Disability and Teaching In The Time of The Covid Crisis
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I’m Julie, a deaf/blind high school teacher in the North of Scotland. Here is my experience balancing 16 months of Covid-19 as a deaf/blind teacher and unionist.
Your Normal Is Not My Normal
Usually I’m the first deaf/blind person people have met, and I’m very open about my disability with my colleagues and my students. They know that I have hearing aids and lip read, and that I have severe tunnel vision. Obviously this affects how I do my job, because teaching requires a lot of listening and active supervision, especially if you teach the sciences like I do.
My students all know that they need to look at me when they speak, and to make sure they don’t leave trip hazards around the room. When we’re running a practical, I’m constantly on the move, checking on individual groups and stepping back to scan the whole room. I have a mental map of the room so I know where to walk and look without having to think- this lets me focus on the students better. If I’m talking to someone else or checking book work, they know that they need to work harder to get my attention! In order to ensure my students’ and my safety, I risk assess all my practical work and share my classes with other teachers which allows me to do fewer practical lessons as my colleagues can teach those lessons while I concentrate on theory. As much as I love teaching, it’s extremely tiring for me which is why I now work part-time.
I’ve been teaching for 15 years and I have a good rhythm and routine going. The pandemic changed that.
How The Pandemic Changed My Teaching Practice
In March 2020, Scottish schools closed two weeks before the Easter holiday. The week the announcement was made, I was ill in bed with suspected Covid but unable to get tested. Exams were cancelled and we were told to start teaching from home.
We, teachers and students, suddenly had to figure out how to make this work. For the next three months, I had migraine after migraine, I was exhausted, and I was trying to encourage my students to log on and learn. I had to learn to use new software which was a long and painful process because of my visual problems. Students had to try to get online while parents and siblings were trying too, sometimes with a mobile phone, sometimes with equipment borrowed from school because what family has access to multiple laptops with no warning?
One hour of marking now took three or four hours. I learned to spread my three days of work over five days because three long days were too painful but five short days meant I could pace myself. My line manager was happy to support me. I learned to be flexible with my lesson deadlines for my students, and made sure to reply to emails as soon as possible. I sent silly cat memes to my classes to cheer them up. My students learned to send me their work as word documents or if they couldn’t, to take good quality photos of neatly handwritten paper. Sometimes, they sent me silly cat memes. We helped each other.
Then we went back to the school building from August to December. Tables had to be wiped clean throughout the day and students had to be reminded to wash their hands and keep their distance. I was on high alert constantly because I couldn’t tell when people were standing near me, and I was trying to make sure my students were as safe as possible. Face coverings had to be worn and suddenly I couldn’t lipread anymore, and I struggled to understand what the muffled voices were saying. I did my best to understand my students but when my ears weren’t up to it, I had post-its on every table for writing notes to me and I encouraged them to email me or find me at a quieter time for a private talk. My classroom had to be rearranged which meant my mental map of the layout was wrong and I spent weeks walking into things.
It was horrible, stressful, and I cried several times. A big part of the mental health toll was having to adapt to so many changes at once with limited hearing and vision. I got through it because my department head and my science colleagues were supportive and amazing human beings. Going back into lockdown from January to March this year was much easier for everybody. We knew what to expect, so I had the mental space to learn to improve my online teaching and better support my students. There were more cat memes and sometimes my students lingered at the end of video lessons to talk. We again returned to school in April that was also easier, but I was extremely relieved when we reached the summer holiday.
Disability Activism During The Pandemic
The pandemic has had an effect on my union activism as well, in that it opened up a lot of new opportunities for me. Just before lockdown, I was elected Chair of the STUC  Disabled Workers’ Committee, representing my union, the Educational Institute of Scotland. Meetings were online and I had to rely on (terrible) auto captions. Because the pandemic made disability issues more time-urgent in specific areas, I spent a lot of time working those meetings around my teaching schedule. The Committee’s focus shifted to disabled people’s Covid concerns during the pandemic and we increased our activism as a committee, including putting forward our concerns directly to the Scottish Government. It was really nerve-wracking to need to join so many meetings and talk to so many new people as a deaf person, but it was vital I did because nothing can replace lived experience-- “Nothing about us without us.”
In some ways, the pandemic forcing us all to move online made it easier for us disabled people to find each other, talk, and raise awareness. The support and activity in my community has been phenomenal this last year. I contributed to some of EIS’ work, including a big online meeting of disabled EIS teachers in January which has now led to the formation of an informal Disabled Members Network. The meeting was wonderful because I so rarely get to talk to other disabled teachers and compare notes.
When I look back on the last sixteen months, it feels like a dramatically quiet time. So much happened in so little time and yet I had many moments of happiness and peace punctuating the stress. I told my students that they now know that they are much more resilient than they ever thought they were, that if they got through the last year they can get through most things. I think that applies to all of us.
Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC)
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.