Lockdown – The times they are a-changin’.

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I’ve been away from work due to Coronavirus restrictions now for just over two weeks. And while I’d usually try to avoid clichés in writing and never thought I’d be leaning on Ronan Keating for inspiration, the simple fact is that life has become a rollercoaster of emotions.

I’m not normally prone to extremes of emotion. I’m a fairly steady ship, all things considered. I can handle the ups and downs that life throws at me and tend to not bother others with how I’m doing. People have their own struggles, they don’t need to be involved in mine. It’s how I was brought up – internalise it, don’t talk, don’t share. As an adult though, I’ve learnt that you can talk, but I’m still far more likely to just keep things to myself and rely on my own mental strength to get through.

Lockdown has tested this and tested it severely.

I started the whole thing in quite a low mood. My first few days were spent more in self isolation than lockdown, but I was careful and made sure that social distancing rules were adhered to. I’d be pretty stupid to be simultaneously aware of being vulnerable to this virus while also gallivanting around the shops and socialising. Being away from work hurt though. As a teacher in a school in a disadvantaged area I want to be there helping, calming vulnerable students and besides all else, teaching them. But I wasn’t allowed and I brooded on this for days.

The announcement of school closures helped in a funny way. I was now in the same boat as the majority. I no longer felt like I was cheating my way out of work or that I was skiving. But then I found out that I couldn’t access my work emails from home, meaning that I would still be very detached from what was still actually going on in school. Almost two weeks on from the announcement and I’m still waiting for a reply to my email, hoping that someone in our IT department can solve the problem. Luckily, unbeknown to them, it’s been sorted by a teaching colleague (cheers Shaun) and it turns out that everything’s working without me. So no surprise there then…

School closures meant kids at home. And kids at home meant home-schooling, which while it made for another blog post, was a daunting prospect. However, in our house we’ve faced up to it with an unusually positive attitude and we’re trying where possible to do new things. Me and my 10-year-old son now have a daily lockdown Spanish lesson via the Duolingo app and we’ve all started drawing and painting again after a friend set up a Lockdown Creative group. We’ve both had to adapt a bit too – while my wife is a mathematician, she’s been turning her hand to Science too and I’ve been having a go at Geography and History. Never a dull moment, but a hell of a lot of hard work.

Lockdown has created quite an eerie atmosphere though. One of my favourite pastimes has been just looking out of the window, partly to enjoy the stillness of everything, but also to just see if anyone’s out there. I keep looking over at our football pitches with a sense of longing. I’d do anything to be able to put on a training session or shout from the sidelines as we play a match. But lockdown has taken those privileges away and while when I’m doing them it can be fairly stressful and all-consuming, now they’re not there I miss them desperately.

There have been various reports and estimates about the length of time that this will all last for. Personally, I was initially told that I’d have to stay away from work for 4 weeks – there was even a faint suggestion that it might be earlier – but now I just feel any hopes of this fading away. I’ve heard lots of reports of around the 12-13 week mark and many that suggest we may be at home until the new school year begins in September. It’s a strange and terrifying thought. That you won’t see friends and family again for this length of time is almost surreal. And that’s before I even think about my students. But then, given the times we’re living in, as long as I get to see them all again, it’s Ok.

While there have been plenty of positives about the whole lockdown situation, there have been a lot of negatives. I don’t mean just not going out either. The job losses, the closure of community hubs, the suspension of sport and entertainment and of course the death.

From a personal point of view, as an avid user of social media, some of the moralising has sickened me. The campaign to applaud NHS workers was a wonderful thing, but as the son of a former NHS nurse of some 37 years, I did wonder if those applauding had ever particularly appreciated what they had with our health service before this point. Or even, once they’d stopped clapping and Coronavirus became a non too distant memory, would they continue to appreciate it. You see, I lost count of the mornings that my mam would walk in from a night shift in tears or bruised and looking like a ghost of her actual self after a patient or a visitor to her ward had verbally or physically abused her again. Were some of these people now those posting self congratulatory Facebook updates? Was standing at the door clapping as easy as slapping a nurse who was trying to help your dying relative? Was it easy to forget nurses being spat on during their shifts because you were clapping and whooping? Maybe I was over-thinking, maybe I’m the one who’s moralising. I don’t know, but I kept my tributes to the NHS to myself and phoned home to speak to my mam.

