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Teacher Opinion: "Is today going to be the day I burst into tears in front of my class?"

The author of this story is a high school teacher in regional NSW. This is a day in her life during Term Three in September.

6.30am.

The alarm goes off; I hit snooze a few times before dragging myself into the kid’s room to gently nudge them out of their slumber.

7.00am.

The kids are dressed, and the aroma of coffee draws me towards the kitchen. My daughters happily chat away, and I double-check my timetable for the day – Year 7, playground duty, planning period, Year 12, lunch, Year 9.

7.30am.

Nearly ready. As I look at myself in the mirror, I think to myself, “Is today going to be the day I burst into tears in front of one of my classes?” I’ve been on the verge of tears all week, but as the end of the term draws nearer, my raw emotions bubble closer to the surface. It’s getting harder to keep my brave face on for the kids – both my own children and my students.

8.00am.

I drive into work, mentally running through the checklist of things I need to get done before I start teaching for the day. My bottles of hand sanitiser are nearly empty – I really need to remember to get those refilled before roll call.

8.30am.

I pull into the school gates. I take a few minutes to listen to a few more minutes of my podcast and close my eyes and imagine that I’m somewhere else. As I turn the ignition, I slowly open my eyes again, and take a deep breath before I get out of the car.

8.45am.

Hand sanitiser sorted. I make sure I get the banana-scented brand – the students object less to that one. I sit in my classroom, away from the usual banter of my faculty colleagues. Being immunocompromised  and unable to physically distance from other teachers in my staff room, this is the safest option for me at the moment. It’s isolating, but nothing compared to isolation of working from home. 

8.55am.

A fellow teacher knocks and sits a good two metres away from my desk. As we start talking about the current unit of work we’re teaching to Year 7, she tells me that she’ll be away for the next couple days. Her mother-in-law in the UK has passed away, and although they are unable to return for the funeral, they will be virtually attending via Zoom at 1am the following morning. She’s going to stay home an extra day to support her partner. I can’t imagine how hard it is for her family at the moment, and as much as I would love to continue the conversation, roll call is about to start.

9.05am.

As the bell rings, I approach the classroom door armed like a gunslinger with two different types of hand sanitiser (I’m hoping it feels more like a choice that way). “Gel or spray?” I ask as I greet them at the door. Not all teachers have continued with the hand sanitiser on entry to the classroom, but it feels safer than nothing. Students are as well spaced as seating and square meterage allows. It’s still hard to reconcile the physical distancing rules outside the school gates with what happens during school hours; it almost feels like living in two different worlds. At least the initial fear has decreased; after returning from remote learning, you could see the fear on many students’ faces at the lack of physical distancing in the classroom. Something like the normal chatter has returned, but it’s still not normal. The pandemic hangs in the air as an invisible, yet palpable, reminder that this is the new normal.

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9.25am.

My first Year 7 class stream in through a haze of hand sanitiser. I have two Year 7 classes this year, and the sudden interruption to their transition from primary to high school have hit these students very hard. Many simply did not engage during remote learning at all. I suspect quite a few were overwhelmed by the emails, phone calls and Google Classroom notifications, that they just didn’t know where to start.

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10.15am.

My second Year 7 class line up outside of the door. They are a challenging class, and attendance has really dropped off for some of these kids after remote learning. Some only come once or twice a week, and when they are in class, they’ve missed so much learning that they are completely lost. I know many of these students will never catch up on the gaps in their education. Around two-thirds of the students in this class already have significant support needs, and the effects of the pandemic have amplified the behaviours that already created an obstacle to learning. I’m normally very good at managing students with learning and behavioural issues, but lately I’ve been begging for help. None is forthcoming. Every teacher, head teacher, teacher’s aide, deputy and principal I speak to are struggling as much (if not more) than I am. Schools weren’t designed or staffed with global pandemics in mind.

11.00am.

In the playground on duty, as I watch students swap food and share drink bottles, I wonder what would happen if we do have a COVID case at our school. So far, we have been lucky; no active cases in our local government area for a few months. I see the cleaners on the balcony, sanitising the hand rails for the third time already today, the only sign that it’s not quite business-as-usual.

12.15pm.

My Year 12 class slowly drift in. There are 20 students on the roll, but it’s become increasingly rare to see more than 10 or 12 of them in class on any given day. Their confidence has gradually ebbed as the pandemic has dragged on, and instead of sharing pictures of formal gowns and discussing post-school travel plans, they sombrely discuss whether they’ll get to have any kind of end-of-school celebration at all. “Are you coming to the graduation assembly?” one student eagerly asks. I smile sadly. “No, only a few teachers are allowed to go, and I didn’t make the cut I’m afraid,” I reply. Her face drops, and I can see that this is another of many disappointments this year. I start to tear up, but quickly resume the lesson before I completely break down. These moments of almost-tearful sadness come on often and unexpectedly these days. My stoic-teacher exterior is crumbling, and I know it’s only a matter of time before I’m a blubbering mess by the whiteboard.

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1.00pm.

Lunchtime is for checking emails. The rules about what is and isn’t allowed at school are still changing on a regular basis; excursions still banned, but incursions are okay with certain limitations. School sport has changed about five times in as many weeks, and we’re still waiting to see if Year 6 can start their transition program. I quickly scoff what remains of my lunch before gearing up with the sanitiser for the last time today.

1.43pm. 

Some of my Year 9 students are eager – they are two minutes early for class. One of the few positives to come out of the pandemic is that my school have decided to temporarily abandon formal assessment tasks for students in Year 7 to 10. This has opened up a world of new learning opportunities, and my Year 9s were very happy (ecstatic, really) when I told them we’d be using Minecraft as part of the coursework. They login to their computers and sit there working solidly for the whole period. Before they know it, the bell has rung and we all rush to plug the laptops back into the trolley, blinking lights ready for the next class. “Thanks Miss,” they smile and chant before heading off. 

Sometime after 3.30pm…

I spoke with some other teachers before I left school, and one thing has become really clear to me – the teachers are not alright. I do suspect it’s the same everywhere, but dealing with the additional anxiety of 100-plus kids each and every day is a heavy burden. It became obvious to me quite early on that the kids at school aren’t expressing their anxiety and fear by talking about it and seeking help; they express these complex and often debilitating emotions through their behaviour. I have expressed to other teachers that I’m not sure how long I can keep being a teacher. 

The worst thing about this is they are saying exactly the same thing to me.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo from Getty. 

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