Here in the U.K., on the evening of Monday 4th January, it was announced that we would be entering lockdown once more, this time for a period of around six weeks.
As some of you will know, I’m a teacher and lockdown has meant that schools have closed again. Last time this happened, because I’m classed as being vulnerable to the virus (bit of a heart problem and asthmatic) I wasn’t allowed to come into work to help out with vulnerable students. So the first lockdown, despite various work-related IT problems and the paranoia that surrounded the whole virus thing, wasn’t that much of an unpleasant experience. In fact, faced with days of great weather and lots of time to go out for a run, work in the garden, or just do some actual school-related work with no pressure at all, it was downright pleasant at times.
Things have certainly changed this time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant, but there’s a definite change. Schools have once again been closed, but this time around, armed with greater technology and greater know how, students are generally being educated remotely online, via live lessons.
At my school I’ve been given the option of actually coming into school to teach my lessons remotely and so far I’ve done just that. I’m mulling over what to do for the rest of lockdown and will probably work from home occasionally, but for now, I’m in school. So I thought I’d get my first week and the experiences of it down in a blog.
On Monday night, when another period of lockdown and school closures was announced, I felt a little bit of panic. It wasn’t about the virus or anything particularly; I’d left my laptop at school, meaning that working from home – with two children doing the same – was going to be ridiculous. Luckily, I was brought gently back down to Earth a short while later when our Head Teacher floated the idea that we could actually come into school to work. Given that the technology is here, as well as things like registers and student details, it made perfect sense. I had a short discussion with my wife, who was going to be working from home, but now with the added responsibility of two children, and we agreed that it made a lot more sense for me to actually go into work. So, on Tuesday morning, that’s just what I did!
The Prime Minister also announced that there would be no exams for Years 11 and 13, meaning that for the second academic year running young people would be faced with teacher assessments based on a shorter time of working at their subjects, to grade them. This might seem like great news. Being 16 or 18 and not having to sit vital exams, avoiding all of the stress etc. But it isn’t really. Our students will be geared up for the exams. Some may feel that they need more time to get to the level that they want to be at or have been told they need to be at. Now, they don’t get the opportunity to show exactly what they can do and for a lot of them, that’s devastating. So a lot of the next 6 weeks will be about supporting our older students and reassuring them that actually, things will work out for them. And in order to do that, I would be better placed in school.
School without pupils – and indeed a lot of the staff – is a strange place. It’s calm and really quite pleasant, but there’s a certain eerieness that I’m not that keen on. It feels a little bit dangerous being in the building during a lockdown. But then again, it’s a lot more of a danger to my health when everybody’s here!
It’s noticeable on the first morning that the traffic is a bit lighter. And unlike the previous two-week lockdown that we had earlier in the year, there are a lot fewer people on the streets. Driving through town back then I’d see gangs of men heading to an industrial estate for work and wonder how this was possible, given the nature of lockdown. I mean, the clue’s in the name. That and the fact that it was made clear that only essential businesses should remain open. Now, I struggle to see anyone walking through town and it’s a lot more reminiscent of our first period of lockdown.
When I get in, I get the heating on in my classroom and start setting everything up. There are no resources to photocopy or give out, no behavioural issues to give a lot of time to, and of course no students. Everyone – even vulnerable students and those whose parents are key workers and are in school – is being taught remotely. I guess the big question is, how many will show up for their live lessons?
Despite my air conditioning being turned up in order to heat the room, the one thing I cannot escape today is that it’s freezing cold. Everywhere. It’s bitterly cold outside and as a quick email reveals, it’s bitterly cold in everyone else’s room. It seems blankets will be the order of the day with my female colleagues from tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do; a blanket seems a little extreme. I do, however, consider wearing running tights under my suit trousers!
Today, I have two lessons. Since September and with the need for social distancing and all the other precautions around Covid-19, we’ve been doing two lessons of 2 hours and fifty minutes per day. The students stay in one zone and we go to them. So now, I have the advantage of being in one room, but the ‘problem’ of relying on the internet working for almost three hours for everybody in the lesson! Oh, and did I mention that being in my room is a little bit like being in a walk-in freezer?
As it turns out, the lessons go well. My Year 10 group is a dream and take to remote learning really well. They’ve had a little practice when their ‘bubble’ collapsed earlier in the year, but credit to them; today we get through almost every slide of the PowerPoint and lots of them submit their work straight after the lesson. There’s no silliness with people unmuting microphones, no childish comments in the chat; it’s a generally good lesson. There are a few suspicious absences , but the majority of the group are up and ready for 8.40am and plough through almost three hours worth of work on English Language and Fiction Texts. I then have my Year 7s in the afternoon, who although they work well, are a lot more fussy and at times, silly. Some repeatedly leave the call then come back a minute later, blaming technology problems. Others clearly aren’t listening and keep asking what we’re doing using the Chat function. Typical Year 7s then! We get through it though and before I know it, we’re done.
Wednesday brings more freezing cold weather, which I confront head on by wearing a jumper! It helps in keeping my body warm, but by the end of the day, when I still can’t feel anything from my ankles down, it’s clear I’ll have to make an adjustment.