As a footnote here, a week on from the initial applause for the NHS and having bumped into friends who work in hospitals on our daily government sanctioned walk, I found myself on my doorstep with several others in my street, applauding and listening to the fantastic noise being generated in our vicinity. To be fair it was a moving experience, but my original point and my original concerns still stand.

I’ve taken a cynical view of other #lockdown social media posts too. And again, perhaps it’s mean-spirited of me, but some of it has made me laugh for all the wrong reasons. The main source here has been from (probably) middle class parents who appear to be trying to outdo each other with posts about what their kids have been up to. I read one saying that their 9 year-old-son was ‘taking advantage’ of lockdown (you know, despite all the death and that) in order to go through his parents’ record collection (because it simply had to be vinyl, didn’t it?) and listen to as much as possible while critiquing it. I simply don’t believe these people exist. And if they do, I feel for their kids. No doubt there are others whose children are learning Ukranian or studying sub-Saharan cave art or raising money for the oppressed indigenous people of Myannmar by having a gluten-free bake sale. They aren’t. But it makes you look interesting to more people on social media while we’re all locked down with nothing else better to do.

A real positive that I’ve discovered through lockdown has been the International Space Station. I know, it doesn’t sound particularly positive, right. More the domain of geeks. But let me explain. I discovered through a Twitter page that you could stand outside at night, during the particularly sunny week we had when the skies were clear, and watch it pass over the planet at a particular time of night. It got me curious and although I realised it would only be a light moving over, I found myself doing a little bit of research. It passes over the planet over 200 miles up, moving at over 17000mph. I was hooked. An actual space ship going over our house. And thus, for a few nights in a row I would be out in the cold, enjoying the silence and gazing skywards as a space ship with three astronauts aboard flew past the moon, Venus and over our house! It was only for a few minutes, but given the times we’re living in, it proved to be a few minutes of absolute joy. It’s something that I’ll continue to do when and where possible.

Lockdown has created a yearning for the outdoors, not just with myself and my family but with lots of others too. When it became clear that we would only be permitted one period of outdoor exercise per da,y my initial thoughts turned to finding ways around this. I was adamant that I’d be setting an alarm for 5am most days and sneaking out for a run. However, an ever growing sense of doom and paranoia put pay to that and I settled on the fact that we’d be out as a family, for a long walk, every night.

This should be a pleasant and positive experience and on the whole it is. However, two pressures have made things a little more serious. Firstly, in order to prevent boredom we’ve been trying to find different routes, which while being wholly possible is now becoming a bit of a pain. Then of course there is the sense of doom that one can feel when you bump into other people. Other people. They’re like the enemy! We’ll spot people approaching from a good distance away and while we’re happy to cross over, should it be safe, as time has gone on it’s become more of a game of cat and mouse. What if they’re turning off? What about the people on the other side? What about the person with the dog approaching from a separate direction? You find yourself still harbouring a sense of fear and yet second guessing the other people on the same side of the road as you! It’s quite bizarre and I don’t think I’ll ever look at going for a walk in the same way again!

The sense of paranoia multiplies tenfold in Asda (other supermarkets are available and indeed frequented). In the space of a couple of weeks I’ve gone from dashing around getting essentials from more or less empty shelves, while trying to think about not straying too close to others, to scenes more akin with what I’d imagined 1980s East Berlin to be like! Now we queue, at least two metres apart, in silence, for a good twenty minutes just so we can get in to the store. Security guards patrol the aisles while other members of staff block doors so you can’t leave via the wrong way. Shoppers eye each other warily, often mumbling or tutting impatiently if you get too close. People don’t seem to have figured out that it’s nigh on impossible to maintain a safe distance once you’re in a busier aisle. And don’t even think about not following the directional arrows on the floor! The weekly shop has become even more of a nightmare than we ever thought it could become.

