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Relief Teachers - Where are they?

by Rebecca Thomas

What a strange title - 'relief teacher'.

Your job as a 'relief teacher' is either to provide relief for the original class teacher frantically waving you in, or to find your own relief as you wave a white flag on your way out the door when the job is done, hoping you don't get called back into the fray too soon.

"We can't get relievers!" is the battle cry echoing through the educational trenches from schools of every geographical location. Spare a thought for the poor person who has been assigned the thankless job of finding a teacher for any class at a moments notice. They have to think on their feet, juggling logistics, redeploying troops, and reassigning duties in splits of a second - all while hunting through their phone like a digital bloodhound, desperate to summon any able body from the depths of their archives.

As we kicked off this academic year, the media was already sounding the alarm on teacher and reliever shortages. RNZ described the staffing situations as 'dire' - I'm sure some of you have your own choice words for your own situation as you examine the collection of applicants for that 'need to fill job by term 2'; every year the pile of interested parties gets thinner and thinner.

Desperate to help and ‘do my bit’, I took on this role for a wee while to enable me to reflect on what I miss about the classroom.

Day 1 Monday: Initially, I was super excited to be at the chalk-face again. I over-planned the whole day and armed myself with the most marvelous resources that any six year old surely couldn’t resist. At first the job felt like it was a breeze - what are the teachers moaning about I thought, as I sailed through to morning tea with polite, attentive students hanging on my every word. Lunchtime duty isn't that bad...

By home time I decided that my wonderful resources (not looking so wonderful now) wouldn't be coming back for round 2 tomorrow, as I picked up the broken polystyrene Easter Bunny ears from the classroom floor, along with the jelly beans that had been stabbed with pencils, and the glue sticks with no lids on coated in more fluff than the worn out carpet.

Day 2 Tuesday: Round 2. Less over-planned. Less wonderful resources. Less springy step. 8:30 am email from a very important parent who didn't approve of the radical Easter Bunny content I had provided yesterday to make their writing of instructions more engaging, apparently he's not real!...Hmmm.  I'll try harder. Maybe I will stick to what the teacher had planned and try not to be so creative.

More duties (in the rain)....the day goes slower…how does this class teacher make it 'till Friday? ...Two kids in the bus line called each other dickheads…I checked my watch…times up…oh well…tomorrow I'm at another school. I did inform the principal about the colourful language exchanges by the six year olds on the way out the door, just in case another email lands in her inbox later (poor principal I thought, so many adults to please).

Day 3: A digital savvy 1:1 school. The teacher was onsite to greet me, and within a few clicks I could see a well-planned, well-structured day. It helped that I could see the work for the whole week as I would be in this class again tomorrow, and I could see what they had covered Monday and Tuesday.  I felt very relaxed, following her detailed plan would be easy and it meant I might not upset any parents.  Casually, she talked me through the names on the roll and I smiled at the ease of the exchange of information.  Then in galloped the children.  Yes, galloped is an appropriate word. The bunch of students resembled a whirling dervish of fidgety limbs and arms, eager to please, but with very little attention span. Two duties again - and swimming - don’t ask!

Day 4: It was clear that the students were pining for their teacher and no matter what I pulled out of my whimsical engagement bag, it wasn’t me they wanted a relationship with that day and they let me know it. A very grumpy whaea Rebecca had replaced the upbeat, chirpy educator, the one that planned a week of possibilities, the one that wanted to help. More duties, more swimming, more checking my watch…tomorrow another school.

Day 5: A chance to end the week well. Year 8 students. Within ten minutes they indicated to me that a relief teacher was not the one they needed that day. On further discussions with the team leader at break time it revealed that due to the sickness of their ‘real’ teacher they have been victim to random relievers for far too long. I didn’t take their reluctance to bond with me personally, instead I felt sad that while they were screaming out for strong relationships with their ‘own’ teacher their learning, their self-esteem, their creativity and their passions were being hindered and replaced by avoidance and distance. To me it reinforced how serious this teacher shortage was, how serious this regular relief teacher shortage was, and amplified the impact it was having on our tamariki.

As much as I came to the table prepared to be a North-East teacher that week, because I didn’t have those relationships, because I didn’t establish the whānau-like context they craved, because I was a random stranger to their school, I simply became irrelevant to their needs.

In the midst of the chaos and challenges faced by relief teachers, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the dire shortage of these crucial educators is not merely a logistical problem, but a profound educational issue with far-reaching consequences. Beyond the logistical hurdles and the immediate relief provided, lies the deeper concern of the impact on students' learning experiences and their emotional well-being. The absence of consistent, familiar faces in the classroom not only disrupts the flow of instruction but also impedes the development of meaningful relationships that are essential for effective teaching and learning.

As we navigate through this landscape of teacher shortages and reliance on relief educators, it's imperative that we address not just the immediate need for staffing but also the broader systemic issues that underlie it. Only then can we ensure that every child receives the quality education they deserve, anchored in stability, support, and meaningful connections within the classroom.

Moreover, amidst the flurry of government initiatives, from mobile phone policies to prescribed hours of reading, writing, and math, perhaps it's time to scrutinise which classrooms consistently have stable teacher-student relationships. Equity in education cannot be achieved without addressing the fundamental need for continuity and trust within the learning environment. By factoring in the presence of consistent teachers and the quality of relationships they foster, we can paint a more holistic picture of educational outcomes and strive for a system that truly serves all students, regardless of their circumstances.

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