I’ve been shielding and dread returning to work as a teacher | Mariella Frostrup

The dilemma How do I get back to work teaching in a busy secondary school after shielding in lockdown? My confidence has gone, I’m getting panic attacks and I seem to be out of step with everyone. I wake up with a sense of dread and a racing heart.

Since lockdown my life has changed completely. I have been at home with food parcels and supermarket deliveries, and have travelled no further than where I can walk safely with my dog. My husband died a few years ago and my children have all said they can’t face losing another parent. Now I will be the only member of the family leaving home for work, yet I am in the highest-risk category having a compromised immune system.

I have worked hard to build a life for myself and my family after the death of my husband. I returned to work full time, paid off debts and built up savings for deposits for the children. Now I feel powerless, frightened and alone. How do I get perspective and strength to know what is the right thing to do?

Mariella replies Let’s blow some hot air together. There’s a lot packed into your letter and it’s not all about the pandemic. Your immune system is a problem but I’m unqualified to address it, so I’ll put it to one side. This virus is a mysterious force we’ve yet to understand but the desire to survive is one we can all relate to.

Not only are you imperilled by Covid-19 but so is your livelihood if you don’t return to work. It’s a dilemma faced by many, with teachers among those on the frontline with workloads greatly increased by Covid procedures (but salaries barely keeping up with inflation). A headteacher told me the other day that ever-changing Covid rules have added three hours to her already packed day.

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We venerate education but fail to elevate the people tasked with providing it. You may not feel it but the work you do is imperative, and millions of us are truly grateful to the teaching profession – especially after our brush with having to do your job during lockdown.

That’s not to pile on the pressure. You’re experiencing symptoms of anxiety so you need to address those before you go anywhere near work. A trip to your GP is overdue – this is not a further struggle you should embark on alone. In the meantime, download a meditation app for temporary relief and give yourself 15 minutes a day to just breath and be. I use one called Calm, but there are plenty more out there.

You’re not alone in discovering the pleasure of a localised, less relentless lifestyle and to be dreading returning to the treadmill. It might be less unsettling if we felt the “grown-ups” in Westminster were actually in control, but each new day offers further evidence that it’s every man and woman for themselves. That’s what I get angriest about and, believe me, there’s stiff competition in this climate of fear that’s been allowed to proliferate.

You’re panicking because we were being told to stay indoors, save lives and protect the NHS – and now you’re being instructed to return to work. Similarly, rather than dropping food parcels to struggling neighbours, we’re being urged to snoop on them to check whether they’re adhering to the rule of six – despite returning each day from workplaces filled with many times that number.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted to have someone else to take charge in the face of a life-threatening pandemic – but if only they would! Your return to work should be secured by regular testing, track-and-trace systems and head teachers consulting with government, not waiting like powerless children for the next order from on high. That said, your dilemma is less about the pandemic and more about your confidence.

You’ve had to work hard to achieve what you have and sometimes it’s only when you stop and take stock that you realise the price you’ve paid. You clearly needed this time out and you may need more. None of us knows where the virus might be lurking, and the classroom isn’t the safest place. Then again, if others in your household are out and about, you’re already compromised.

You’re suffering from the climate of fear that’s been created to “to keep us safe” but only serves to foster mass paranoia. The government has treated Covid like a terrorist threat, pumping oxygen into irrational fear so that instead of coming together and rising to the challenges, citizens feel individually stalked.

That said, you also have choices: I’d be sad to see you step away from your current calling but maybe now is a good time to seriously consider your alternatives. Do you have the energy and determination to change your career? If so you’d be part of a big crowd taking alternative paths. But we also need to make the youth of this nation feel protected and their education prioritised, and its people like you who can help with that. But that’s only possible if you yourself feel strong enough. Seeking out professional advice and support seems to me to be essential.

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If you have a dilemma, send a brief email to mariella.frostrup@observer.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter @mariellaf1



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