The final word on lockdown must go to the mood swings. I stated earlier that I’m usually calm and can handle my emotions and not particularly bother others with them. Nowadays things have changed. Last week brought an almost opiate high when BBC 6Music played David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. I sang and danced around the kitchen with actual gay abandon and it felt great. But then while listening to Maximo Park’s ‘Apply Some Pressure’ I was reduced to silent weeping by the line “What happens when you lose everything?’ And then we had to go and watch The Undateables – one of our favourite programmes but one where my viewing was undoubtedly hampered by continuously finding that I had something in my eye…

Coronavirus has changed so much. As the weeks of lockdown pass and the global death toll continues to rise, it’s hard to put a timeframe on when things will feel like any kind of normal again. And will we even recognise what normal is anymore? I sense that even when we’re finally told that everything can go back to ‘normal’ there’ll be such a sense of doubt that normality will, in fact, take a very, very long time.

Until that time, stay safe and remember to look after those that need your help. And of course, keep reading!

Crosby Academy: Adventures in home schooling.

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Having been teacher for the last twenty years I’ve experienced a lot of challenges in the classroom. From earth-shattering breaking news like the attack on the Twin Towers to teenagers breaking wind that could well have cleared the classroom out for the day. However, this week I’ve been facing up to perhaps my biggest challenge yet. Home-schooling my own kids.

Monday 23rd March 2020 witnessed the birth of a new place of learning as Crosby Academy opened its doors for the very first time. We’re a small school. Tiny, in fact with a cohort of only two pupils and two teachers. We’re also a bit of a through school with students in Year 9 and Year 6. And with school closures meaning that students may not return to their actual place of learning this academic year, it leaves us sat between two stools, so to speak. Our Year 6 boy could well have seen his last Year 6 action, leaving us wondering if we should simply be preparing for, and getting ahead with, his start at high school.

But enough of the boring details. Let’s get to the fun stuff.

Following a non-existent consultation process I installed myself as Executive Principal of the academy. No interviews needed; I am absolutely the man for this job. I have literally no experience of this level of management, but figure that having worked with various SLTs in the past who seemed under-qualified to collect the trolleys in Asda, I’d be alright. That said, I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to start collecting the trolleys in Asda. Especially that bit where they stop the traffic by wheeling about a hundred of them out in a big row. Never mind, I’ll tackle that in my pensionable years.

Our main aim at Crosby Academy is to make learning fun for our kids. That’s a genuine sentence by the way; there is no punchline. From my point of view, it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock for all of us – we’re all out of our comfort zones, so let’s make sure we can cover lots of the skills the kids will need, but try to relax and enjoy ourselves at the same time.

With fun in mind, we start the day by taking part in Joe Wicks’ live YouTube PE lesson – a kind of aerobic workout, but I’m guessing, designed to be little more child friendly. Our Year 9 student opts out, as she does with most exercise these days, but other than that the whole school – staff and students – are ready to workout. We take our places in the ‘gym’ – our front room – and tune in to Joe’s YouTube channel ready to feel the burn, as they no doubt still say in gyms up and down the land, while staring at themselves in big mirrors and thinking about muscles like abs, quads and glutes.

At 9am Joe is in position, all skin tight top and a pair of shorts. He is enthusiasm personified, which is normally a bit much for me to take, but I remember our school motto, “It’s like getting an education on the Vengabus.” and put it out of mind. I make a mental note to start writing a school song though. My life is nothing without a futile exercise that will amuse me and me only.

