Lockdown leaves our teachers reeling

Teaching is without doubt one of the most essential professions in terms of its significance for our economic environment. It is our teachers that prep the minds of the future and equip them with the essential skills and techniques that will prove to be invaluable when they step away from academic study and into the real world. However, regardless of its importance, it too has not succeeded in escaping the scourge that is COVID-19. Teachers in many people’s opinion are already faced with an uphill battle on a regular basis as they try to instil confidence and a quality of teaching towards their many pupils with limited resources and a whole host of extra-curricular responsibilities. Indeed, it is not the cosy career that many believe it once was, checking in at 9 and punching out at 3 is a thing of the past. I remember the words of the principal of a local primary school in Belfast who pulled me to one side after my first day of teaching practice and asked me if I was sure this was the right career for me, as he was aware of the large number of prospective teachers who end up changing careers due to the high levels of stress that it entails. The evidence from TES statistics shows that 1 in 7 teachers end up dropping out of schools. So, with this in mind, it would be interesting to know just how teachers have tried to adapt to cope with the added pressure of lockdown and all of the restrictions that they have been forced to contend with as they try to deliver a high level of credible educational teaching during arguably the biggest challenge of their careers that has been brought upon them as a result of this pandemic. I sat down with the principal of Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Ballymoney, a Ms Eilish Gillan to discuss how she has handled the COVID crisis. She told me that “I believe there have been many challenges. We have had to treble our planning as the senior leadership team have been in all over the summer, which has left staff, very, very tired. There has been a difficulty with budgeting due to the requirement for extra PPE. The children have had to be put into ‘bubbles’ for KS3 and KS4, there has had to be divided break and lunch times to accommodate these bubbles, which is met with round the clock cleaning of tables and chairs to ensure everything runs safely and smoothly. There is also the issue of the mental health of our students and staff.” Her words to describe the condition is that their health has “exploded” because of the pressures thrust upon them during this period. For individual teachers, the amount of prepping they have to do on a regular basis is quite substantial, and as Ms.Gillan mentioned, the workload has now trebled in many aspects. I spoke to a teacher, Mrs Maura Buckley to discuss how she felt the overall teaching experience had been tested during the lockdown and in the last few weeks as we’ve sought to integrate back into mainstream learning. “To be honest, sometimes it has felt like we are fighting a losing battle, on some occasions we have been preparing and planning lessons and procedures for the near future and then the department of education will come in with a new bulletin and we are then forced to change it up once more. A lot of planning before we even come to the pupils’ lessons and making sure their educational needs are met is the health and safety requirements that have sprung up as a result of COVID.” Indeed, these two members of staff at Our Lady of Lourdes have really shone a light on the glaring challenges that they have had to contend with during a time where levels of stress and anxiety would be without doubt at an all-time high. The statistics speak for themselves when trying to comprehend the magnitude of the challenge they’ve had to face. In a BBC online article, the report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) says head teachers believe around a third of pupils are not engaging with set work, with limited access to technology being a crucial factor in pupils missing out on learning. In a telephone interview with a prospective teacher called Orlaith Gribben, I asked about what her viewpoint of the pandemic was as a student looking in from the outside and trying to ply her skills in an incredibly difficult learning environment. “As a novice, making the jump from student to teacher is daunting enough, but with all of these extra challenges springing up because of COVID it makes our jobs as trying to become reflective teachers that much more difficult. We have meetings nearly every day to discuss how best to work through the pandemic by making restrictions whilst also trying to make sure the quality of teacher education doesn’t diminish.”

In conclusion, the teaching profession is without doubt a career that can bring much satisfaction but also much stress. Teachers have a huge workload at the best of times and now because of COVID it has doubled or even trebled. I salute all the teachers out there as being such key workers through their diligence and effort enables our children to pursue academic success despite the seemingly never ending set of obstacles that COVID is strewing in the direction of our educational workforce.