The Secret Teacher: Too many students are failing the coronavirus test

We need to do as we are asked – whether we like what we are hearing or not

Leaving Cert students cannot easily get on with what they are meant to be doing while their fellow students insist on claiming leadership roles that only distract us from the message being given by our actual leaders. Photograph: iStock

Leaving Cert students cannot easily get on with what they are meant to be doing while their fellow students insist on claiming leadership roles that only distract us from the message being given by our actual leaders. Photograph: iStock

 

Somewhat naively, I expected everything we learned about ourselves and each other during this crisis to be positive: how we can all pull together as a team, how we can work towards one common goal, how resilient we are as a nation.

Regrettably, it hasn’t all been positive.

Global pandemic. Huge words. Our current leadership is strong, and what it needs is discerning followers, not self-appointed “leaders” vying for the limelight and thereby muddying the message.

Late last month, An Taoiseach made an announcement outlining very clear restrictions on behaviour, and since then we have been learning a lot about ourselves and our capacity to follow. During Government briefings we are frequently reminded that “we are all in this together”.

“This” is Covid-19, the test that we as a nation are taking. We all face this challenge, young and old alike, and we question, obey, compromise or rebel according to our dispositions and circumstances. Any academic exam pales when set against this life-or-death test faced by millions the world over.

During Government and HSE briefings on Twitter I watch with horror as the screen fills with comments about whether the Leaving Cert should still go ahead as planned or for further clarity on exam timetables. How can so many believe that the Leaving Cert belongs in the same conversation as announcements on fatalities, updates on the number of positive cases and our health system’s capacity to cope?

Calling for clarity on what is happening with the exams is not effective following. It also proves that we are not listening. We have clarity. The exams are going ahead “by hook or by crook” in late July or early August. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. There is a chance this may not end up actually happening, but we have a clear and concrete answer on what the Government and the Minister for Education expect to happen as of today – and what more can we honestly demand of them? Clarity during an ongoing global pandemic? I think not. Specific details many weeks in advance when we cannot know with any certainty how things will have evolved by then? Definitely not.

Alternative version

In relative terms the Leaving Cert is far into the future, and until then we teachers have been asked to deliver an alternative version of teaching so that our students, in turn, may engage in an alternative version of learning.

Why then do so many teachers and students insist on pressurising our leaders into making their top priority an event scheduled for two months’ time? We need to wait. We need to do as we are asked. And we need to listen to what we are being told, whether we like what we are hearing or not. This following is not simply being a sheep; it is what is in the small print under “we are all in this together”.

Not following good leadership hinders the leader and everyone else. In this context it exposes us as a nation that doesn’t value learning for its own sake. Surely it isn’t all about the end exam? Why wouldn’t a young person of school age want to learn, regardless of whether the exam takes place or not? If the Leaving Cert is cancelled in the morning, what will those young people do?

It isn’t as though their studies are keeping them from work on the front line during this pandemic. Acquisition of knowledge is a good thing. Having a purpose and a structure to one’s day is a good thing. Why then doesn’t the Leaving Cert class of 2020 just proceed with the learning structure that is in place? It isn’t as though the Minister, the Government and third-level institutions will forget about them.

There’s also the old chestnut that teachers allegedly don’t work hard enough. Most of us would agree that we put more time into our exam classes than the others, and that we prioritise them in terms of setting and grading work. Removing the workload that comes with teaching exam classes while still paying us seems to me a very unusual thing for anyone in this country to want. Especially a teacher, and that’s just one of the reasons we should not be engaging in this debate on social media.

Unsettling a ship

By protesting and collaborating in protest, teachers and students are unsettling a ship our Minister is trying to steady. That explains the rising levels of anxiety in this year’s cohort every bit as much as the lack of clarity which many insist is responsible. Courting the debate is the problem, not anything the Minister has, or hasn’t, said. Leaving Cert students cannot easily get on with what they are meant to be doing while their fellow students insist on claiming leadership roles that only distract us from the message being given by our actual leaders.

I, as a teacher, have a dual role now: a follower and a leader. I have been asked by our Government to provide as much semblance of normality as I can for my students in an anything-but-normal set of circumstances. In this, I set an example for my students, so that they in their turn may follow.

These are our roles, and as we take the coronavirus test, we are all learning something new and valuable together.

Right now we are being asked not to step up but to stay at home, not to try to lead but to follow. Whether we can learn this is the test.