Remember that anxiety dream you had when you were a teen? You know, the one with the exam and you turning over the page, but instead of the easy questions about To Kill a Mockingbird, the paper appears to have been written in Aramaic and, oh yeah, you’ve forgotten your trousers? Teachers live that dream. Every year. This first term, the back to work anxiety is tinged with the very real knowledge that we are disposable.
Our secondary school in the Scottish Highlands reopened this week along with others in the country for the first time since lockdown. As we arrived for our in-service day (teacher training) on Tuesday, we were immediately equipped with PPE – ready for the return on pupils the next day. We were each given a squirty bottle of multi-purpose surface cleaner, a pump action hand sanitiser and a roll of scratchy blue paper. Pupils are going to sanitise their hands at the start of each lesson and wipe down their desks at the end.
As staff, our classrooms have been re-organised to allow us two metres distance from the pupils. Although they will be left to sit side-by-side, the desks are now in rows to ensure they are not face-to-face.
All pretence about pedagogy and “shoulder partners” (teacher jargon for someone you sit beside and talk to all the time) has fallen to the great god Covid. The classrooms look like we’re back to the 1800s preparing them for work in the mill.
A one-way system is now in place, ensuring malingering pupils now have a valid excuse to walk the longest way possible to get to their classes.
In the afternoon, we have a socially distanced faculty meeting and watch Scotland's education secretary John Swinney’s statement to parliament on the big screen.
One of our Scottish Higher classes has had every result downgraded – except the two fails we’d predicted – and I have spent a chunk of my holiday with a staff member alternately screaming, sobbing and railing against the injustices of the great unseen SQA exam board over the phone.
With the announcement that teacher estimates are now to be the sole criteria for awarding results, there is a cheer from the staff. But, as a faculty head, it is clear that this pandemic has affected staff wildly differently. Some have struggled with lockdown and the lack of socialisation and are gabbling in a frenzy of joy. Some are sullen and withdrawn. Some are in the vulnerable category and scared.
Few teachers sleep a full night before pupils return. But, even as someone relatively laid back, I sleep only in fitful bursts.
As a small school, we are phasing the return of the pupils. In secondary schools you often forget youngsters are simultaneously older and younger than you realise.
Our socially distanced assembly sees the children spaced out in the canteen and the staff on the balcony like a particularly dreadful amateur production of Romeo and Juliet.
Looking down, I see children: some happy to be there, a few with faces set to masks of depression. There are pupils, even in a nice, gentle school like ours, who prefer being at home and are feeling miserable being back. I am ashamed that this is still the case, but I must be honest.
Lockdown has hit the new first years hardest. Ordinarily, we would have them visit the school before they start, coming over for team building sessions and a timetable day where they meet the teachers and also get to know each other. To come to a high school – even one of 150 – is quite daunting so this is designed to ease things.
We’d also run a residential trip where they would room together and take part in team activities such as abseiling and canoeing. Again, it’s an opportunity for them to get to know each other before starting secondary, but the centre closed due to Covid-19 and has now gone bust so we won’t be doing it again in future either.
The process of transition would ordinarily last nearly the whole final year in primary school. Hastily arranged Zoom calls are not a proper substitute.
I watched a little boy on his first day ever at secondary wringing his hands, looking on the verge of tears. A parent has told me that many are terrified – not just of the new school but also the mixed messages. For months, they have been told to stay away from their friends, except now … not.
Both staff and pupils have adapted quickly though, as I knew they would. It is that sort of school.
I am also a guidance teacher, a pastoral care role which involves dealing with everything from wanting to change course to dealing with social work and psychiatrists for suicidal pupils. I will therefore be dealing with the mental health consequences for a long time. Older teenagers are bubbling with delight at seeing their friends, but also aware that as near fully grown adults, they are not as immune as their little siblings.
We’ve adopted a grim humour about it all. After all, we aren’t allowed to sit on soft furnishings in the staffroom, but we can go to the pub.
Little or no real thought has been given to the safety of staff. We are acutely aware that this is a political reopening based upon the need for the UK government to try and get the parents back to work. Although the Scottish government messages have consistently acknowledged the hard work of staff (and pupils bless them), Westminster has made it abundantly clear they think of us as overpaid babysitters. If we worked in Tescos, we’d have a screen and a mask. Instead, I have some blue paper roll and my squirty bottle of cleanliness.
The feeling of being disposable, frontline workers in a way you do not consider when signing up to teach, is hard to ignore.
The author is writing under a pseudonym. He teaches English at a Scottish secondary school, where he is also faculty head and guidance teacher