I thought it might be interesting to write a diary style blog this week about the return to school for pupils in England. I work as a high school English teacher and so, at the very least, I can give readers some first hand reactions to what’s going on. I’ve avoided the sheer drama of referring to this series of blogs as something like ‘Tales from the Frontline’ though.It’s just a diary to let you know how it goes.
So, it’s Sunday night and everywhere I look on social media, people are saying that they ‘can’t wait’ to see kids back in schools. It’s on TV and radio on adverts deemed necessary to promote the fact that everything’s going back to normal…honestly, it’s all going to be normal again. Promise.
The excitement is a large chunk of my reaction too, but I must admit above everything else, I’m nervous. I’m nervous about being among nearly a thousand people. I’m nervous about standing in front of classes. I’m nervous about how students will engage with work, with routines, with each other and with discipline. It’s not just the staff who will have to adapt. At our school, as with countless others across the land, hundreds of kids will be fearful of what comes next too. And of course, I’m nervous, we’re all nervous, about Coronavirus, bubbles collapsing and the dreaded fourth wave.
I distract myself by watching the film ‘John Wick 3’ which although I’m a fan, is absurd enough to stop me thinking about work. I’m thrilled, as a man of Literature, when John Wick kills a bad guy using a book (he’s in a library, so ‘when in Rome…) and it’s enough of a distraction that my worries don’t stop me from getting to sleep. Even when I wake in the night, I’m more thinking about John chopping off his own finger and still being able to control a speeding motorbike while being chased by umpteen bad guys, than I am the prospect of classrooms full of masked children.
Before I know it Monday has rolled around, as it tends to on a weekly basis, and it’s time to go to work. I’ve been doing this throughout lockdown and school closures anyway, so there’s nothing new here and today we only have pupils in for testing. There will be no actual lessons and the only glimpse of students I will get is if I venture into main school and away from the protection of my classroom. I’m out the door and on my way in by 7.30am and am clocking in at work by just before 8am.
Our Year 10 & 11s have been invited in for their Covid tests, but other than that this will be a day for preparation. It should be relaxing, but I have to admit that the slightest thing puts me on edge. Upon seeing more than the ‘usual’ amount of cars at a big set of lights in town I’m quite startled and do a double take at the amount of traffic. When I see colleagues that I simply haven’t seen for two months, I’m knocked out of my stride and by the time there’s a full department meeting where we’re all together I’m happy to sit right at the back of the room out of the way. I’m not on the verge of a breakdown, but clearly this is going to be a situation that I ease myself back into.
There’s lots to do in order to prepare for Tuesday, when we will have both Year 10 and 11 in the buildings. All seating plans have to be updated and all previous ones deleted. If there’s a positive case then seating plans have to be checked quickly in order to isolate whoever needs isolating, so there’s no time for trawling through to find the most recent seating plan. These plans will have to stay the same for a while too, so there’s a bit more careful thought than usual! However, I’m done surprisingly quickly – the only seating plan shaped hurdle now is to navigate my way around a new set of photocopiers and thus far even logging in to one of them has had me on the verge of challenging it to a fight!
After seating plans come lesson plans. All of our planning is done within the team, but you still feel the need to adapt each one for the needs and foibles of your own classes. I want to get as far through the week as I can, so a good while is spent sifting through PowerPoints, making nips and tucks to fit where needed. And it’s only when I sit down to scroll through these lesson documents that I’m fully confronted by the realisation that tomorrow I will have an almost 3 hour lesson with students sat right in front of me.
Late in the day I have to make the trip up to our photocopying room. Or Repographics, if you want me to sound clever and important. Surprisingly, I’ve got some photocopying to do. And yes, it’s likely that I will be forced to throw down my glove and challenge said copier to a duel should it insist on being a dick about letting me log in!
Now, I could stay down in my department for this, where we have a perfectly good photocopier, but I fancy a walk. I’ve been sat at my desk almost all day. So it’s mask on and off I pop.
It’s all going fine until I turn a corner and catch my first sight of people. Actual people. Of course, we have two year groups in for tests and I’m about to walk straight past them all. For a moment that’s barely a moment I freeze at the sight of this many people, especially as they’re in a place where I’ve encountered less people than are there now in the entirety of the last 8 weeks. I could turn around and take another route to avoid them, but tell myself to stop being so silly and carry on.
