We are exposed to unreasonable Occupational Health and Safety risks within schools that are struggling to maintain the most basic elements of good hygiene practices for students, and where social distancing is a darkly comedic impossibility. Each new guideline and piece of advice is another stinging insult and a fresh challenge to common sense.
As a proud professional group, we feel unseen, un-noted and unmentioned by the Government and the media. The general consensus sees all other industries bar the health profession moving rapidly towards alternative working arrangements. While we are stuck in an inflexible system that cannot, or refuses to, support this possibility.
The complex knowledge and skill intensive work that we do, working within and against the flawed systems, has been reduced to baby-sitting students in the broader media conversation.
It appears we serve merely to keep doctors and nurses in schools. We are currently being asked to hurtle quickly towards online flipped and flexible forms of pedagogy, whilst also teaching the same number of classes and students.
Two new buzz phrases have begun circulating among schools, ‘remote learning’ and ‘continuity of learning’; these very novel concepts have placed a great deal of pressure on schools which are already at breaking point around workload.
This workload takes the form of two primary sources: face-to-face teaching time well above the OECD average, and a high level of accountability and administrivia. The latter cheapens and simplifies our work to a series of documents far removed from the invigorating and complex work of leading 25 young people to new knowledge and skills.
As schools move towards the possibility of online or ‘remote’ learning, the high levels of collaboration and professional support that typify our profession are being brought to the fore.
However, without some alleviation of teaching-overload - the core driver of workload strain - this complex and future-focussed work will be difficult to achieve.
It is also worth reiterating that this work is far removed from mere ‘child-minding’ or ‘baby-sitting’ as our roles have been relegated to in the public consciousness during this time.
As all education-adjacent industries cancel events and move to meeting online, even for gatherings as small as five participants, we teachers front up stoically to work every morning to display an upbeat and relaxed demeanour to our students.
All whilst privately and personally falling to pieces outside of class-times, as we frantically and anxiously ‘panic-scroll’ through news bulletins, refresh emails and check social media for any type of clarity or clear direction.
We trudge through a malaise of ambivalence and fear, as our focus on work becomes increasingly difficult as the conversation flows inevitably towards the real risks we face every day.
As the days wear on, it becomes increasingly clear that the things we have always found lacking, and those things that we fight and advocate for, are being emphasised and exposed. My own privilege of working at an excellent inner-city school, with the average ICSEA score, must be noted.
I fear and feel for my colleagues in Early Childhood Education, primary, TAFE and and higher education who may not have the same level of supportive, strong leadership and access to services that we have.
Spare a moment especially for schools in rural and remote communities, students with learning difficulties or disabilities, or students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander backgrounds.
The high levels of inequity within our system reported widely by PISA and other data sources are becoming exposed for the rifts that they truly are during this crisis.
In these trying times the impacts of social economic status and disadvantage are multiplicatively impactful; consider briefly the access to internet that may be largely impossible for students as schools’ transition towards an online model of teaching.
Within this system, teachers openly discuss their lack of sleep, anxiety and how they are prone to panic attacks, magnifying traits and responses that are already common within our profession. Resulting in presenteeism and out of civic duty, where sickness and ill-health become the norm among our profession.
As an aging profession, it pays to consider briefly the effect on those who may be more vulnerable to the disease due to the conditions of our work.
Correspondence from the Chief Health Officer notes to avoid ‘non-essential’ gatherings, so are we to presume that our work is essential? Our health and wellbeing is openly compromised without consideration or oversight from our leaders.
Nothing brings out leadership or lack thereof more so than a crisis. At the local level our school community and its leadership pull together to focus on what’s most important, but beyond this local level it is difficult to even locate a mention of teachers.
The teachers of Australian schools will not forget this moment, nor will our students. We look and hope for an improvement in the status of teachers, which is plainly shown to be seriously lacking. We hope this crisis will expose and underline the problems we know already exist in our system to the leadership of our country - with the goal of correcting its flaws and empowering those experts, our teachers, that willingly faced real risks to their own health to keep our society sound and heading in the right direction.