We start with a five minute warm up. Some stretches and stuff to get the heart rate going. I am so busy focusing on bending my body into unnatural positions that I forget the 5 minute part and when Joe tells us we’ve finished our warm up I let out an audible “Whaaaat?”, having already worn myself out. But there’s no time to feel sorry for myself because after wittering on about ‘shout outs’ for a minute or so Joe launches into the first proper exercise. I think I might have to employ a new PE teacher; one that just does football and doesn’t ask for shout outs and then do things like tell the whole of New York, ‘We love you, New York’. We don’t. I mean, you’re alright but there are loads of things I love before you, like chocolate, Sam and Cat on Nickalodeon, Army and Navy sweets and almost everything from Greggs.

Despite my post warm-up fear, the next 20 plus minutes is actually really enjoyable. We speed through various exercises, including things called Jumping Jacks and Climbing The Mountain and there is even more talk of shout outs. At one point I find myself staring in some kind of fascination at Mr Wicks, whose abs are clearly visible even though he’s wearing a t-shirt. It’s like his clothes have been sprayed on and sculpted to him. Meanwhile I’m wearing the kind of loose top I wear for running that should hide a multitude of sins and still my little pot belly is shamefully visible. No matter – I still manage to stumble through the exercises. We seem to do more squats than is humanly necessary and at one point I fear that we should have set up a safe word beforehand, but I get through it. We all do. It feels like the toughest PE lesson ever, but as Executive Principal, I feel like I’ve sent an important message to my staff and pupils. It may well be that lycra and strenuous exercise is to be avoided by a man of my age, but I’ve sent an important message all the same. I might have to go and have a lie down, just while I figure out what it actually is though, you understand.

I decide that we’ll keep Mr Wicks at Crosby Academy. In my head we have the conversation about it. I tell him, “Mr Wicks *then I pause for dramatic effect, because I’m a man of great power now* we’d be more than happy to keep you here at the academy” and he looks at me a little bit in awe but all the while really chuffed, and says something like “wicked” and then gets carried away and calls me “geezer” before apologising. I tell him it’s OK and laugh while I ask the kids and the wife to ‘give a shout out to r Wicks!’. I think we’re having a bromance.

After our PE lesson, as we’re yet to go into lockdown, we go out for a walk, just as a sort of warm down. It’s a beautiful early Spring day, we’re keeping a safe distance from the very few people we encounter and we’re trying to keep the fun in education, remember?

Once we return to school Year 9 settle down to do some Art, while I take Year6/7 up to the Key Stage Fluid Suite (Dylan’s bedroom) to do some English. My daughter is studying for GCSE Art and with a lot of encouragement from us is beginning to believe in herself. She’s in fact very talented and is nowadays happy to just sit and draw or paint. Me and the boy leave her to it.

We’re doing some creative writing so we incorporate some of the ideas from Dylan’s school such as starting with an IQ, which it turns out is some sort of question where neither of us understands what the ‘I’ stands for. This is a bit of a worry given that my Year6/7 student will have had a lot of experience of using them, but I tell myself, it’s OK and that ‘school’s out’, so none of it matters. Learning on the Vengabus, remember? We work out however, that it seems to be a kind of learning purpose, but in the form of a question, so we muddle on through and settle on ‘Can I use interesting vocabulary in my description?’ Secretly I’m thinking more along the lines of ‘Can I get through this next hour without throwing his books out of the window?’ but I don’t let on.

I try to bring a bit of a flavour of high school to his work by making sure his writing is planned and making him stick to a timeframe. I also mark it soon after he’s finished and give him areas for improvement; what we call EBI (Even Better If) points. I’m not sure he likes it, but I try to be as positive as possible, given the fact that he’s my son and of course the only student in the year group. I’m thrilled to see that his first effort is pretty damn good. He’s a little bit shocked to discover that he’ll be re-drafting his work in tomorrow’s lesson though!

Following our English and Art lessons it’s break time and I decide to head out on duty. Our Year 9 student is out in the yard (our garden) so I decide to go and check on her. I think it’s important as the most important person in the academy, who it all revolves around (it’s all about me, not the bloody students), that I get out and mix. However, when I look for her she’s not there and I’m sent into a momentary spin. I’ve lost an entire year group!

