Teachers don’t do well with uncertainty. There’s something about the reassuring ring of the bell that tells us everything is in its place. The comforting hug of routine keeps us safe and secure. The tidal rhythms of each half-term are calming in their familiarity.

So there’s nothing quite like the ‘unprecedented times’ of global pandemic to whip the rug from our feet and make us feel lost.

I’ve found it particularly hard to shift gears between normality and extraordinary times. From March to July, everything was different. But September lulled us into a false sense of security. Exams were firmly on. The R-Rate where I work was mercifully low. We had established our bubbles and new systems and things were relatively calm. So back to business as usual: reading ages, coaching, culture and feedback. Wonderful, I thought. Back to what I’m good at. Back to what I know. Back to what feels right.

But to have that turned on its head again feels like a punch. Yet another bubble has been burst. I can’t help but feel idiotic for grabbing on to normal standards so enthusiastically. What wasted energy. What empty optimism. But perhaps my yearning for the familiar was inevitable: it was the lotus fruit that provided the antidote for unsettling uncertainty.

I won’t make the same mistake this term. I’ll keep my eyes firmly on what matters now, and keep rooted in the challenges — and joys — of working in a school during Covid.

So, in destabilising times, let’s cling on to what we know to be true.

What we do matters

We look after young people. We educate them, open doors for them, keep them secure, influence who they are and protect them. In my school, reported rates of mental health concerns, including anxiety, were far higher when we were closed, and came down again from September. Schools provide children with purpose and safety. They guarantee interactions with peers and adults who care about them. They grant them learning experiences far beyond what they can enjoy in isolation.

And what do we do that matters the most right now?

  • Praise and reassurance. Children’s strengths should be recognised as frequently as possible. Teachers’ heroically hard work must be valued.
  • Teaching character. In modelling positive responses to adversity, we are providing a blueprint for balanced lives. In explicitly teaching manners and behaviour, we give pupils life-skills and self-belief.
  • The curriculum throws open windows and doors. Talk about ventilation. We can so easily forget the transformative wonder of our curricula. Our subjects change the lives of the children we teach, giving them access to powerful knowledge and modes of thinking.

It is an honour to work with children

On the last day of term, I taught a poem I’d never taught before to Year 9. In stark contrast to the festive season, it was a war poem which explores the feelings soldiers can experience after coming back from conflicts, in this case the Falklands War. My excitable, infuriating and hilarious students were amazing, coming up with ideas surrounding trauma, relationships, colloquialisms, and the changing nature of life far beyond their years. I remained firmly 2m+ away from them, but we travelled together to the other side of the world, off the coast of Argentina, and back again. They worked hard. I watched them work hard. We thought about new and important ideas. And it was joyous.

Remote teaching can be unsatisfying, but we can make it work.

You’re a student at home, stuck indoors, detached from peers. You’ve been given some tasks from your teacher. Reluctantly, you start. You click on a link, and look at the first task. It’s doable, and goes over to something you remember doing in class last term. Great: success already. Your teacher then links to a short video in which someone explains something to you. It makes sense. You can answer the next questions no problem. More success. The next task is trickier, but boosted by so much early success, you are on a roll: you do it. Done! The final task is a quiz that goes over the lesson. It visibly shows how much you’ve actually achieved. Submitted…and you get a quick thumbs-up from your teacher in reply. You’re good at this learning stuff.

What do we need to remember when setting online learning?

1. Make it super accessible.

2. Do whatever you can to promote quick feelings of success.

3. Where possible, recap and consolidate what’s already been taught.

4. Show your face/voice whenever you can.

5. Be quick to acknowledge and praise.

Retrospectively, we’ll be proud to be public sector workers.

There have been days when I’ve looked at friends working comfortably from home with envy. They can make tea when they like, the monsters. But they can’t have the satisfaction we do in knowing we are doing something vital. When all this is over — and it WILL be over — I’ll look back with pride.

A very happy new year to all.

Elisabeth Bowling @elucymay

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.

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