Back to School Diary – Thursday and Friday

Here’s Part 3 of my series of diary entries written to cover the return to classrooms in the UK this week. As a teacher in a high school, I thought it might be interesting to share how things have went, partly because I was curious myself. Today marks the end of what’s felt like a momentous week, so here’s how it went on Thursday and Friday.

Typical isn’t it? You get to the part of the week where the end is in sight and fate decides to extend one of your days. Tonight (Thursday), we have a virtual Parents’ Evening. For the uninitiated, the parents are real. They’re actually fully formed human being parents. It’s just that they’re not allowed into school. I’ll be honest, although it’s a weird thing to do, the system has its benefits. For one, no appointment is allowed to go over 5 minutes, so big mouth here can’t get carried away and any awkward appointments are tempered by an on screen countdown clock. Another benefit is that we don’t have to all sit in a freezing cold, oddly lit Sports Hall for 3 hours where you’re likely to leave at the end of the evening feeling worse for wear.

So, it’s safe to say that Thursday is a long day. And not only is it long, but it’s also my first full day of teaching. Covid has meant that we’ve switched to lessons of 2 hours 50 minutes in length and while we only have 2 a day, it’s tough. So far this week the staggered return of year groups has meant that I’ve had a fair bit of free time, but today apart from a morning break and a short lunch break, I’ll teach for well over 5 hours – stood up, talking a lot (my own fault due to being far too big a fan of my own voice), cajoling, (trying to be) entertaining and instructing with a room full of actual humans in front of me. All while wearing a mask and attempting in sometimes cramped spaces, to keep a social distance. It’s still a fairly daunting prospect.

My first lesson is with a Year 8 group and I can’t work out whether I’m just boring them senseless or they are just not really used to being back yet, but boy are they quiet. It’s been a bit of a theme this week; that classes have taken a little while to ‘warm up’ and are inclined to sit there like a set of rabbits caught in the headlights. It’s understandable really. Even before the latest lockdown, their learning had been severely disrupted with positive cases meaning pupils being sent home to isolate or bubbles collapsing and whole year groups being forced to take yet more time out. For some, school must feel almost like a thing of the past.

The afternoon session brings Year 11, meaning 14 students and two adults have to squeeze into one of the smallest rooms in school in order for us to stay within our bubble. There’s no chance of social distancing and the layout of the room means that I can’t even walk around, so I’m stuck in a small space at the front where I’m invariably in the way of the board. Like a caged animal. But more hamster in a carry case than lion at the zoo.

There are grumbles aplenty at the new seating plan and numerous requests to sit elsewhere. Don’t tempt me! It’s also noticeable that this group – who are one of the year groups that were the first back in – are the worst with their masks, one particular student needing to be told 4 times in about the first 10 minutes to position it back over his mouth. He gets a little spell of detention with me after school for his persistence.

There is the same attitude to hand sanitiser with some students too; they accept it with an open hand but it’s often shaken off when seemingly out of sight or the hand is turned over so that gravity takes its course. Sadly, I’m always on guard for these tricks and take far too much pleasure in inviting the students back to renew their sanitiser and get them to rub it into their hands while I watch! Such tricks are a reminder though, that we have a fight on our hands to keep standards from slipping.

By the time 2.45 trundles around it feels like I’ve done a 12 hour shift with this class. There’s no doubt that being back, when they’re due to leave school for good in a couple of months, is a bit of a chore for a number of them. It’s felt like everything is an issue this afternoon. Masks, sanitiser, social distancing, seating plans, the size of the room, the size of the board, the fact that we have to leave windows and the door open to safely ventilate the room…everything. Even during one of the high points of the whole lesson, when one student tells me he’s missed me, there’s still time for him to grumble about where he’s sat. But it’s nice to know that I’ve been missed!

As I mentioned earlier, despite it being the last lesson of the day, Thursday isn’t finished. There’s still the strange virtual Parents’ Evening to contend with. It’s the third one I’ve done now and so I’m fine with how it works, but it’s still just very odd. You have a 5 minute appointment accompanied by a countdown all the time that you’re talking. As the time counts down you tend to start speaking faster in order to get as much said as possible – never a good idea with my accent – because once the 5 minutes is up the call just cuts off! On top of that there are always technological issues and tonight brings a gold medal effort from not one but two parents who manage to have their camera rotated to one side, meaning I feel like I have to lean over and put my head on the desk in order to communicate with them. I don’t though. I’m not that stupid.