It turns out that she’s channeling her inner Goth and avoiding the outdoors because it’s sunny and therefore not the kind of place for vampires. She’s in the room we use for messy play. Actually, let’s just correct that – she’s in her own really messy room doing her best impression of a tramp, in amongst all of her worldly possessions strewn about a 9ft by 9ft box room. She’s OK though and her mostly independent learning seems to be going well.

I decide to do what good leaders do next. I go and check up on my staff. I’ve done plenty of learning walks in actual schools, but not one in a home-school environment. That said, my home-school career is only hours old. However, I feel, given her inexperience as an educator, it’s time to pop into one of my wife’s lessons! Maybe I can pass on a few tips? I’m sure she’d appreciate that…

Obviously, she’s thrilled to see me and spends almost all of the time that I’m in the room with a big smile on her face. Or is that gritted teeth? There’s no pressure here at Crosby Academy though. I simply ask her about 14 different questions about what she’s doing and then, when I feel that I’ve had the answers that I consider the correct ones, I leave.

I don’t do any of this, obviously. But I do pop my head around the door to see how things are going. I haven’t heard any shouting from upstairs so it seems to have been going well and when I enquire that seems to be the case. It’s been a good first day and we bring things to an end rather early in order to give everyone a break and a bit of space away from each other.

For the rest of the week I’m largely responsible for all of the learning at Crosby Academy. Our Maths and Science teacher, my wife, who gets to specialise in all the boring subjects in one go, has to be back at work. In fact, given what is now a lockdown situation, she chooses to work from home, utilising one of our learning hubs here at the academy to make for a home office. Or rather, after a day trying to work at the dining room table with our daughter, she gives up and confines herself to our bedroom for the remainder of the week.

This leaves me as the sole teacher and as a result I give myself a promotion, following a meeting of the school governor (yes that is singular and the meeting amounts to me having a bit of a think). My title is now Admiral of Education – grandiose you may feel, but I’m the fella steering the learning liner, remember. It’s only me that’s responsible for the course of this particular pedagogical pedalo. And thus, admiral seems an extremely fitting title.

For the rest of the week we cover quite a bit of ground. We’re disciplined enough to make sure that we have school every day. Every morning at least two of us join in with Mr Wicks’s PE lesson and every morning I feel like he might be trying to do me an injury. No matter, I manage to stay with it for the week and although it’s difficult, it’s a huge amount of fun too. It feels like a nice way to spend doing some father son bonding time with the added perk that by the time it’s all finished and we’re back to some sense of normality I’ll have buns of steel as well as the possibility of actual abs, rather than just a little pot belly made out of crisps, chocolate and beer.

Our Year 9 student becomes largely autonomous, although I make sure that I check in on her progress regularly. So regularly in fact, that I’m positively wowed by the amount of education one can get from one’s phone these days…

My son – our Year 6 maybe 7 student – needs supervision, however. And so as well as daily Maths and English lessons, we spend time learning Spanish, learning about lines of longtitude in Geography, tuning in to a brilliant live lesson from a World War II bunker in History and then doing some Art outside in the sunshine. My friend and Art teacher Helen has set up a self-isolation Facebook group designed to get people doing art every day and so after our Art lesson I post both of our drawings in the group. It’s to my eternal disappointment that Dylan’s two cartoons from the Dogman books get infinitely more likes than my drawing of a flower from our camellia bush. It seems everyone really is a critic!

As the week ends I realise that despite the sense of dread that I’d had about home-schooling, I’ve really enjoyed myself. We’ve managed to have fun – I’ve only had the one tantrum after all – and I’d like to think that both kids have kept up their learning. Friends on social media have helped with ideas and through sharing things like the World War II bunker lesson and the Facebook drawing group and in the end it’s been a success. So much of a success in fact that I’m considering knocking on my neighbour’s door over the weekend to ask them if they’d like to join in with Crosby Academy. I could have a multi academy trust on my hands by the start of April.

Does anybody know what the rank above admiral is?