Zane Powles: ‘I grew up in tough circumstances and want to make the lives of our kids better than my life was’

Assistant headteacher, Western primary school, Grimsby

At the height of the pandemic, Zane Powles was hailed as a superhero for delivering packed lunches, potatoes and tins of baked beans to all the children at his primary school who qualified for free school meals. But for him, it was simply a matter of “doing the right thing”; visiting his pupils, knowing they were “all safe” and had enough to eat also gave him the solace he often needed during lockdown.

Each day, the 48-year-old got up at the crack of dawn to butter baps and pack up paper bags, before setting off on a seven mile circuit to visit 110 families, carrying approximately 50kg (110lbs) of food in rucksacks and a bin bag.

In total, despite suffering from a knee injury, he walked more than 500 miles and delivered around 7,500 lunches to the children living in some of Grimsby’s toughest estates. Still, the attention he received took him by surprise – even now, he struggles to talk about it without getting upset.

“When the media first got involved, and people started making nice comments, I found it overwhelming,” the former soldier says, his voice trembling with emotion. “I’d get back to school and just cry.”

Children began putting up posters in their windows and chalking the walls and roads of his route, thanking him for being “a legend”. At the end of the summer term, hundreds of people lined up outside his school to applaud him as he returned from his day’s deliveries. “I went round the corner and the whole school was there. The kids had made banners and they were singing and their parents were there… and that was just the best thing ever. Oh man,” he breaks off, “I’m getting emotional again.”

Zane Powles. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

He was once a free-school-dinners kid himself, he confesses, and knows first hand what it means to grow up in “quite tough circumstances” on a council estate with little money. His father died when he was a baby and, he says, “lots of things happened after that which weren’t great… I think, because I’ve lived through that, I want to make the lives of our kids better than my life was.”

In September, he and his pupils returned to Western primary school, where he is responsible for pastoral care and behaviour. “The head calls me ‘Captain Covid’ because I’m the one who’s put the systems in place and is making sure we’re following the guidance as closely as we can,” he says, adding that the new routines and restrictions are “challenging” and limit the educational support the school can offer, particularly to those with special educational needs. But on the plus side, now, he has a closer relationship with the parents he needs to talk to. “They call me by my first name and the connection is so much tighter. I can joke with them. They realise I am there for them, that I’ll do whatever I can to support them and their kids.”

Every playtime, now, the children he helped to feed will crowd around him and try to cuddle him en masse. “They’re certainly more affectionate, even though they know they shouldn’t be, because of Covid.”

He has also been honoured by his local council for his efforts supporting his community and recently gave a presentation to the taskforce that footballer Marcus Rashford set up to tackle child food poverty. But his primary focus is on the health and wellbeing of his own pupils. “Six more months of restrictions will be extremely tough on the children,” he says. “My biggest worry is their mental health. It’s already taken a battering.”

As for his own mental health, he is aware he has his demons and says: “I relax by doing exercise and being active. If I hadn’t done all that walking, if I’d had to sit at home and not go out, I really would not have been able to cope.” If his school’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils – “our kids” he calls them – had not needed his help, “I’d be in a bad place now. I know that.”

James Innes: ‘Teaching online, with just a camera to look at, is not nearly as rewarding’

French and year 6 teacher, Dalmarnock primary school, Glasgow

James Innes of Dalmarnock primary school, Glasgow.
Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

When James Innes, AKA the “Joe Wicks for French”, made the decision to share videos of his French lessons online over lockdown, he had no idea that he would return to his school a YouTube sensation.

Innes, formerly a general classroom teacher, has now been given the responsibility of teaching French to every pupil at his school after his entertaining homemade videos – featuring silly voices to make learning new vocabulary fun – went viral.

“I knew that with schools shutting down French would be one of the subjects that would potentially be dropped by the wayside, yet French offers a lot of creative possibilities for remote teaching,” he says.

“I recognised that actually it would be really easy to learn a little bit of French if there was an engaging format, with humour, which was accessible to learners of all ages.”

Now that face-to-face teaching has resumed in Scotland, it mostly feels like things are back to normal at school, he says. However, it is a different situation outside of school: new restrictions preventing the mixing of households have recently been imposed in Scotland. “It’s funny… I can’t go round to anybody’s house, but I can go into many different classes at school and teach them.”

He’s now using the videos he made during lockdown in his lessons as a springboard for conversations, games and activities in the classroom. “It’s wonderful to actually be able to see the kids enjoying French; when you’re teaching it online with just a camera to look at, it’s not nearly as rewarding.”

He is hopeful that schools will be the last places to close if another lockdown is imposed. “It’s hugely beneficial to children’s health and wellbeing to be back.”

Sarah Wilson: ‘I ran 18 miles to see my pupils. It brought the school community together’

Early years teacher, Fishergate primary school, York

Sarah Wilson, Fishergate primary school, York.
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Sarah Wilson, a 43-year-old primary school teacher in York, is trying to run 100 marathons by the time she is 50 and has already done 34, so deciding to run 18 miles in a single day, in order to visit 66 of her pupils during lockdown, didn’t seem like a big deal to her. “I probably run about 100 miles a month normally, so an 18-mile run wasn’t a huge distance for me.”

It took her about seven hours, slower than normal because of all the time she spent chatting with the nursery and reception children she visited. “They were so excited and they’d made loads of posters and banners, which was really unexpected and gave me a massive boost.”

As well as supportive messages such as “Go, Mrs Wilson, go!”, a couple of kids even put declarations of love for their teacher on their posters, which, Wilson says, is “always nice”.

Other children gave her gifts of little sweets to keep her going. “It brought us, as a school community, together.” Her efforts also raised more than £1,000 for national food bank charity the Trussell Trust.

Now that she and her pupils have returned to Fishergate primary school in York, she is organising a run they too can take part in, inside their social bubbles. Each child will run a mile by doing “laps on the school field” and raise money for a local food bank.

Despite finding it impossible to socially distance from the young children she teaches – “you do get sneezed on and licked” – she is glad to be back in the classroom and takes comfort from the extra cleaning and hand-washing routines that the school has put in place. But these extra cleaners and extra supplies cost money and another six months of Covid restrictions are going to have a big financial impact on schools. “School funding is tight. The additional costs should be funded [by the government], otherwise schools will need to make additional cuts.”