Air NZ flight attendant returns to teaching after Covid-19 made her redundant

Flight attendant Melissa Ezekiela always knew she’d return to teaching one day – she just didn’t expect it would be this year.

Like many other former teachers who have moved into different careers, the 40-year-old has found herself back in the classroom after being made redundant when the border closed in March.

It’s something that has come as a blessing for the profession which has seen the pre-Covid teacher shortage reduce dramatically.

Ezekiela, who had been working as an Air New Zealand flight attendant for five years, is one of hundreds of New Zealanders who are returning to teaching from other jobs or from overseas, or deciding to train as new teachers, since the Covid recession hit.

Statistics NZ says schoolteachers was the biggest single occupational group of returning Kiwis from April to August, accounting for 816 of the 13,303 NZ citizens who came home in those five months.

Secondary Principals Association president Deidre Shea said the turnaround from pre-Covid teacher shortages was “exciting”.

“Many of my colleagues and I have experiences with people applying who, if it hadn’t been for the events of this year, probably wouldn’t have been returning to teaching,” she said.

Council of Deans of Education chair Professor Letitia Fickel said applications to enrol for teacher training next year have also jumped – by 36 per cent at her university, Canterbury, where applications have doubled in three years from 510 at this time in 2017 to 836 at this time last year, and 1139 today.

“Many of those expressing interest in the undergraduate programmes would be first-in-family to university and a bit more seasoned people – not 18 years old, they might be late 20s to early 40s,” she said.

“They are often mothers who have decided to go into teaching after having children, or people who have left the private sector doing other jobs and have figured out that they are more than capable of doing university-level study.”

Ezekiela, a mother of two, worked as a teacher aide before training as a teacher, then decided to become a flight attendant after several years teaching.

“A friend of mine I had been to university with left teaching and flew with Air NZ and she encouraged me to do the same,” said the mother-of-two.

“It was always something I wanted to do from a young age, and I thought if I’m going to do it I need to do it now.

“I loved it. When you love people, it’s a good job for you. I genuinely enjoyed working with adults.”

Over five years she worked her way up to training the new crew and doing all the checks before takeoff and landing on domestic, trans-Tasman and Pacific Island flights.

“I knew that at some stage in the future I would come back to teaching, it was always an option for me,” she said.

“But at that time, it wouldn’t have occurred to me, because I loved my job. Air NZ is a great company to work for, they look after you.”

Then Covid hit. At first, it meant wearing masks and social distancing, which upset the ability to interact with passengers that had made the job enjoyable.

When the border closed to all except NZ citizens on March 19, Air NZ made about 900 cabin crew redundant. Ezekiela opted to go on a “furlough” list, becoming redundant in July but available to be called back if needed.

Meanwhile, she applied for a job as a teacher of new entrants at Stanhope Rd School in Mt Wellington – the same school where she once worked as a teacher aide.

Principal Zane Wilson couldn’t believe his luck.

“It’s really hard to get experienced teachers for a new entrant class in Term 3. Most people who apply are first-year teachers, and you don’t want someone fresh out of schoolfor new entrants,” he said.

Equally, Ezekiela “felt very lucky that after being out of it for five years there was a school that was willing to take a chance on me”. She started on July 20.

“At first, I have to say it was a little bit of a shock to the system. They are two very different working environments,” she said.

“But it all started coming back to me once I got used to it. Now I love it. I’m really happy to be back.”

Even with last year’s big pay rises for teachers, she took a pay cut of $600 a fortnight to go back.

Within a week after signing up for the job, Air NZ offered her old job back to cope with a surge of domestic travellers after the first Covid lockdown ended. She turned them down.

“I did think about it, it’s a career I absolutely loved. But there is no certainty around it,” she said.

“Then we went back into the second lockdown. It was in that second lockdown that I thought, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing, and it’s safe.”

Auckland Secondary School Principals’ Association president Steve Hargreaves said the general teacher shortage had eased but it was still difficult to find teachers for hard-to-staff subjects such as science, technology and te reo Māori.

His school, Macleans College, is one of 12 high-decile Auckland schools that have decided to pay course fees for one to three students each to train as teachers with Waikato University on site at the schools. He has already had 12 applicants – “a mixture of people in industry looking to potentially change career, and high-quality graduates with degrees”.

“They have been across the subject range, including some hard-to-staff subjects,” he said.

“Most of the schools in that group will be looking at those hard-to-staff subjects, finding quality people and getting them involved with their schools.”

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