talking in class

Telling students off for talking in class has well and truly disappeared: they are seated far apart and masked up so they tend to sit silently waiting for us to get the show on the road. We awkwardly fumble with a combination of sanitising and getting slides up and running to an eerie silence, totally untypical of school as we have always known it. I even find myself asking students to talk among themselves. During breaks and lunches we find ourselves keeping the students in check on minor things that have become of major importance to public health: “Pull up your mask”, “step back a little further”, “don’t hand her the phone,try to show it to her with you still holding it”.

Students with face masks enter their classroom at the Petri primary school in Dortmund, Germany. Face masks are not required in Irish primary schools. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP
Students with face masks enter class in Dortmund, Germany. File photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP

Young people crave these little relaxations in the rules and yet they are freedoms we must deny them.

Their willingness to accept that we have no choice is as remarkable as their compliance with everything else. Given that many young people were obviously poorly practised in the Covid regimen when we first started back, they have conditioned themselves to these new norms very quickly – something the young do remarkably well. We are enormously grateful to them for this, and we also owe their parents a debt of gratitude as they are clearly conveying and reinforcing the importance of these behaviours. All of this provides much appreciated support to us in our roles.

Absences, especially those that last more than a day, create a new unsettledness. Those around the empty seat are all too aware of what it could mean that their allocated seat is nearby. Older or younger siblings being in school may slow any hasty conclusions, but only after the initial wondering.

No corners

There is a genuine enthusiasm for learning that wasn’t there before. It isn’t just the usual September resolve to start well but instead clear evidence that there are worse ways to spend our days. A legacy of the horrendous (mis?)calculated grades process is the sense that any tiny morsel of homework or class work could end up counting after all, so far fewer corners are being cut and far fewer chances being taken. Forewarned is forearmed.

We are smiling behind those masks, and ironically enough there is a sense of safety in numbers. We are not letting the uninformed negativity of others get to us

Over the years I have told many a child not to heed the person picking on them: “If you ignore him he’ll stop’, or “she’s only jealous,” or “if he had anything better to do, he wouldn’t be bothering you”.

We as a profession seem to be following similar advice when it comes to the negativity. Teacher support from parents and students is high, an increase in teacher solidarity is evident, and fewer of us seem to be rising to the bait when it comes to engaging with online whining and downright abuse of teachers. Perhaps if we continue to ignore the critics they will give up on us and move on.

And so, a few weeks in, we are smiling behind those masks, and ironically enough there is a sense of safety in numbers. We are not letting the uninformed negativity of others get to us. We are also much uplifted by clear evidence that the parents and students have our backs on this one.

As a profession we extend that spirit of support and solidarity to the schools that have been impacted by the virus since our return. It is vitally important that they hear how united we are during 2020’s exceptional version of back-to-school.