The coronavirus pandemic has brought about an unwelcome situation. It’s unique, but aspects of it aren’t completely unknown – not for everyone.
Experienced teachers might recall 2009, when the threat of swine flu hung over the country. We were luckier then, thankfully, and didn’t have to put our plans into action. All the same, while what’s transpired this year is new, the threat – for experienced teachers – isn’t.
It’s an incredibly difficult situation: all the usual complexities of safeguarding, assessment, wellbeing and budgets remain, but with the added pressure of trying to ensure that meaningful learning takes place in as safe an environment as is possible.
And difficult situations require experience. As school staff, we’re working as hard as we can in tough circumstances. But our long-term colleagues, in particular, have much of the knowledge and many of the skills we need to get through this. Experienced staff have seen it and done it.
Coronavirus: Experienced teachers do what needs to be done
Perhaps that’s why, when we started to hear rumblings of a potentially dangerous new virus earlier in the year, the minds of some experienced teachers were cast back 11 years. It wasn’t new to them. As soon as they heard, they began to plan: whole-school contingency plans, resources for remote learning, ordering food vouchers for students on free school meals, assessing IT access.
From whole-school considerations to issues that might affect individual students or teachers, they did what needed to be done.
As the pandemic progressed, experienced teachers were often less fazed by the vastness of the problem. They were online and ready, offering to deliver food vouchers and work, and checking what new kinds of data that schools needed to collect. And – vitally – they were there, supporting other, often younger colleagues, who keenly felt the difficulties of isolation.
But the current debate in schools seems to have a tendency to equate experience with expense. Budgets are so stretched that many schools lack the ability to cover short-term needs, let alone help support us in the long term. But identifying experienced staff as “expensive” is problematic – as we see now that hundreds of experienced teachers, fed up with the pay deal offered to them, are looking to leave the profession.
Defining a member of staff as 'expensive'
What are we saying when we label a member of staff as expensive? Are we saying they cost a lot (relatively) because they’re experienced and skilled, adding real value to the school community?
Probably not. It’s rare to hear “expensive” used in positive terms. “Expensive” is banded around as a reason not to value someone, their contribution and their position.
Worse still is the claim made of those who’ve chosen not to seek promotion: that they’re expensive because they’re just classroom teachers and on top whack for it. But it’s classroom teachers who are in the thick of it now.
And, with numbers of older teachers falling and the consequent loss of that knowledge they share, it’s time we start considering the language we use when we’re talking about these members of our school community.
For schools should be communities, and communities work best when they respect the contribution of each individual within them.
Minding our language
Perhaps we just need to be more mindful of the language we use. When others – particularly senior leaders – comment on “expense”, these remarks tinge how they regard these colleagues. And, worse, they filter down to colleagues newer to the profession.
Department heads, now privy to higher-level discussions, pick up on the language of “expensive”, and start to view more experienced colleagues that way – insinuating, albeit perhaps unwittingly, that these members of staff are burdens rather than assets. It’s the use of language here that, if misapplied, threatens community cohesion.
The combination of problems that we already had and the new ones introduced as a result of the coronavirus are dreadful. Newer teachers have worked incredibly hard during this difficult time. We can all learn much from each other.
But let’s take a more long-termist view, and remember who our rocks are: those who, in the absence of any idea what to do, held their ground and gave us all the support we needed.
We absolutely need less experienced staff to step up, take on responsibility and grow. But we also need to value all our classroom teachers, however far up the (let’s be honest here) pretty short ladder of pay progression they have to climb.
We, as school communities, are at our best when we are open to question, debate and longer-term thinking. Budgets are stretched, but let’s not talk about the problems of retention on one hand and the “expense” of experience on the other.
Let’s view more experienced teachers through the lens of the value they add, not through the single lens of money. Yes, money is tight, but we shouldn’t put a price on experience.
Clare Owen is a secondary teacher in South London