It’s currently eight minutes past eleven at night. I finished my day’s work about forty five minutes ago. My heavily-pregnant wife works for the NHS, so every day she goes up to our loft at 8am and works through till 4pm. Meanwhile, I look after our three year old daughter. At 4, we swap over. I start ploughing through my emails, trying to complete the myriad jobs and tasks that are the day to day bread and butter of a head of department; managing my team, supporting them to set work, setting work for my own students, tracking which students are working and which ones aren’t, preparing a budget for next year, coordinating curriculum planning for next year, working towards our sixth form which is (supposed to be) opening in September, developing resources for use now and next year, chasing up students who need support or cajoling, answering queries about students from other teachers, from heads of year, from this, from that, from the other.
In the middle of that, I stop to help with bath and bed time, do the various chores and household tasks that build up, go shopping when we need to and so on and so forth. Then I go back to work again, aiming to finish by ten, but often going much later.
I’m also a teacher for the Oak National Academy, helping to provide distance learning to millions of students across the country. Therefore during the week I need to plan my lessons and develop my resources, have my work quality assured and peer-reviewed, do the same for my colleagues’ work, read up on the training and briefings that I can’t attend live and so on and so forth.
My wife doesn’t work Fridays, so she looks after our daughter then and I try and work all day to get a bit ahead of myself. Sundays I film all my lessons for Oak, which is both time consuming and exhausting. In total, that means I’m working a six day week, with four of those days done entirely in the evening, having spent the daylight hours trying to be as good a dad as I can be to my daughter.
I say all this not because I’m looking for pity. I’m fully aware of the fact that many have it significantly worse than we do. Both myself and my wife are – thank God – healthy, and we are both still gainfully employed. Believe me when I say that I count my blessings every day. I’m saying this because I want to make one point really clear: I want to go back to school. Desperately.
I love working and I know that I signed myself up for a career that isn’t easy even in the best of times. But I’m struggling now because it’s hard, and these times fall far deeper into the “worst of times” end of the spectrum. It’s hard to balance all those different jobs, to be a teacher in two schools, a head of department in one, a father and a husband at home – all at the same time, six days and six evenings a week. When school is on I can take hats on and off with ease, and I’m not burdened by the crushing guilt each day that I’m not being a good enough dad to my daughter. There’s a reason I chose to teach in secondary, and I love her to pieces but it’s a simple fact that I can’t provide the education or social interactions that she got at her childminder. My head knows that I’m doing a good job, but my heart aches for her – for the friends she doesn’t see or no longer remembers, for her grandparents she can’t hug, for the strangers she refuses to wave to like she used to. I know she’ll be fine, but it’s hard. And in among that, competing for legroom in my emotional energy reserves, is the nagging guilt that that I’m letting my own students down. I know there isn’t much more I could be doing, but that doesn’t really help. The feeling is still there, the certainty that for my toughest students – the ones that worked so hard to catch up with their peers – for them I’m not doing enough, and the gap will widen.
So I want to go back to school. Because when school is on I know I’m really good at my job. I’m organised at work, I can get stuff done and I can do what I love doing – teach students – and I can do it well. And then I can get home and I don’t need to worry about whether my girl is getting a good deal during the day, and I can be a good dad and husband and help out doing all the things that need doing.
I hope you believe me then, that you trust me when I say I want to go back to school.
And I hope you’ll trust me – and this is the important bit – when I say that every teacher I know and have spoken to wants exactly the same thing. The emotions I feel are the same as any teacher’s. We are a madly driven profession, one wildly and chaotically in love with its work, one which feels the strongest pulls of vocation – of being called to labour. Whether things should be like that is a different question – I’m not here to discuss the teacher-as-martyr complex and how we go about building a sustainable profession. The simple fact is, we want to go back to school. I’d be surprised if you found a teacher who didn’t.
The problem is, just because I want something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. We live in more complicated times than that, and however much I wish the virus was all gone and finished and cleared up and over and into the green and into Covid Alert Level 1 – it isn’t. And the question of when we go back is not answered by assessing how much I want to go back. If it were, we would have been back six weeks ago. The question of when to go back is answered by assessing whether or not it is safe. Safe for teachers, safe for non-teachers, safe for students, safe for the people the students live with and could carry a deadly virus to. Is it safe to go back? Whether or not I want to go back has nothing to do with it.
So when I see members of the chattering classes saying things like
Or articles like this
Or comments like this
Or front pages of massive national newspapers like this
I get worried. I get really worried. Lord knows I’ve had my problems with the Unions and have taken many a public position against them. But isn’t it possible that the reason why unions and teachers are saying we shouldn’t go back isn’t because they don’t want to – as I’ve said, we want to go back to work – but because we don’t think it’s safe yet? You might disagree, and think it is safe, but you surely have to at least acknowledge that it’s possible someone could disagree with you, not because they are some feckless over-unionised work-shy wastrel, but because they don’t think it’s safe? I am “stepping up.” I am working hard. I don’t need “R and R.” I am quite “brave” enough, thanks. I don’t much fancy the idea of “being a hero.” And I really, really don’t like being accused of advocating “child abuse” when I’m worried about the safety of my school community. And if I’ve read the guidelines and suggestions and FAQs and policy documents and thought “oh boy they haven’t thought this through,” it’s not because I’m enjoying my lockdown sipping lychee martinis on the veranda and don’t want to go back to year 10 period 5 on a Thursday, but because I don’t think it’s safe. A friend and colleague told me that they cried after seeing one of those tweets that I quoted. That they felt they had already given so much, and then to be accused of obstructing the one thing they cared about most – their students’ welfare – it’s just too much.
So here’s the question: can you acknowledge that teachers know a little something about children and schools and might have a different opinion to you, an opinion that is not based on 1980’s union belligerence but is based on expertise and knowledge? I hope you can.
I hope you can listen to teachers. I hope you can listen to them without rejecting their voices out of hand. Because if you do reject them, if you ignore their experience and skill and fail to invite them to the table, then some very bad things could happen. And again, urging caution and hesitation rips at the very fabric of my being because, as I might have mentioned, I really, really, want to go back to school.