Why I’m not returning to teach in Covid-stricken schools

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has asked former teachers to return to schools hit by the Omicron wave. Cornwall-based Jane Stevenson explains why she’s not answering this call from a government that has shown no concern for the health and wellbeing of school staff or the children they teach.

I am a qualified science teacher who has not taught for several years but who could, theoretically, find one day a week to return to teaching. I am just the sort of person Nadhim Zahawi had in mind when he called for former teachers to return to the classroom, to “protect education”, as the latest impacts of the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic hit schools.

My answer is “No”.

Putting the pandemic aside for a moment, supply teaching only works when the rest of a school’s staff are in a stable, resourced position. I know this because I have experience in permanent teaching positions as well as supply posts.

Daily supply teaching works when you regularly go to the same school and build up a rapport with students and staff, as well as getting to know the routines, particularly the rewards and sanctions systems. It works when teachers are sufficiently well-supported to have time to set work themselves, with seating plans and instructions to make all the necessary resources easy to find, and when the students know that the teacher will follow up on any notes that have been left for that teacher (good or bad).

Supply teachers are often faced with the opposite of this. Colleagues of teachers who have become unwell are left to set the work for another class on top of their own teaching load. Students are faced with disruption to their studies, and get fed up with yet another new face and no continuity. Supply teachers are skilled at dealing with situations like this, but there are limits to what’s possible. Sometimes, the best that can be done with lessons is crisis management. This is unfulfilling and the supply teacher can feel isolated and even threatened at times.

Now imagine a school riddled with Covid. Or, if not riddled, disrupted by two years of the pandemic, with large numbers of staff having been away from work due to illness. Many children will have had absences too and may be returning to school after missing previous chunks of work. Now put yourselves in the shoes of a supply teacher walking into this situation.

In a recent interview with The Independent, I described Nadhim Zahawi’s idea as crazy. It is crazy to let Covid rip through schools, making so many staff sick that the school cannot function, and then to call for more staff to put themselves in the line of fire. This is the politest way I can put it.

Just like all things Covid, the pandemic has shone a light on a situation that was already bad. Why is there not a bubbling pool of supply teachers already there, willing and waiting to step in? It’s not just to do with the pandemic.

Maybe the education secretary could look at the reasons why so many permanent teachers leave the profession early. Pick up a few metaphorical stones and look under them.

He would find reasons such as unmanageable workload, increased monitoring and surveillance, shifting goal posts for staff and students, hastily introduced and under-resourced changes to the curriculum – which teachers often find to be poorly suited to the students in front of them.

Then he might look at pay and conditions for supply teachers, particularly long-term supply teachers, who have the workload and responsibility of a permanent teacher, but for poor pay.

Another factor that the education secretary has not considered is this: solidarity. Teachers are caring people. Teaching is a vocation for many of us. Those of us who left the profession will always be teachers at heart. We still want the best for our colleagues in schools and the young people they teach.

Many of us have looked on in horror as the Delta wave ripped through schools. It was preventable, but the government could not be bothered to take the measures needed to stop it, such as providing adequate means of mechanical ventilation. Children and staff have got sick, some with Long Covid, and some have even died.

If I helped prop up a system that does this to people, I would feel a traitor. Traitor is a strong word, but schools have been badly let down. Covid has been ripping through schools since last Summer and schools went back in September when community prevalence was high. They have been battling with the Delta wave and now the Omicron wave has landed on top. The government, propped up by most media, put its energy into spin rather than mitigations. They were warned, but they did not listen and now they are asking former teachers to pick up the pieces. I do not think this will happen. Children, young people and staff need looking after. That will solve the problem. I stand in solidarity with teachers, parents and children calling for proper mitigations in schools.