Myth busting who we are

Imagine, for a moment, that your line of work isn’t in school but in some form of manufacturing, and that your particular role is to create a small and largely unnoticed part of the process, but something crucial to the integrity of the product; the seasoning in the sandwich or the sockets on a computer motherboard. Imagine now that your job and your reliability is publicly questioned at length and in detail by somebody whose only experience of a sandwich is to shovel it down their face at lunchtime or whose interaction with a computer is to repeatedly hit the ‘enter’ key and loudly question their Wi-Fi connection.

Sound familiar?

It should, because this is just what our profession and our workplaces have been subject to for a number of weeks now. Mainstream media, newspapers in particular, have expressed opinions which are at best unhelpful, at worst dishonest, about schools and teachers. Branded as lazy, obstructive and scared by people who know nothing about us or our work, and whose only experience of education is having been to school as a child.

Worse examples have emerged through social media, and by this I don’t mean the narrow-minded small town voices who might once have poured their scorn through radio phone-ins, but by those who seek to build an audience through controversy and unpleasantness; the worst example, on Twitter, calling upon the public to #ClapForLazyB*****dTeachers. Charming!

Eating a sandwich or working at a computer doesn’t make us expert in catering or information technology, and we wouldn’t dream of marching into Costa Coffee and dictating how to prepare a panini, or stamp angrily into PC World imposing our opinion about data storage. Yet some sections of the fourth estate have felt duty bound to denigrate teachers and teaching ….

…. in the middle of a global pandemic that has impacted and changed us all.

Wellbeing is a collective responsibility. In school, anyone can be a wellbeing leader; the cleaner or the head, the teaching assistants or the office manager, the teachers or the site manager. We are all impacted, positively or otherwise, by the words, thoughts and deeds of each other. In other words, the culture of and the relationships in the school determine the level of wellbeing of the staff. A culture of micromanagement and veiled criticism serves only to undermine the self-confidence of staff, make them question themselves and ultimately affect their mental wellbeing. One or more individuals with a shortage of people skills or emotional intelligence can quite easily upset the delicate balance of staff wellbeing through a sharp word or a thoughtless deed. Good wellbeing management addresses such occurrences within our workplace; proactive wellbeing leadership aims at ensuring they never happen.

External factors however can tip the wellbeing balance, and this is where the media coverage and social media commentary must be challenged. Schools never closed and teachers never stopped teaching. The myth of the ‘lazy teacher’ and of ‘union obstruction’ disguises the fact that before the 18th March announcement by the Secretary of State most schools had already anticipated that many pupils would be working from home in coming weeks and had raided cupboards for old stock, rapidly trained their staff to work remotely and planned for the means to continue the education of vulnerable children and the children of key workers. As of 20th March, when we waved goodbye to our pupils, schools were already in a position to provide as quality an education as they could with limited resources and time.

Schools have continued to provide educational services, both onsite and remotely, since March, through the Easter holiday and summer half-term break. Many teachers will not have had a break from February half term until the six weeks holiday, many school leaders and safeguarding leads have probably not stopped since Christmas. Are they exhausted? Yes. Are they complaining? Not about their role but about the very public questioning of it.

In considering the impact of their words on our profession, media coverage needs to make itself aware of a number of other matters.

  • There will be young teachers who, caught out by the lockdown, haven’t seen their parents or partners in months. They may be miles from their families and friends, feeling fragile, missing that essential personal contact that can be sustaining.
  • Teachers with young families will have felt frightened for the safety of their families as they continued to provide rota cover in school, potentially exposing themselves to the virus.  
  • Teachers with elderly parents will have had to face the fear of them being unwell, having seen the impact on the older population that Covid19 has had.
  • There are teachers and school staff who have health vulnerabilities and have still taken a full role in providing education in less than normal circumstances.

Criticism of schools and staff in the mainstream and social media has been misplaced, the use of terms such as ‘snowflake’ and ‘get a backbone’ little short of offensive, and most of it based on no level of research and questioning. In fact, had coverage questioned parents, the one group of our school community most directly impacted by the current situation, then it would have found widespread support, appreciation and respect for schools and teachers at this most difficult of times.

Of greater consideration though is that school staff through lockdown and now as we pick our route through returning ‘bubbles’ have not had the guaranteed protection of masks and gowns, whilst the media and other commentators have sat safely and comfortably behind the protection of their laptop screens or mobile phones. Food for thought?

Andrew Cowley is a deputy headteacher in a South London primary school, co-founder and blogger of @HealthyToolkit, author of ‘The Wellbeing Toolkit’ published by Bloomsbury Education and the co-curator with Kelly Hannaghan of ‘The Weekly Wellbeing Toolkit’ published and shared free each week during the pandemic.

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