Schools are facing intolerable strain and a reckoning is coming

Politicians take for granted gargantuan pandemic efforts teachers are making

The unrelenting stress endured by teachers over the course of the pandemic has frequently been ignored or dismissed. Photograph: EPA

The unrelenting stress endured by teachers over the course of the pandemic has frequently been ignored or dismissed. Photograph: EPA

 

The great gamble has begun. We are betting that the Omicron variant really marks the beginning of the journey from pandemic to endemic.

Let no one appeal to that great totem known as ‘the science’ in order to justify the decision. In this instance, science is the handmaiden of politics and pragmatism. Those of us who work in schools have known this for a long time.

Only a dope would think that there was no connection between the fact that schools were on the verge of being inoperable and the timing of these new measures which relax self-isolation requirements. (In fairness, the same is true of the service industries as well.)

Most schools support the relaxation of the regulations. They just wish politicians would be honest about why they are happening.

Schools have had to suffer through the solemn intonation of outbreak figures so farcically low that some teachers knew of higher figures in their immediate cluster of local schools

Imagine if politicians had simply said bluntly that the wider economy cannot function for any length of time if schools are not open. Imagine if, instead of blustering about safe environments, they said that as leaders they had weighed the risks and that safety had to take second place to a functioning economy.

Maybe they would have been crucified. Or maybe people would have shrugged and said: ‘Sure, we know that.’

Instead, primary schools, in particular, have had to suffer through the solemn intonation of outbreak figures that were so farcically low that some teachers knew of higher figures in their immediate cluster of local schools than were allegedly occurring in the entire country.

Politicians take the gargantuan efforts that schools are making to keep functioning for granted because they can. A reckoning is coming, nonetheless.

Simmering anger

There is a slow, simmering anger among teachers and management that schools were not even mentioned in official dispatches – not just for days, but for weeks on end.

More than 40 years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a classic article on burnout that describes perfectly what people in schools are experiencing. It talked about people facing repetitive situations where they hurl themselves with increasing intensity against problems with complex details but with little to show for their efforts.

Most tellingly, it spoke about the ‘feeling that no one knew, let alone gave a damn about, what price they were paying, what contribution or sacrifice they were making, or what punishment they were absorbing’.

It is not just that people are terrified to teach in our so-called safe schools. It is that people are seeing that teaching is a precarious profession

The moment teachers or management start talking about unbearable, unsustainable stress, the clamour of voices shouting them down begins. Surely you are not comparing your level of stress to healthcare workers or to people whose businesses are foundering? With the holidays you have?

Could it be possible that many different kinds of people and occupations are experiencing terrible times, and that those voices could be heard without having to top some kind of league table of punitive working conditions?

If it is true that the wider economy and perhaps even society cannot function without schools, could someone please take seriously the human toll of the unrelenting stress?

A day of reckoning must surely come. Take the substitution crisis. All sorts of short-term solutions have been applied, such as allowing third- and fourth-year primary teaching students to work in schools.

They simply serve to obscure the deeper question – where have all the subs gone? Why is it virtually impossible to secure qualified people to work either at primary or second level?

Institutionalising discrimination

It cannot be unconnected to years of taking education for granted, including institutionalising discriminatory pay scales for entrants to the profession since 2011. It is unbelievable that people work side by side, doing exactly the same job but a person who joined after 2011 will earn tens of thousands less over a lifetime of work.

Other recent temporary arrangements designed to help the substitution crisis just cemented this discrimination, because teachers who take on extra hours will be paid at different rates because of the two-tier system since 2011. It is a recipe for cynicism and disenchantment.

The pandemic just exacerbated an existing problem. It is not just that people are terrified to teach in our so-called safe schools. It is that people are seeing that teaching is a precarious profession, just another facet of the gig economy.

Teachers often do a four-year degree, followed by a two-year PME (professional master of education) and then face years of insecure work. It is soul-destroying. Even when they are lucky enough to secure that permanent and pensionable job, they will never be able to buy a house with the ease that their parents were able to find a home.

Wellbeing is now a subject at Junior Cycle, which will have 400 hours allocated to it across three years. It would seem obvious that the wellbeing of teachers and of those who run schools is intertwined with the wellbeing of students.

The substitution crisis impacts students who are already badly affected by the pandemic. It is not just the lack of qualified teachers. Teachers are human, and exhausted human beings teetering on the edge of burnout cannot support students to the same degree.

The greater gamble is not changing the rules of self-isolation. It is the danger that irremediable harm is being done, almost unnoticed, to the profession of education.

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