Covid-19: under pressure and unappreciated | Education Support
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Impact of covid on teachers and education staff

Covid-19: under pressure and unappreciated

16th September 2020

Emma Kell reflects on the lack of appreciation of education staff revealed by our Covid-19 and the classroom report and feels profound concern and anxiety for the profession.

Education Support’s latest report Covid-19 and the classroom is as devastating as it is unsurprising. It’s like the world’s least-satisfying ‘I told you so’ for education professionals who’ve seen the pressure and U-turns and uncertainties pile up week upon week upon week with no respite since 20 March.

By and large, staff in schools are a resilient, optimistic, steadfast lot who can take most of what’s thrown at them (literally and metaphorically). Let’s face it, nobody goes into teaching for the predictability of the job. And, despite everything, enter any school and I defy you not to leave with a sense of hope and joy – laughter and smiles abound, even where plastic screens are in place and high-fives are banned.

But for those of us concerned with teacher wellbeing, recruitment and retention, this report is a source of significant disquiet. Why? There are two main threads that emerge that we need to unpick.

The first is around the impact of Covid-19 and associated changes on the mental health of education professionals. It’s first worth noting that one in five, a significant minority, of education professions reported a positive impact in their mental health. This is reflected in my interactions with staff with compassionate leaders who gave them the space to adjust to lockdown, giving them time to take up new pursuits such as yoga, music and languages, leaders who actively encouraged staff to join the NHS Volunteer Responders or gave them meaningful activities like visiting students at home to deliver food. It’s worth speaking to these one in five and encouraging them to hold onto this sense of wellbeing and the good habits they have developed.

Realistically, though, in every school, the demands continued – they changed shape, but the need for carefully, reassuring, regular communication with children and parents was intensified – the concern for our most vulnerable exacerbated by not being able to see the whites of their eyes each day. There was lots and lots of work still to do and almost no let-up as key members of staff worked through Easter, through half term, through the bank holidays (to respond to Friday-night guidance) and through the summer.

So it’s little wonder that 50% of education professionals report a decline in mental health. They were either taking the huge personal risk of placing themselves in the school building with the children of key workers and the most vulnerable who could be brought into school – or they were working from home, either feeling lonely and isolated or balancing their work with the duties of caring for others, setting home learning, dealing with constant interruptions… as one colleague put it, ‘it’s less “working from home” and more “living from work”’…

School staff weren’t the only ones dealing with huge upheavals, of course. But there was something even darker and more disquieting going on. At best, we felt overlooked in daily briefing after daily briefing – not included in the key worker claps or the lists of groups to be thanked. Parents complained on public social media forums about too much work, not enough work, too much contact, not enough contact… At worst, we felt actively undermined, misunderstood and belittled. A colleague of mind was recently asked by a stranger whether she’d ‘enjoyed her six months off’. Headlines screamed of ‘letting teachers be heroes’ with the barely concealed implication that we were all work-shy slackers trying to give ourselves an easy life.

The data from this report shows how acutely this lack of appreciation was felt. Only 61% of education professionals felt appreciated by parents. We know how important the sense of team-work with parents is so this is profoundly worrying. Only 25% felt appreciated by the general public – the very general public that is now trusting us, not only to bridge the chasms in learning lost through lockdown, but to keep their children safe during terrifying times. Only 15% felt appreciated by government – the last-minute, every changing guidance made us feel unimportant, taken for granted and disrespected and only 12% felt appreciated by the media. It would be interested to see if these figures have plummeted further in the light of the A Level debacle, the changes to English GCSE assessment, the Covid testing fiasco…

Appreciation is a tricky thing to define and the effects of lack of it are pernicious. I have witnessed impassioned, confident, optimistic experienced school leaders hit rock bottom time after time. One, feeling pressured to open to more students in June without clear safety guidance told me: ‘I woke up at 5 paralysed by the thought that somebody in my school community was going to die – and it would be my fault.’ Others, usually clarion-callers of positivity and sense on social media retreated or began to express defeat and despair in place of their usual humour and defiance.

It’s not pretty. Those who know my writing will know I usually go for the up-beat, positive, the pragmatic, but it’s hard not to feel profound concern and anxiety for the profession to which I have dedicated my adult life.

What can we do? There is so much outside our control. So many reasons to feel furious and helpless. At Education Support, we come back again and again to controlling what we can. Keep holding onto your loved ones – the data from the study shows their support is more important than ever. We can choose to exercise compassion and patience – with ourselves as much as with others. We can capitalise on the numerous powerful networks of support and collaboration that have grown during these months to offer spaces to listen and be heard – or just to make one another laugh. And we can choose, in the moments when the gloom lifts – after a lesson that’s made us laugh or glow, a day that’s reminded us of why we do this in the first place, to celebrate – loudly – the profession of which we are so proud. And hope that we finally gain the respect we so deserve.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher, researcher, speaker and author of How to Survive in Teaching 

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Teachers and education staff who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

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