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Turbulent Times For Pupils And Teachers

Written By: Leigh McKay, Subject Leader of Media Studies at Ballyclare Secondary School

In my almost 30 years as a teacher, the last eight months have been, by far, the strangest and most challenging of times. There are inevitable strains as a teacher but honestly, the immense satisfaction and love that I have for my profession and the pupils I teach always outweighs the day to day frustrations and shortfalls of my vocation. Also, as a mum, there are commonplace challenges living with two post primary aged girls but largely, as a family, we enjoy the turbulence of life and manage to find times to enjoy the picturesque journey.

In March of this year however, everyone’s plane hit turbulence unlike any experienced before and life as we knew it, changed forever. I have been a union representative for the Ulster Teachers’ Union for over 20 years now and as such, have the responsibility of keeping my fellow members up to date with pertinent information with regards to their care in the profession. Over these years, I have assisted a number of colleagues with issues but the two week lead up to the official lockdown was traumatically unprecedented. The only life lines were the extraordinary support from the union officials who kept me informed throughout and the eternal optimism, care and relentless encouragement from my family and work friends.

On Friday 13th March (I know!), it was reported that Irish schools were to close down and the following Monday, advice concerning pregnant women, over 70’s and those with some health conditions being advised to ‘Stay at Home’ sent the staff into a spin. Some within these categories simply didn’t know what to do; some had children who attended primary schools that had made the decision to close so had child care concerns and on top of all this, all staff were valiantly attempting to get our over 1000 pupils to wash their hands, socially distance and notwithstanding a shortage of hand sanitizer in school, dispense constant reassurance that everything was going to be okay. This encouragement was in abundance, despite having reservations themselves about family members and the situation as a whole.

The teacher support at this time for the amazing pupils in our school community was second to none. They are superheroes!

When on 19th March the message came from Peter Weir that no exams would be sat in the summer, levels of anxiety were through the roof. Pupil numbers had been dwindling and the atmosphere in school was eerie. Following 5 years with my current form class, I always had mixed emotions about my last day with them but this was exceptionally emotional with only 7 in attendance. Little did we know that this would be the last day in school for everyone for quite some time.

On 23rd March our school was forced to close due to a confirmed case and as I had been in contact, our family went into isolation for 14 days. Lockdown had begun for everyone in earnest now! Following a deep clean, many staff members went in to support the children of key workers whilst all of us began the process of ‘Remote’ and ‘Blended’ learning from home.

As an old dog, learning new tricks can be difficult but I realized that my consistent efforts over the past few years to get to grips with Google Classroom were not futile and this was the best way to stay connected with all of my Media Studies classes. I however, constantly worried about those who weren’t engaging for any number of reasons such as an absence of technology or support or their overall wellbeing being low. Despite wanting to reach out, there was the predicament of balance. I didn’t  want to put pressure on families as the effects of COVID-19, the lockdown and job trepidations could supersede any problems about work from school. I tried to answer emails outside of work hours to allow for the ‘teenage time clock’ that my girls also seemed to be following but the strain that some pupils were going through was often tangible.

Our teachers not only looked after pupils’ academic progression but guided them through concerns by directing them to pastoral information to cope with anxiety or if they had no support network. Our Head of Pastoral, spent every day contacting families to give support and the staff completed videos, audio recordings and innovative resources to keep the pupils involved. Many staff sent me photos to help create a message of support that we placed on our website to stay connected.

If anyone states that teachers were ‘not working’ for the time during lockdown, please tell them that we have never worked harder. Being in the classroom is so much easier, despite all the restrictions.

The completion of data analysis and collating marked pieces from Sims to give grades for GCSE and A Level pupils was very demanding with microscopic checking of scores and marks and then, when the

algorithm disaster unfolded, the teaching profession felt powerless and undervalued.  One A level student, who was given grades well below her predicted, initially missed out on her place at Queens University so we fought for nearly two weeks, putting pressure on the Department of Education to take teacher grades, contacting the university and days of mental exhaustion before she was finally given a confirmed place.

I also worried about my forthcoming new Year 8 form class who had missed out on so many ‘Rite of Passage’ moments in P7 as well as physical inductions that usually took place in June. We meet and greet, show our faces to the parents and begin that initial engagement that instigates the first stages of a 5 year school family connection with me and their fellow classmates. With video technology, we were able to record ourselves and place these onto the school website but this was no replacement for a face to face relationship. It’s a colossal leap for pupils going into ‘Big School’ and yet they were also doing this in a time of turmoil.

In any catastrophe, there are always moments of hopefulness and despite the prolific list of things to worry about, my coping mechanisms were plentiful. I am so lucky to have a marvelous set of friends and family members who made the whole experience manageable. The ‘Clapping for Carers’ with my sister being a nurse was emotional. The Vlog entries and photo journals that I kept reveal moments of great fun with my husband and two girls. The Zoom connections were wonderful and made me realize that I need to connect more and the video I made of ‘Staff at Home’ were some of the key highlights. So despite being a strange and exceptionally challenging time, there were twinkling moments of light.

We are now back in the classroom and I am so happy about that. I missed all of my pupils so much and to be back, knowing that for some it is their only support network, it is perfect. However, there is a palpable variation in mood across all levels and we are constantly striving to keep things ‘normal’ but they simply aren’t. The mental health of many in our school community has been put under pressure and work needs to be done to maintain balance once again. I have no idea what the future holds and what the true impact of Coronavirus will be but I for one am proud to say that during this time of crisis, we as a profession, stepped up to the mark and did and are doing everything in our power to support the magnificent children we teach.

Written By: Leigh McKay, Subject Leader of Media Studies at Ballyclare Secondary School