'Autumn is always exhausting – but not this exhausting'

The first term of the year is always a bit crazy – and that's before you add coronavirus into the mix, says Michael Tidd

Michael Tidd

Coronavirus: This autumn school term is even more exhausting than normal, says headteacher Michael Tidd

Autumn term is always exhausting, isn’t it? But I don’t think it’s always this exhausting.

There’s no doubt that the changes in place this academic year have added an extra layer of challenge. What with staggered timetables, extra duties, restrictions on where you can and can’t go, and what you can and can’t use. It all adds to the burden of getting through the week. 

But, with half-term still feeling all too distant, the tiredness is giving way to complete fatigue.

The trouble is, all of this extra stuff is on top of the demands of the job at the best of times. September is always a challenge, and the first seven or eight weeks in school always seem like a lifetime. 

Teaching is a demanding job at the best of times

It’s the new classes, not used to your routines: time spent training the old classes is lost, as you spend the first few weeks reminding yourself just how much younger children are at the start of the year than they are by the end. Add in a bit of summer learning loss, and a lot of children who’ve spent weeks without structure – or sometimes without boundaries – and simply getting the cogs turning again can feel like a struggle.

Then the fine weather gives way to showers and frosts. Getting into school in the first place requires an extra five minutes to de-ice the car or to account for leaves on the line. The first run of wet playtimes makes it feel like your teaching role is combined with controlling a herd of wild animals in containment. Best-laid plans for outdoor science lessons are abandoned, and another timetable clash for the hall requires a rapid adaptation of the timetabled day.

Even without all the additional woes, the job is work enough. As we all know, teachers don’t work 50-hour weeks because of the massive overtime payments.

It’s already a demanding job, balancing the needs of 30 individuals in a classroom across 25 lessons a week, from reading to design and technology. Even with plans and resources in place, there are plenty of demands on teachers’ time – and dwindling budgets aren’t making that any easier.

Coronavirus: An extra layer of complexity

It’s the same for school leaders: we may well have sorted the reopening plans over the summer holidays, and started the term well, with efficient one-way systems and masterful plans for organising lunchtimes. But that doesn’t take away the routine work of the day job.

And, again, the new twist of dealing with a pandemic adds an extra layer of complexity.

There are still attendance and punctuality issues to address, but now with the added complication of working out whether Covid is a factor. There are still staffing issues, as winter illnesses sweep through the building, but now with the worry that one day’s cold becomes next week’s closed bubble.

Governors still need their information in good time, with new details added to reflect the changing climate. And, whatever they might like to say, no head is completely taking their eye off the Ofsted ball, either.

All around the school, the to-do list is always a long one, but now it’s developing a life of its own. The office staff have organised the school photographer plenty of times before, but never with a discussion about sanitisers. Teaching assistants have always picked up intervention groups, but never with gaps like this year. Sendcos are well used to dealing with external agencies, but now they spend half their time doing battle with answerphone messages that begin, “Due to Covid…”

In fact, given everything that’s going on at the moment, on top of all the usual work, it’s a wonder we’re all still going.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School, in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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