In January, I shared this article, which detailed one teacher’s experience of life in the classroom following the first lockdown. It was a decent, feelgood piece, and one that focussed on the sense of community many schools have come to represent—something I’ve also found to be true at the school where I work. However, it was the opening paragraph I liked most, for the way it described schools as “way too exciting, over-stimulating, and liable to produce headaches… a hive of activity, and constant emotional interaction.” I liked it, because it gave people who don’t know what it’s like inside a school a snapshot of what is – and always has been – an everyday experience for the majority of teachers.
The role of teachers, much like nurses and doctors and care-home workers, has come under greater scrutiny over the last twelve months than ever before. For the first time in a long time, people have acknowledged this job for what it is – bloody hard work and vitally important – and they have, for the most part, shown a huge level of appreciation for what we do. A quick straw poll among my friends revealed that they found home-schooling enormously challenging. They couldn’t believe how hard it must be to do this every day, all day, with twenty-nine other children in the room. To this, I just shrugged and said, you get the hang of it after a while.
I’ve been a teacher for almost fifteen years now. In that time, I’ve taught in a few different schools, and each one has presented a different set of challenges. I’m now lucky enough to work in a school where I feel supported by those around me—my colleagues, the senior leadership team, and the parents of the children I teach. In turn, I’ve felt more inclined to go those few extra yards, when required. Like, say, when you’re hit by a global pandemic.
In May last year, when schools were preparing to “re-open” (newsflash: they never closed) I volunteered to go back full-time and run the Reduced Access Provision group for Year 6. It made sense for me to do it, for a whole host of reasons, not least because I like being in the classroom. The kids, understandably, had mixed feelings about returning to school. For some, it felt scary and weird; for others, it didn’t seem fair that they had to come in and do “proper work” while their friends were enjoying what seemed like an extended holiday. (It was worst for the one girl in my group, whose friends were all in a different bubble, and, like me, she had to put up with a month-and-a-half of meme-speak and requests to play football from the boys.) On the first day, we made a deal. We would always do at least three proper lessons – English, Maths, and one other – and if they worked hard during those sessions, we would spend the rest of the time outside, playing games on the field or in the wooded area they like to call “the forest”.
For the most part, it went well. There were ups and downs, and I was knackered at the end of each day, but I felt good about the job I was doing. As well as being in school, I was keeping an eye on Google classroom and checking in with the children from my “old” class. The bulk of the work on the remote side was done by whichever one of my colleagues wasn’t in school that day, and this enabled the whole operation to run smoothly. Still, I missed my old class and felt cheated out of seeing through a full school year with them—not to mention the disappointment I felt on their behalf that they had missed all the usual Year 6 activities, such as the residential trip, end-of-term production, and a leavers’ do. But, hey. C’est la vie. At least things were going back to normal in September, right?
Despite the lingering uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, I started the new school year feeling more positive than I had in years. I took charge of a class of children with whom I already had a strong bond, and I was determined to do my best by them, and compensate, in any way I could, for the time they’d missed during the spring lockdown. Again, things went well for the first couple of months. It was chaotic, at times, and I definitely noticed some gaps in their knowledge, as well as a few signs of increased fragility as far as their levels of resilience were concerned. But we were, for the most part, back on track. Or so I thought. Then, in November, the UK government announced the tier system (remember that?) and there was a sort-of-but-not-really lockdown. Either way, it didn’t really affect things in school – at least, not at first – but as cases began to rise, the number of staff in school dropped, and at the beginning of December, my teaching assistant caught Covid and the whole bubble had to close.
