Northern Ireland news

Platform: Stephen McCord

Teachers are back at school after the Covid-19 lockdown
Stephen McCord

ULSTER Teachers' Union President Stephen McCord is leading its 7,000 members through the biggest crisis in the education sector's history. On World Teachers' Day, he shares his experiences of coronavirus' significant impact on schools.

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I believe the resilience of Northern Ireland's young people will help fuel its post-Covid recovery.

When I accepted my second term of office at the Ulster Teachers' Union annual conference this year, no-one could have imagined the global catastrophe which would unfold before my tenure ended.

That seems like a lifetime ago now in this present Covid crisis.

It was just weeks before conference 2020 was due to open, news of what Northern Ireland was about to face started to emerge.

I think it was hard for people to believe it as there is a certain hubris in our modern world.

My wife Estelle is French so we were hearing what her family was going through there and knew the spread of Covid was inevitable.

There is always a huge sense of responsibility with a role like this anyway as you're there to represent people on issues that affect them most, things that can alter their lives for the worse unless they're resolved - like health and safety, employment rights, pay and conditions, mental health support, professional development.

However, this is on a different level. These issues are life and death and that sense of enormity isn't just peculiar to me as UTU president - colleagues from other unions are feeling it too as we work together for the common good of our children.

Even when we were only getting vague indications pre-lockdown of what lay ahead, schools were already preparing. As experts we were drawing up home learning plans at ridiculously short notice and getting a system in operation.

Sadly, though, that expertise hasn't always been heeded. Concepts we've suggested - such as blended learning, bringing pupils back part-time initially, ensuring schools would receive testing as a priority - haven't been listened to.

The result is that eleventh hour decisions have been taken which have resulted in confusion, back-tracking, increased stress for children, teachers and parents, and worst of all, increased potential risk to lives in the community.

In the first few weeks my phone just didn't stop, such was the fear and confusion. Our motto Caring for Teachers, Caring for Children has never been so apposite.

I was literally going on my computer at 6am and I'd still be there at 11pm. Teachers too were dealing with parents at midnight because their child was anxious over online work. It took its toll on everyone's family life.

Ironically, having been so immersed in the Covid crisis as an ‘issue', it wasn't until I watched my wife and two boys leave the house for their first day back at school this term that the enormity of what we were all living through hit me and I acknowledged the depth of my own fears.

Suddenly, all this was really real - we are in a pandemic.

I fear that equally challenging times lie ahead.

Before Covid, our education system was on its knees. Nothing has changed. Indeed, the crisis has deepened and highlighted the failings, things like the lack of professional development for teachers in IT or mental health training, for instance.

The crisis also highlighted the yawning economic disparity between children, with too many having no access to laptops or internet.

However, despite the gloom, uncertainty and frustration, I believe there are positives.

Thanks to Zoom the world has suddenly become much smaller. We can network with our profession internationally and share expertise. Hopefully, we will also see education and its global context differently going forward.

However, what gives me most optimism is our young people and their ability to see opportunity through crisis. It's their resilience which allows me to believe in a recovery from all this and to envision a hope for the future.

:: Stephen McCord is UTU president and head of science and curriculum at Larne High School.

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