Covid

My Covid lesson? Get back to the shop floor!

Offering to do supply across my trust to fill the gaps left by Omicron has opened my eyes to the unknown unknowns of my CEO position, writes Lee Mason-Ellis

Offering to do supply across my trust to fill the gaps left by Omicron has opened my eyes to the unknown unknowns of my CEO position, writes Lee Mason-Ellis

8 Feb 2022, 5:00

Ministers might sometimes seem unaware of the scale of the problem, but Schools Week readers will be all too familiar with the mammoth effort it is taking to keep schools open in the face of teacher absences due to Covid. A few weeks ago, I let headteachers in our trust know I was available to do supply for them if things were too challenging. The offer was sincere, but I doubted anyone would take me up on it.  

Then, as I was opening up our trust offices one early morning, I got a call from Edenbridge Primary School. They were short of a year 3 teacher. Could I help? I jumped at the chance. Sure, my career had taken me out of regular teaching in 2008. But, I reasoned, I’d still taught periodically enough throughout the years to ensure I could teach to a ‘good’ level. And after all, this probably wasn’t what he had in mind, but the education secretary had called for retired teachers to return to the classroom. So, I got back in my car and made my way there full of confidence. 

Well, initially at least. The closer I got to the school, the more anxieties bubbled to the surface. It occurred to me that I hadn’t taught a year 3 class for over 20 years. How would the children respond to me? Could I remember the complexities of teaching? Differentiation? Skilled questioning? Could I build positive relationships quickly with children who didn’t know me? By the time I arrived, I was questioning the wisdom of making the offer in the first place! 

I needn’t have worried so much. It was like riding a bike. I got my head down, focused on the planning sheets, made sure the resources were there for all groups of learners; and I was ably supported by a fantastic teaching assistant. She taught me how to take the register on Sims – something I couldn’t remember how to do – and then the children arrived. I loved every minute of standing in front of all those little individuals, looking at me expectantly.

Some time in the classroom is going in my yearly timetable 

It’s easy to forget what a uniquely enriching experience it is to teach children. Paradoxically perhaps, it’s also easy to forget the complexities of being a good teacher and to assume that this enrichment is reward enough. It’s never been an easy job, and the pandemic certainly hasn’t made it any easier. After only teaching a couple of lessons and marking books through lunch, I was happy for sure. But I was also exhausted. Heads who take on retired teachers answering Mr Zahawi’s call to arms should bear that in mind. It could be a bit of a shock to the system. 

Reflecting on the experience, I’m aware that teachers simply don’t have the same time I have to reflect on theirs on a daily basis. I already met with school staff three times a year and in my regular visits it had come to my attention that 2.5 hours of planning time is not enough, but my time at Edenbridge crystalised that for me. Teachers need at least four, and that’s something we’re going to work on as a trust.

I’ve also concluded that I need to teach more often to keep up to speed with new practices and to improve my stamina, so some time in the classroom is going in my yearly timetable. I also want to better understand everything that teaching assistants and those in the school office do, so I can fully appreciate their workloads. 

My stint at Edenbridge was born of necessity, but now I realise I need to go back to teaching more regularly. Pandemic aside (and in a way, it’s a shame that it’s taken Covid for me to learn this lesson) there’s something really valuable to be gained from spending more time back on the shop floor. It has allowed me to reconnect with what staff are doing every day, and I say that as someone who never felt particularly distanced from that. 

Maybe ministers could learn something from it too. 

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One comment

  1. David Crompton

    Wow, what a remarkable idea – that HTs should spend more time in the classroom. Funny how that topic of conversation never came up in the staffroom I used to be in. Still, that’s probably one of the reasons that CEOs get the salaries they do: to come up with bright, shiny ideas that nobody else has thought of.