The two weeks of self-isolation that followed were tougher than I’d imagined. Believe it or not, the only motivation I found came through “Zooming” with my class, which I had to do twice a day. I found it hugely frustrating not being in the classroom, because for as much as they could drive me crazy, I missed the kids. I also knew that whatever we were providing for them, via Google classroom, wasn’t enough. After all, nothing can replace the real experience of a school environment. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of this here, because I think it’s something most parents have come to appreciate for themselves over the last few months, but in terms of a child’s educational, social and emotional development, the importance of being in school cannot be underestimated. Of course, there are those for whom the home-school environment is better suited, but during that two-week period, I noticed that many of the children were showing signs of anxiety, along with the various other effects of isolation. I kept in touch with them as much as I could, calling their parents or chatting with them directly, and I tried to helped them with any issues, reassuring them that we’d be all be back in the classroom soon enough…
We all know what happened after that. On Tuesday, January 5, Lockdown 2.0 kicked in. Schools remained open for vulnerable children and those of key workers, but this time, the number of children in school was much higher, and there were now two full-time bubbles per year group. Again, I volunteered to run one of these groups, while my colleagues divvied up the week for the other. They also set most the work for Google classroom and hosted the twice-daily Zoom sessions. Again, this teamwork made things a lot easier, and again the whole operation ran without any major glitches. Having a full-time teaching assistant in the classroom was an enormous help, too. Together we got to know a few kids from the other two classes, which I loved. And despite the wintry weather we spent as much time outside as possible, which they loved. I was still exhausted at the end of each day, and we did have to close the bubble again after another positive Covid case, but this time it was only for a week, and my second stint in self-isolation didn’t feel quite so miserable.
The months of January and February disappeared in a blur of dark mornings and early nights. On March 8, the schools “re-opened” once again and all the children came back. Parents breathed a collective sigh of relief, and teachers prepared themselves for all eventualities. During that first week, people kept asking me: “How is it being back in the classroom?” I bit my lip and refrained from giving them the detailed lecture on how I’d spent my “time off”. Jokes aside, I also received a swathe of messages thanking me for the efforts my colleagues and I had put in over the last few months, as the experience of home-schooling has clearly opened a lot of people’s eyes to the myriad challenges involved in educating a child in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, one thing that has become apparent is how little people know about my job. I’m genuinely baffled by some of the assumptions people hold about what it really means to be a primary school teacher. In truth, my job is no more complicated than creating emotional connections with children, the strength of which determines, to a large extent, their willingness to learn and do the work you put in front of them. This, of course, is as challenging and nuanced as you can imagine, and I don’t always get it right, even with my fifteen years of experience. Put it this way: I don’t keep a diary – at least, not one I write in at the end of the day – but if I did, it would probably read like one written by Jack Black’s character in School of Rock, with each and every entry beginning with the words “Dear Diary… today was INSANE!” What follows would most likely be a litany of incidents, described in lurid detail, none of which have anything to do with the business of teaching and learning.
To offer another analogy, teaching sometimes feels like leading a theatre company, in which the players start the day by warming up – chatting, swapping lines, workshopping little scenes – followed by a couple of dress rehearsals, before launching into an all-singing, all-dancing performance, which contains several moments of high drama that threaten to destroy us all. In truth, it’s always been this way, to one degree or another, and – I suspect – it always will be. The complications presented by the pandemic have definitely added to the levels of craziness, and, I have to say, these last few weeks have been the toughest I’ve experienced for a while. I’m tired all the time, and people tell me I look stressed, which does wonders for my self-image. Don’t get me wrong: it’s been great having them all back in, but kids are tricky creatures. They are up and down and unpredictable, overly emotional, and badly behaved. They are funny, frustrating, and, on occasion, downright infuriating. Other times, they completely melt your heart. I often have to remind myself that this cohort of kids is having to re-adapt to the school environment for a second time, at a time when many of them are no doubt still feeling anxious and unsettled. Throw some pre-teen hormones into the mix, as well as the complications caused by the politics of friendship, and voilà, we’re back to that description I referenced at the beginning. Sometimes, though – most of the time, in fact – they actually do some work, and this never fails to impress me. It makes me happy, which in turn makes them happy. I live with a fair few regrets these days, but the look you get from a child you’ve just helped with a maths problem, or whose work you’ve just read out to the rest of the class as a good example still makes me go all gooey inside. In the end, these are the moments which have kept me going over the last twelve months, and their significance is huge… especially when it comes to creating those connections I mentioned before.