It’s a strange sensation walking past these students – only about a dozen of them – all masked, all queuing in a socially distant fashion. Dizzying almost. And it’s odd what such a shift in routine can do for you. They’re only people. They’re the same people or at least type of people that I’ve encountered every day for the last 6 years, but just walking past causes me to feel ever so slightly wary. Around the next corner are a few colleagues that I’ve not seen for months and seeing them has a similar effect. It’s evident that being amongst people is going to be more testing than I’d imagined. But I’ll cope, I’m sure.
Tomorrow, both of these year groups will be in school, in lessons. There will be a lot more people in front of me. I’ll let you know how it goes!
It’s been over five weeks now since the new school term started. Under normal circumstances, us teachers would be tired, but with the end in sight and a week’s half term break to come, we’d be sure that we could make it through. Although, in truth I think I’d probably be acting the drama queen about it all and making sure that everyone was sure about the exact level of my exhaustion. Unfortunately though, circumstances have been anything but normal and as we lurch towards that half-term break, it feels like we’ve rowed across an ocean, climbed a mountain, been thrown to the lions in the Coliseum and then locked in a room, waterboarded, lashed to a settee to be the meat in a double Nigel Farage sandwich and subjected to the non-stop playing of NIck Knowles’ Greatest Hits. Safe to say, it’s been a tough one.
It started simply enough. Personally, despite the government leaving the decision to close schools until almost the last second, I thought teaching remotely would be quite good. I enjoy my own company, am comfortable in my own skin and so I imagined it would be quite a lot of fun just talking to my class through a screen every day. That lasted about an hour into the third day, when I realised that without the human interaction and the showing off aspect of my job, well, I don’t like my job anywhere near as much.
But that’s not what I’m here for. I can moan about things another time, I’m sure. The idea behind this blog was just to make it a kind of remote learning diary (hence the oh so imaginative title), but with a selection of high and lowlights, rather than a day by day account of every last detail. In the main, I wanted a chance to record what went on in order to capture it for posterity. Something to look back on in years to come, if you will.
What’s probably surprised me most is my willingness to just go into work every day. I know what I’ll be faced with, which is an empty English corridor most days, an almost empty school, just me in my classroom faced by a load of desks that still have the chairs up on them, barely any human interaction and almost zero movement, yet every day I trail in. Having spent years envying those who have been able to work from home, I’ve found I can’t really bring myself to go for it! While part of this is down to a mistrust of home technology, it’s strange to think that mainly, my reason for going into work is just that I like the familiarity of the surroundings…even if they’re not that familiar at the moment. I keep everything familiar too. I start every day with a ‘To Do’ list – boring jobs are carried over from days and weeks before – , I check emails, turn on the heating, activate SIMs and usually join my own call very early in order to get everything in place. It’s still difficult to make it feel ‘right’ though. This is anything but normal.
I do actually have a little bit of company in my room during the week. Some of our more vulnerable students who are in school prefer the familiarity of the classroom and so when I was asked if they could join me, I thought why not. The chance to exchange even a few words with people has benefitted me and if the students are enjoying school a bit more by being in their classroom, well who am I to deny that? But it’s given me a situation that acts as both a lowlight and a highlight because these boys seem blissfully unaware of their propensity for farting! And so, a couple of times a week, I’m treated to something akin to the accompaniment of a brass section parping away very much in the foreground of my lesson as I try to make myself known to the other students at home online. It’s safe to say that it’s 60% amusing 30% smelly and 10% worth of worry that an online student picks it up on the mic and thinks it’s me. I can only imagine the texts pinging around the school community about Mr. Crosby’s guffs. Well, at least I know the truth and what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom!