I finish my last appointment at 6.35, shut everything down and then slowly make my way through school and out to the car. A combination of lockdown and the time of day mean that there’s hardly any traffic, so I’m home by 7pm and dog tired.

Friday seems to have taken about a month and a half to come round. I feel like I’m sleepwalking through school to get to my classroom, but Friday is always good. I only have one class in the morning, leaving the rest of the day free and meaning that I can plan lessons and sort out resources for the next week. A quite majestic bit of timetabling!

My Year 9 group are just a good bunch of kids and there’s no sanitiser shenanigans or mask issues today. During lockdown’s live lessons I used to run mini competitions with them where the first student to answer whatever the question was would get one of a selection of rubbish prizes, like a straight to camera forced smile or a thumbs up, so I make sure there are a couple of these moments today. It’s brilliant to have that type of relationship with a group, but all the better when they’re in the room!

The same class have P.E. after my lesson and have to walk past my window on their way out to the field. Several of them would always give me a wave or shout ‘Hi sir’ even though they’d left my room only ten minutes previously and today marks a return to this. It’s one of those lovely moments that I realise I’ve really missed and as they start warming up and running round on the field I can’t help but smile. It’s great to be back.

The message at the start of the week was to enjoy having students back in front of us. And I have. It’s been a real thrill to be able to teach properly, to run a lesson and just to chat to the kids and put a smile on some faces, including mine. No, genuinely. No, I can. I can smile. It’s been a good week; exhausting, testing, but enjoyable and it’s brilliant to be back to doing my job with students in a classroom. Just explaining a point to a sea of faces, most of whom are actually paying attention is exactly how it should be. Now that’s what we really call a live lesson!

It’s felt like a reasonably smooth transition back to face to face lessons. The kids have largely been great and the management of the whole thing has been brilliant. It’s genuinely felt like a normal week and it’s credit to everyone involved really. Next week marks the first time that all year groups will have been in school together for any length of time and it’s going to interesting to see how it goes.

Back to School Diary – Tuesday and Wednesday.

This is Part 2 of my diary of the first week back in classrooms for students who have been home-schooling since the turn of the year. I thought it might be a nice idea to have a look at how things would go at what is quite a momentous time for UK schools and everyone connected with them.

Tuesday. Normally such an ordinary day. That first day of the week is done with, but there’s still a long while to go. So, as a teacher (and possibly as a student too) you hunker down, grit your teeth and just hang on in there. However, this particular Tuesday is very different. In the school that I work in, this Tuesday marks a return to classrooms for some of our students after 8 weeks of live lessons and home-learning.

My morning routine is much the same as always and such is my rushing around that I don’t have too much time to stop and think about how the day might go. I’m out of the door the same as I would be in the previous 8 weeks when I would get to work to be faced with an empty classroom and a computer screen to teach at all day. However, as I approach our car park there’s the first indication of normality as a car full of students being dropped off – incredibly early – nearly wipes me out by not stopping at the junction. It’s a regular occurrence during normal term times, but having been used to empty roads for the whole of this year so far, I’m not quite ready for it. Still, I park up, have a mutter to myself and head to my classroom.

Today is the first time I’ve felt really rushed in over 2 months. Where usually I could casually bring up Teams, share my screen and wait for students to log on, today I have to make my way up to a Science lab, hauling everything I might and might not need with me. Teaching in bubbles means that it’s us teachers who have to do the moving! So, bag in one hand, spare exercise books, pens, copies of the poem we’ll study in the other, I trudge up to the room. Once there I discover that there’s no hand sanitiser or wipes, so I trudge all the way back to my room to get mine. The ageing asthmatic in me resents this enormously, but I paint on a smile (pointless as it’s hidden behind a mask) and try to express my false sense of humour at the little mishap via a raised eyebrow and a muffled greeting to any colleagues I meet along the way.

Bizarelly, the tune to High Chaparral – or is it Bonanza? – runs through my head as I prepare the room, log on, turn the board on and open windows. It will stay there all day to the point where I’m humming it behind my mask as I walk around my class checking on their learning. Younger readers probably won’t recognise either of those shows, but they were huge cowboy shows (the shows were huge, not the cowboys) when I was growing up. Why they’re back in my mind now, I do not know. Perhaps the challenges of the day are bringing out some kind of Wild West frontier spirit in me? If only I could discover gold…

Before I know it, it’s 8.30 and I step out on to the corridor to help keep an eye on the comings and goings of our returning students. If the chatter is anything to go by, they appear quite excited which is a good sign. I must admit that for me the sight of so many people in such a restricted space makes me nervous.

