And so the curtain is about to fall on the academic year that was 2019-2020. And what a year. Easily the most challenging of my career in a personal sense as well as a professional one.
On the last day of the summer holidays, just before our first INSET day, I’d gathered together my SLT for a coffee and catch up at school to begin to plan out the year ahead. I remember my phone ringing unexpectedly and hearing my mum on the other end of the line, clearly upset.
You know that Baz Luhrmann song? Wear Sunscreen. There’s a line in it –
“The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind;
the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.”
Well this was one of those moments for me. Mum explained she was in hospital with dad. Nine weeks later, dad passed away.
That first half term of the school year was hard with a mix of school in the day and hospital in the evenings and weekends. But alongside all of that, the Isle of Man branch of NAHT had entered a formal trade dispute with the Department of Education, and as Branch President I was involved in organising our membership into a period of industrial action.
There were negotiations, talks and meetings. We stopped our industrial action at the end of September after five weeks of action short of strike, but the subsequent lack of progress on the way forward that we had negotiated meant that we re-balloted members, and by the end of January we had begun a second period of industrial action. Anyone who has ever been involved with organising and / or participating in industrial action will know the toll it takes – and that includes the emotional pressures as much as anything else. It was a tough time.
In-between those two periods of industrial action, during October, Laxey village, where one of my schools is located, suffered a tremendous flood. The story led the national news and was the headline story on BBC news and SKY news. The weather was terrible, the rain was torrential. The entire village was flooded and became inaccessible by air, sea and road. It was completely cut off, and some of the video footage on social media, captured by residents, was unbelievable. The sight of a fire engine being swept down the road by a torrent of water is not one I will forget. Obviously we had to close the school. A major incident was declared and the damage suffered by some of our families was heartbreaking.
Dad’s passing at the end of October was very hard on the family. We are a close family, and Dad and I spent a lot of time together, going for a pint or watching and talking football. It made for a difficult run up to Christmas.
We all know the world changed after Christmas with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. In the Isle of Man we operated a “hub school” system and most schools, mine included, were closed indefinitely on March 23rd. School leaders and teachers invest so much of themselves in their schools, so to lock the doors and walk away was emotional. And if you think back to that period, right at the start of lockdown, the sense of uncertainty added to that emotional turmoil.
On a personal note, my youngest daughter has an underlying health need and is on a waiting list for an operation. With me now having to work in the hub schools, Steph and I took the decision that I’d temporarily move out to reduce the risk of me passing on COVID19 to her. I went ten weeks living apart from my family so that I could continue to work but not expose my loved ones to an increased risk of COVID19. I know that my story is no different to countless others in the education profession who have responded to the challenges of COVID19 with sacrifice and hard work, and I am proud of our profession and the response it gave to the pandemic.
And once we reopened the schools in June, more challenges have presented as various post-lockdown difficulties emerge. Safeguarding issues, heartbreaking medical issues, and staffing issues have all reared their head. We’ve also found professional challenges, such as having no budget allocations.
But despite all of this, during the school year I have found many positives: the school communities somehow feel stronger than ever before. Staff relationships have strengthened, the connection between schools and families/communities has grown. There have been some laughs and giggles along the way – and the children have been brilliant, as always. The children have kept us grounded and we are all so proud of their resilience and spirit.
I won’t deny it though – 2019/20 is one school year I’m pleased to be saying goodbye to. I will be back in September, refreshed and recharged, more determined than ever to make 2020/21 the best school year we’ve ever had.