One of the biggest downsides, across the board for teachers and students, has probably been how bad it all is for the eyes. Lots of my colleagues have complained of headaches and migraines and I’ve found, the longer I’ve sat at a screen, the worse the headaches have become. On a few occasions recently I’ve even experienced a bizarre fuzziness around the edges of my vision, almost as if my eyes are slowly shutting down and my field of vision is shrinking; it’s not at all pleasant. But I’m guessing that’s what spending so long in front of a screen will do for you. Our school have introduced longer breaks, but even then, such is the pressure you put on yourself to produce work of some kind, I rarely leave the screen. It’s been an unexpected side effect for me, but the fatigue at the end of each day is a real concern. I genuinely thought that with students not in the classroom taking away the draining effects of dealing with in class behaviour, life would be a lot easier. Little did I know. Everyone I know that works in education seems exhausted and it seems we’re all going to end up wearing jam jar glasses as well!
Another of the quirks of working in a school that’s closed is the intrigue caused by a fresh face. Sadly, the fresh faces generally all come in the form of tradesmen, but beggars can’t be choosers. Over the course of the last 6 weeks I’ve had several blokes join me in my room in order to fix or check something or other. The first was a man who, during the first week of January, popped in to check the fire exit and who seemed genuinely offended that I had the heating on. He actually shook his head while informing me that it was “hot in here”, while ignoring the fact that it might be something to do with him having just walked in from outside. I’m not sure why he seemed to think I should be working in the cold, but on second thoughts, you’re right mate; I’ll just sit here trying to make myself understood through all the shivering and chattering of teeth.
In another heating related visit, one of our caretakers was summoned to the classroom next door in order to sort out their air conditioning and having wrestled with it for a few minutes, simply knocked on my door and asked if I knew what to do! Fortunately, having being summoned by my friend next door at least once a week to sort the same thing for the last 5 years, I was able to make a difference! (On an unrelated to lockdown note, the best heating problem is when someone asks for help and I go in to find that they haven’t actually turned it on!)
The other notable tradesman related tales were the timing of the man who turned on an industrial sized leaf blower, just as I started my lesson recently – it could be heard by the students on the call! – and the man who seemed to be out to kill me. No, really. This was the bloke who was fixing something on the neighbouring building and kept either staring in my window while working or staring while walking past. Whatever the location he seemed to have taken an instant dislike to me and just stared with the dead eyes of a shark who wanted me dead. I’ve not seen such levels of disdain for me in…minutes. Equal parts unnerving and amusing and an incident that led to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer being the earworm of the day. Well, I suppose if there’s no in class behaviour to worry about, I can always rely on tradesmen to keep me on my toes!
Technology has been a constant irritation. And not just because in general, I can’t use it. One of the main features about having to rely on technology for so long has been the amount of times when it just goes wrong. But at least that can be solved. Usually, if there’s a problem with sound or what can be viewed on screen, if the student leaves the call then returns, it’s problem solved. So, we’re relying mostly on the remote learning version of turning it off and then back on again!
It’s a more human problem, that can really get in the way of the technology though. It’s safe to say that we’ve all had some bizarre interruptions to our lessons. For instance, despite the fact that our pupils are generally working from home, you’d be surprised by the amount of requests I’ve had for pupils wanting permission to go to the toilet. And while I see that this is common courtesy on their part, I have to admit to at least once telling them, “It’s your toilet, you don’t need my permission!” Perhaps I’d been asked one too many times at that point! Another friend has had requests to leave the lesson from students on one occasion because their budgie had escaped and on another because the kid’s puppy had just decided to use his bed as a toilet.
And while other colleagues have enjoyed the relaxed dress and hair code they can adopt at home, others have been on the end of some rather harsh feedback from students. A friend working at home while looking after her toddler subsequently found out through the Comments on the lesson that her students had nicknamed said toddler ‘The Beast’. Another was asked, “For real miss, are you okay, ‘cos you sound off” which I suppose could have been worse if they’d said she looked ‘off’. And then another friend was recently asked if she was okay because she looked ‘poorly’. My friend tells me that she’d made an effort to actually put the webcam on that day in order to give the kids someone familiar to look at, a bit of normality in these strange times and being asked if she was poorly was her reward!
