Politicians, try spending a day in teachers' shoes

Rather than making pronouncements from behind the front line, politicians and union officials should spend time in schools, says David James
12th November 2020, 1:16pm
David James


Politicians, try spending a day in teachers' shoes

Two Young Children, Standing In Adults' Shoes

A teacher's working day has the veneer of normality. But look closer, and it has profoundly changed

Teaching during lockdown, as infection spreads and deaths continue to escalate, leaves many understandably feeling vulnerable and exposed. The recent survey published by the NASUWT teaching union, which reveals that a third of teachers do not feel "Covid-safe" at work, should be sobering reading for all politicians. 

Our daily certainties have been replaced with permanent disruption: the sudden confirmed cases; the calls to Public Health England; the conversations and advice that leave us momentarily stunned by the complexity of transient connections, suddenly made important, which have to be traced; the people we have to talk to; the urgent compliance checks. The working day reduced to chaos in seconds. 

Coronavirus: The hard work of keeping schools safe

Keeping our schools safe involves hard work. After a positive test case, we have to identify which students were sitting where, we have to measure out desks, fret over centimetres, peer at seating plans, discuss with teachers whether there was any movement in class which would have physically, unwittingly, drawn other students into that dangerous orbit. 

And, crucially, where was the teacher, and for how long? Did she talk to the student in question? How long for? 

It is an inverted inquisition, which results in a collective sigh of relief when we learn that the teacher did not circulate, and did not spend time patiently helping a struggling student with a problem. 

Because a positive test case moves outwards, ripping holes not just into schemes of work and lesson plans, but also into the catering, administration, tech and cleaning teams who keep schools running. 

The General Melchetts of Covid-19

It is easy to personify this invisible enemy; indeed it is a human desire born of old, an urge to put a face on the anonymous, make real the intangible, find a pattern in disorder. Covid-19 is a pyromaniac, setting fires across the school day. Or it is a thief who, overnight, removes 20 children for two weeks, little caring about the chaos left behind and ahead. 

Gradually, through unwanted experience, schools are adapting. But too often they are doing so without the understanding and support of those policymakers whose job it is to know and understand. 

Whenever I see politicians proclaiming how proud they are of this country's teachers, images of Blackadder's General Melchett come to mind: stoutly supportive, 45 miles behind the front line. How would they know, I ask myself, what it is really like running a school now, day-to-day? 

When were MPs last in their constituency's schools? Not on some perfunctory tour, headteacher in tow, hands clasped behind their backs, idly asking a Year 8 girl about her latest art project. No. I mean when were they last really present: in SMT meetings, seeing teachers teach, sitting with heads of year as they try to make sense of the shifting cohorts in front of them? 

MPs should spend time on those various front lines they maintain from a safe distance. We should demand that, before they start making tone-deaf announcements about cutting our holidays and working at weekends, they talk to the exhausted teachers, the form tutors who keep going, knowing full well the consequences of schools shutting, the support staff coping with everyday uncertainty.

Listening to teachers

But MPs should not be alone in this need for real in-service training. All those who fight over the future of our schools should be brought back to see the new landscapes that are breaking and re-forming daily. 

Union leaders, who seem to spend huge energy and imagination seeking new ways to keep schools closed, should be back in the classrooms straining to keep them open and safe, walking the corridors of schools, be they state, independent, primary, senior, faith, secular, single-sex, coeducational - here they should be, talking, asking questions, seeking out answers, and supporting.

And, above all, they should be listening: to the teachers, to the parents, to the students, to the governors, to the support staff, to those who have Covid-19 and those who have recovered, to those who are self-isolating - to all of us who, daily, come into work despite our own worries and personal challenges, as well as to the partners and families of those members of staff. Should they do so, they might find experiences that challenge both their preconceptions and their politics. 

Because the debate about schools - whether they should stay open or closed - does not lend itself to simple, politically expedient, "yes" or "no" answers. And being a teacher makes me naturally suspicious of those who feel they have a monopoly on truth right now: the solutionists from right or left, working from home, or in Whitehall, engaging with the business of schools in abstract form only. 

Schools could find space for more support, but not through Twitter, or on the op-ed pages of The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, or on the floor of the Commons. We need our support in the playgrounds, in the canteens and crowded form rooms, supervising departing coaches, handing out packed lunches. 

Loud opinions are easy to voice in empty chambers. But bravery works better in silence, unasked for - recognising that, in such dark times, the light of understanding, rather than the heat of argument, is needed now. 

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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