It’s odd how we so easily slip back into the same routines. Once we’re in the classroom any fears about remembering how to do the job are expunged and before I know it, I’m relaxed. Yes, it’s odd that we’re all in masks and there’s a certain hush about my students, but it’s great to be back. My job, essentially, is to show off and once relaxed I’m a decent show off. This is going to feel fantastic. And then I look at my watch and find that it’s only 9.15. I feel exhausted. There are 2 and a quarter hours of the lesson still to go!

To cut a long story short, I get through the lesson. We all do. We cover all of the work and my students leave with what feels like a sound knowledge of the poem we’ve been studying – ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen if you want to know. But I’m drained. Part way through the near 3 hour lesson I could hear myself wheezing behind the mask. Never something that sits well with the students, who I imagine think you’re about to keel over when your chest literally whistles in their general direction. It makes me light headed and so I take evasive action by standing at the classroom door, socially distanced in order to take my mask off and take some less restricted breaths. If you know me well enough then you’ll know that, of course, I’ve forgotten my inhaler, meaning that there’s no quick fix. Clearly, I haven’t talked this much in a long time!

While I’m at the door I catch two students – boys, they’re always boys – trying to sneak the wrong way down our Covid friendly one way system. I turn them around and they grin sheepishly, no doubt secretly pleased at the delay in their return to class. Old habits die hard.

Due to the staggered approach with year groups returning on different days, I have another free afternoon, so I spend it in my room planning and taking care of little jobs – and big ones – that need some attention. A department meeting after school tells me I really am back in the thick of it and by the time it’s time to head home I’m shattered again.

Wednesday means another year group are back in school, but information overload means I don’t know which one. I know it doesn’t affect me, so that’ll do for today! I do have a class in the morning though.

Today’s lesson means another trek through school as I’m teaching in a Tech room. Again it’s a case of taking my bag, resources, spare exercise books etc, with me. There’s no theme tune in my head today, but Mission Impossible might be appropriate given the nature of the room. The distractions are numerous – for me and the students – and it can be difficult to keep everyone’s attention fully focused with vices attached to the side of every work bench that serves as a desk!

The lesson runs smoothly, but there are one or two minor irritations that might prove to be warning signs for what to expect in the weeks to come. Firstly, after only a day there are some students suffering with mask fatigue and they have to be reminded several times to keep it applied over their face in the correct manner. One makes me smile – behind my mask of course – as he claims it’s suffocating him. Half of me wants to scream, ‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic! Grow up!’ while the other half just sighs at the over-reaction. It’s slightly uncomfortable teaching behind the mask and the constant talking made breathing a little difficult yesterday, but the students don’t have to be talking that much at all! This is definitely an issue that we’ll come back to!

The other ‘red flag’ is how bad my feet feel after only about an hour of today. One of the benefits of remote learning has been that I can sit on a chair while teaching. There’s no need to walk around a room when there’s no one there and, as I’ve heard it described, you’re teaching through a letter-box. For the last 8 work weeks, other than to occasionally stretch my legs, I’ve been sat at my desk and now my feet are protesting. My heels throb and the side of my left foot – currently suffering with a little strain from running – would scream at me if it had a voice. It would scream things like, ‘Can you please just ****ing sit down?’ and ‘Never put me in these shoes again, you knobhead!’ and it would be quite right. Clearly, I need some kind of hoverboard. It’s definitely not an unreasonable request and I’m sure there’s a gap in a budget somewhere for this kind of thing. It’d need to be a sit down version, if you’re buying…

At the end of the day I do duty on one of our gates, hoping that pupils can leave without a hitch, local residents will refrain from complaining about parking and that parents picking up their children will resist the urge to double park and then race through the tiny gap that exists between cars as they head home. Every week I reflect on the fact that I never once got a lift to or from school…today’s kids don’t know what their missing not completing a daily walk home in the rain!

As it turns out, it’s pouring down with rain. Luckily I have a coat, but no umbrella, so I spend the whole 20 minutes hands in pockets, sheltering as best I can from the rain and despite the sheer amount of people passing by and loitering, my focus is elsewhere. For once, the crowd doesn’t particularly bother me. My mask is doing a great job of keeping my face warm and Covid barely gets a passing thought.

Tomorrow is my first full teaching day, so I’m sure that will be eventful. Colleagues have experienced similar mask fatigue in their students today, so it might be wise to prepare myself for battle tomorrow! Mainly though, I’m just hoping that my feet don’t ache too much!

Back to school diary – Sunday and Monday

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!