I think I may well speak for the majority of teachers when I say that the lack of face to face communication has somewhat hampered progress. The level of miscommunication has been ramped up beyond belief. During an assessment recently, a student waited for 30 minutes before telling me they’d been reading the wrong text for the first set of questions, despite reminders as often as I could possibly give them about what to read and when. The information was also on the slides that we’d been looking at for weeks in preparing for exam tasks! Similarly, a friend relates a tale of telling a class the number of paragraphs they’d need to write – three – at regular intervals and also having the instruction on the relevant slide, only for a kid to ask, “do I do three or one?” Another pal explained the same assessment for 20 minutes without interruption and 7 minutes into writing one of her students confessed he’d forgotten what he was doing! It’s safe to say our students need that face to face interaction!
While there have been numerous stressful parts to the last 6 weeks of remote learning, I can’t deny the highs. Although some of them haven’t quite worked out as well as they could have. An excellent example of this was our recent Wellbeing Wednesday which was brought in to give people a rest and keep them away from screens for a few hours. The timetable was suspended for the afternoon session and pupils were just set assignments to complete and hand in. Lots of staff went home early, went on walks, did activities like yoga, spent time with family and stuff. Me? Well, Wednesday is a free afternoon for me, so I wasn’t gaining anything really. Normally I’d just spend the afternoon planning, marking or researching. I just knew that if I went home I’d waste the time and discover it was 5pm and that I’d done nothing. So I stayed at work to get ahead, but was adamant that I’d leave early. I didn’t manage that bit though, as I lost track of time feeding back to students on work that they’d done. So not a lot of wellbeing taken care of, but it’s my own fault. And I bet I wasn’t alone. I subsequently dedicated that evening to my wellbeing by drinking a bottle of red wine and passing out on the sofa. I didn’t really, that was a joke. My wellbeing is…well, don’t worry.
Another high this term was organised by one of our SLT. We were invited to a staff meeting on a Wednesday morning, during week 5, but with no real idea why? When we logged on there was a slide informing us that a secret email had been sent to students and that they were being asked to send in positive messages for staff. And then, for 10 minutes, we sat back and watched as the messages rolled over the screen; loads and loads of them. They even played the theme from The Golden Girls in the background! Sadly, just the once and not on a ten minute loop. I’m not a particularly sentimental person, but even I have to say that it was amazing. I sat there expecting to see nothing about myself, but was thrilled to bits (secretly and in a really cool way!) to see my name pop up on a number of occasions. Everybody likes a pat on the back occasionally though, right? It was a fantastic idea and the member of staff who organised it said he’d been overwhelmed by the amount of emails that were sent back. It was certainly proof that I work in a special place and a really timely boost just when I felt like I was flagging.
Strangely, as someone who always thought he’d be fine with just his own thoughts for company, I’ve found my own headspace a bit much to deal with at times. Even today, I was the only member of staff on our corridor and if I allowed myself to consider that too much I might start to feel ridiculously isolated and even a bit lonely. And it’s not as if it’s the first time this has happened. Yet, I’ve still not quite got used to it.
The boredom can be a bit of a problem too. With no face to face interaction, often, as we set a class off working on something, we’re left in a bit of a void. You’re still on the call and available to help, but you’re faced with a wall of silence. In class, I’ll wander round, keeping myself active and being readily available to help, but that doesn’t really work when it’s all remote and you’re the only person in the room! Instead, often I bring up another tab and start working on something else; some planning or some admin task that’s been on a ‘To Do’ list for weeks. I’ve also found another Teams related way to amuse myself, which is to change the backgrounds to my image on camera. It’s something that I occasionally share with my classes, but it’s mainly there to make me smile, although I have sent some of the images to friends via social media as well. You can see some of the results below.
As we limp to the end of the term, I think everyone is exhausted, including students. It’s safe to say it’s been a real learning curve and a very intense experience over these last 6 weeks. I’m sure other professions have had it even harder across the whole pandemic, but as someone who’s been in the eye of this particular storm, I thought I’d share a bit of what it’s been like.
Who knows how long we have left working like this. March 4th has been floated around speculatively as the date when schools re-open, but I’m not holding my breath. Best just to keep the mindset exactly the same, keep the head down and get on with it. After all, there are far worse off people in this pandemic, than people like me who still have a job and are being asked to do it in a different way. If you’re a teacher or anyone else who works in a school, or even a parent or child involved in home-schooling; keep on going! It’s all we can do!