Greater leadership needed for those teaching through a crisis

“Any fool can handle a crisis, it’s this day-to-day living that wears you down.”

The above quote is usually accredited to the writer Anton Chekov, although a quick Google search suggests that he never said it. Whoever did say it was on to something. A crisis brings out the best in people, it makes us cooperate, adapt, and improvise. It makes us summon up strength we didn’t know we had. It makes us drop our prejudices and boundaries and work to a common goal. This is all made possible by the fact that a crisis is normally brief. We are not equipped to operate in crisis mode consistently. The problem now is that the crisis has become day-to-day life. It’s easy to lose sight of just how strange our lives are now.

Online teaching in the first lockdown had all of the hallmarks of a positive response to a crisis. We quickly familiarised ourselves with new apps and teaching platforms, there was no time for training, we went right into it and learned by trial and error (lots of error ). In my house we had to balance childminding with online learning; frequently I pre-recorded lessons after the baby went to bed to ensure my students had a focus the next day. Emails, phone calls, and Microsoft Teams messages pinged metronomically as students, teachers, and parents grappled with the new developments. I held live classes with my seven groups from second year to Leaving Cert (175 students approximately ). It was stressful and frustrating but there was a novelty factor and a sense of community that kept us going. That is until I went on Twitter or opened the Irish Independent or listened to Newstalk where I was assured that teachers were either doing nothing or only emailing students once a week. The disconnect between the media coverage and my experience was bewildering and demoralising. The students kept me going.

By week three many of the students were surprising themselves by expressing a desire to return to school. However, online attendance was encouragingly high (although most were reluctant to speak up in online classes ), it seemed they needed the structure. When the exams were cancelled student engagement, understandably, fell off. The academic year petered out and the class of 2020 evaporated like phantoms. They couldn’t say thank you or goodbye to us for fear of being seen to ingratiate themselves to the people tasked with calculating their grades.

This time round we were better prepared. Despite the short notice we were able to move online relatively smoothly. We have learned from past experience, the students have adapted quickly too, they have also learned from experience. The Government have seemingly learned nothing. There was a palpable sense of panic to the January reopening plan, there was no sense of moving to a prepared plan B for a second lockdown because no such plan existed. Teachers and school management found out about developments on the news at the same time as everybody else. The Minister for Education has attempted to portray herself as solution focused and pragmatic in the face of intransigent union defiance, she has played the blame game.

On the day that Leaving Cert students were to return to school there were almost 5,000 new cases of Covid in Ireland. The cynical repetition of the phrase that “schools are safe” by the Government would be laughable if the risks involved weren’t so serious. The relative safety they are referring to is based on data from the time before we lost control of the virus. We need leadership and clear thinking from our political leaders; what we are getting is gaslighting and derision.

It remains to be seen if there are contingency plans for this year’s exams, either they don’t exist or they exist but are being kept secret, both situations worry me. We are operating in a rolling crisis, trying to maintain structure for students who are plagued by uncertainty. This time around there is no novelty factor, only the stark reality that online teaching and learning is a hollow experience for teachers and students. I hope we will be able to teach our students in person again soon, I hope online learning is banished to history along with facemasks, Zoom, and the advertising slogan “perf with Surf”. Until the crisis ends, we will keep logging on and doing our best for our students.

Stephen Reilly is a teacher at Coláiste Iognáid.


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