I only have the one lesson today, albeit a three hour one. However, it’s with my Year 10s and again goes smoothly and I make sure to congratulate them on their brilliant attitude and thank them for their hard work when it’s over. I have the rest of the day free, so knuckle down to a bit of planning and working my way through a list of jobs I made at the start of the day. Some of these are computer based, like preparing resources or feeding back to students who’ve submitted work, but others are more mundane, like getting Blu-Tac off the walls after most of my posters fell down over the Christmas break! In the middle of the lesson a couple of colleagues come round to my room. They have a tray of teas and coffees and have obviously been busy calling around everyone in the academy. It’s great to have a nice hot drink, but actually even better to see faces and have a minute or so’s interaction with two other human beings. It’s also nice that kindness seems to be at the forefront of so many minds in our school. It feels good to be being looked after in such troublesome times.
In the afternoon I have a meeting about my risk assessment as a vulnerable member of staff and it’s agreed that it’s fine for me to keep coming in as I’ll be out of the way for all but about 5 minutes every day. My classroom is outside of the buildings in a new unit at the back of school, so I rarely see people anyway, but during lockdown it’s really only going to be me and whoever’s using the room next door.
Two things strike me pretty much immediately at the end of Wednesday. The first is that this is a lonely way of working. It’s just the teacher, that’s all. Even the kids on screen are represented by an icon or their initials. It surprises me how isolated I feel and although I wouldn’t say I feel low or down, I realise quickly that this could cause a bit of strain mentally over the next 6 weeks. The other thing that strikes me is that teaching this way feels a bit dull. I’ve always viewed my job as just being showing off with the pinch of intelligence thrown in every now and again. And now, I have no one to show off to. I’m sat at a desk, I’m not up and wandering round a classroom, interacting with my class. The performance aspect of my job feels like it’s gone. The faces I might pull, the voices I’d put on when reading a text, the (bad dad) jokes I might crack or the gestures and body language that are involved in my job are all gone. I miss that already. It’s going to be a real adjustment to make and another thing that will be tough, mentally, over this half term.
I notice another thing as I walk to the car that afternoon too. This sitting at a desk is no good for my knees or ankles! It seems that everything has seized up and I hobble a little to get to my car! I resolve to take some walks round my room when work is being completed tomorrow. Remote learning’s desk based nature does not suit this old fella!
By Thursday it’s noticeable that quite a lot of staff seem to be teaching from home. It makes work an even lonelier place to be, but I can fully understand why you’d do it. No commute, for starters. But for me, with two high school aged children doing remote lessons and my wife working from home, I think the distractions would prove too much, not to mention the risk that technology might just fail me there too, as it did for almost the whole of the first lockdown.
Looking ahead, Friday will be the day when I’m most likely to work from home. I only have one lesson, meaning I’d be finished by 11.30 and provided I had at least my Monday planned, I could have a free afternoon to maybe sort out a few things around the house or even go for a long run, depending on the weather. Or I might to just take the chance to indulge myself in even more planning or creating resources! Or Netflix. There’s always Netflix!
As for the first Friday of lockdown, it would be hard to describe it as anything short of fun. We have a staff briefing – containing news of I think, the fourth different way of doing a register this week – which brings us up to speed about developments in the way we’re doing things. And that’s something to consider, if you’re unaware of how schools work (and especially if you’re one of those people who seems to have dedicated their life to criticising teachers). Things are changing by the hour in schools and of course with the guidance we receive about teaching in the pandemic.
We have regular briefings, daily bulletins and a raft of emails to get through in order to keep up to speed. With that brings the necessity to change what we’re doing or how we’re doing it on a regular basis. So you might spend hours planning a lesson and then just have to abandon it for something else or find a different way of doing it. The impact on our students can’t be underestimated either. While you might imagine sitting at home listening to your teacher talk you through a lesson would be simple and straightforward, you’d be wrong. Some kids are genuinely struggling with the stress of it all and even logging on to the Teams call leaves them terrified. Some don’t have the technology. For some, their internet connection means they’re regularly crashing out of the lesson and struggling to keep up. As a teacher, it’s my job to just act as if all of this is the most normal thing in the world, stay calm and make learning as interesting, fun and stress free as I can. And already, I can feel it’s taking its toll. By 10am on Friday, part way through a lesson, I’m yawning and rubbing my eyes. I genuinely feel like I could close my eyes and sleep.
However, I’m not looking for sympathy. Being able to teach remotely is still a privilege. I do get some interaction with my students and today’s Year 9 lesson is successful and in all honesty, a bit of a joy really. We get through the work, but we laugh together regularly too and that feels like I’m lightening the load a little for both my students and myself.
After that, I fill my afternoon with various tasks – from tidying up both the room and the storeroom and recycling old worksheets to responding to the work that students have sent in and planning things for next week.
It’s been a frenetic kind of week. Lots of planning, lots of reading various pieces of guidance or information on students, subjects and protocol and a full week of remote lessons. I imagined that lockdown and remote learning, bringing with it the promise of no actual students to deal with, would be easier and quite a relaxing way to spend my working days. It isn’t. It’s stressful and frustrating at times, infuriating at others. But it also has a feelgood factor. The fact that hundreds of students are logging on and listening to our lessons, contributing to online discussion and then sending their work in is a truly wonderful thing.
I end the week very tired. I feel like I’ve learned a lot though and I can definitely say that I’ve enjoyed myself. It’s very strange working on my own for long periods of time in a classroom that would normally have up to 30 students plus support assistants in for a lesson. There’s barely a noise now. I’ve seen my friends even less than usual and been left a bit forlorn when they’ve been working at home. And did I mention that it’s freezing cold, like working in a walk-in freezer? Here’s to 5 more weeks, at least!
Stay safe everyone!