Cold comfort

23rd January 2015 at 00:00

I emerge from a black sleep into a world of pain. The room slips in and out of focus. I moan pitifully as someone approaches. She is wearing a biohazard suit. The worst thoughts flash through my mind. Do I have the Ebola virus? Have I contracted Sars? What if it's H5N1 bird flu?

She observes me through a protective visor. The absence of a reassuring smile makes me think she must be a member of the medical profession. I have a feeling she sees me as nothing more than a combination of suspicious symptoms. She is holding something in her hands, which she extends towards me.

"I've brought you a cup of tea and two paracetamol tablets," my wife says. What was a visor becomes a pair of glasses. The biohazard suit turns into a cagoule. The scientific gaze resolves itself into a look of exasperated sympathy.

"I'm off to the supermarket," she continues. "If you think of anything else you need for your cold, you'll have to ring me."

Her emphasis on the word "cold" makes my illness sound minor. Does my own wife lack respect for the valiant way I have continued to provide education in the face of winter viruses? In the infectious world of a primary classroom, teaching can be an act of heroism.

Those who do not work on the front line in the war against underachievement have little idea of the conditions under which primary teachers must operate. Were they ever surrounded by legions of moist students dribbling snot and saliva? Did hordes of small children ever cough directly into their faces? Or contaminate their every learning resource with several billion unfriendly bacteria?

Armed with little more than a box of tissues and a bottle of antibacterial handwash, primary practitioners work in some of the most infectious places on Earth. But is it really necessary to put our health and physical well-being at risk? In the modern age, shouldn't educating the nation's children be less like germ warfare? Shouldn't pupil-borne teacher infections be a thing of the past?

Through the fog of illness, an alternative future emerges. It is one where all primary schools are marked out as being biologically hazardous. Teachers are routinely issued with protective garments before entering their classrooms. They are sprayed with germicide at the end of each day and all clothing is incinerated. Not a single microbe is allowed to penetrate their armour.

Then, in a more lucid moment, I realise that none of this will happen. In this age of austerity, no government will commit resources to protecting teachers' health. Our only hope is to take matters into our own hands. My wife answers her phone.

"Hello dear, are you still at the supermarket?" I croak. "Could you get me some throat sweets, a bottle of medicinal whisky and a biohazard suit, please?'

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield

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