There was a moment in a Year 7 lesson in the first week of September when the surrealism of what I was doing convinced me I was in a dream. I was introducing myself to a new class in the middle of my first full teaching day after the lockdown. My head was hot inside my plastic visor, I was having to project my voice more than usual in order to be heard from behind it, and I’d gone for three hours without a sandwich or a cup of tea . A small area around the teacher’s desk had been cordoned off with black and yellow tape and I was doing my best to stay inside it for the whole lesson. I honestly felt as if I was playing netball whilst wearing a lampshade on my head and trying to teach a class at the same time.
After over two decades in teaching I’ve experienced many challenges, but nothing remotely like the experience of returning to school this term and teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mostly, it’s great to be back. After so many months away from the physical classroom I’ve fully appreciated more than ever before both why I like face-to-face teaching so much, and what can be done in the classroom that can’t satisfactorily be replicated online. During this second lockdown, it feels like a privilege both to have a job and to be able to leave the house to interact with real people.
But it’s so tough! Not in the dramatic way that many of us might have feared after having little contact with groups of people for so long, and then suddenly having to work in fairly cramped spaces with large groups of people. I won’t have been the only one worrying in August about how quickly and widely the virus might spread in our classrooms.
The reality is that so far, in my school, there have not been the multiple outbreaks that so many staff, students and parents feared. I write this fully aware that so many other schools have not been so lucky, and that those schools that have had to deal with a large number of cases amongst students and staff have had huge additional challenges to cope with. What there is for all of us, though, is substantial change to almost every aspect of school life.
I now teach each class in a separate room, spread out across the school so that different year groups don’t mix. This means teaching in science labs and music rooms, going to parts of the school I don’t normally see. More than anything, it means feats of both logistics and strength in order to ensure that each room I’m teaching in on any day has all the texts and equipment I need. Sometimes I make Antarctic expedition-style deposits of everything I need in each room very early in the morning; more often I end up carrying huge piles of things, Double or Drop-style, from one room to another throughout the day.
Once the school day starts, the pace is relentless. Teachers are, of course, used to this. But now that break and lunch times are staggered for different year groups, it’s possible to hit a run of lessons where you just miss every break time, going for as many as three or four hours at a time literally without even one minute’s break. Simply taking on board enough food and drink is a challenge, and I feel as if I’ve started eating like a participant in an ultra-marathon, cramming peanut butter sandwiches into my mouth en route from one room to the next.
At the same time, during periods when there has been confusion and non-compliance in society at large, I’ve found it strangely comforting to work in an environment where everyone knows what the Covid-19 rules are and, by and large, follows them. Watching students sanitise their hands as they enter and leave classrooms as a matter of course, and putting their masks on and off as appropriate, largely without any fuss, is hugely impressive. As difficult as all of the new routines are, they are clearly working to suppress transmission of the virus, and that’s very reassuring.
But on top of the logistics and physical demands, one of the biggest frustrations is that we can’t draw on our full range of teaching strategies. We can’t easily organise students into small groups for discussions as they must stay in their seats facing the front of the room. Teachers have to remain in our netball-style zones as much as possible, which makes it hard to have the quiet interactions with individual students that are at the heart of both subject teaching and behaviour management. All teachers in my department now have to be teaching the same things at the same time with each year group in case we suddenly have to move to online teaching with a whole cohort. This reduces the scope for us to use our own creativity and go off-piste, and it also means an awful lot of liaising with each other when classes are shared between two teachers. I long for the return to my own classroom, with its carpet and shelves of reading books for loaning out.
Hopefully, that return might now be possible within this academic year. The camaraderie amongst staff, and between teachers and their students, has been a very precious thing during a period in which many have felt isolated. But I long to take off my visor and wander to the back of my own classroom again.