The former Ofsted Chief Inspector for England says the only way he can see school closures recovering after COVID-19 is for teachers to work weekends and evenings. I’m not sure if Michael Wilshaw remembers being an inspector and visiting schools, but maybe it has escaped him that teachers have been working weekends and evenings for decades. However, this was also the Chief Inspector who accused teachers of ‘skiving off at 3pm’, so his view of teachers has always been a bit suspect. But in this current crisis, it is these same 'skiving' teachers and senior leaders who are setting the tone, keeping vulnerable children safe and still finding ways of looking out for each other.
A quick skim through Twitter and teachers are connecting with each other, just as they always have – offering ideas, actively listening, or just putting out a hand of support.A quick skim through Twitter and teachers are connecting with each other, just as they always have – offering ideas, actively listening, or just putting out a hand of support. Then there are the self-mocking videos created by virtual school staff with the excuse that the children might like a laugh, when we all know that really they’re reaching out to their pupils who they find themselves missing more than they imagined. There are other tweets that tell a different story. The NQT who got her first job via Skype, and the school-shifter who suddenly feels anxious about his move to a new school – will new colleagues be as supportive as his current ones?
After a 32-year career in teaching – firstly as a primary school teacher, then up the ranks to Assistant Head and latterly as a teacher educator both in the UK and internationally – it doesn’t surprise me at all that teachers are getting on with the job in hand and doing it well. Working with children brings out the best in teachers – they love the stories children tell, the off-the-cuff comments that have staff belly laughing. Working with children is good for you – it reminds you how to have fun.
However, the current crisis doesn’t bring with it much joy. Parents are home-schooling, multiple websites are offering free-to-access resources, teachers and support staff are making packed lunches, some even delivering them, and in playgrounds sports equipment that has gone dusty has found a new purpose, then there are the teachers wrestling with Google classrooms to get their learning rapidly online. Research from the Sutton Trust reports that by the start of April 2020, 34% of children from middle-class homes had accessed synchronous or asynchronous learning opportunities, compared with just 16% of working class pupils. The Children’s Commissioner for England rightly highlights concerns around the widening of this disadvantage gap, most often noticed during the longer summer break. The digital divide has also widened – not all families have access to multiple devices, to good internet connectivity or to parents and care givers who know how to navigate through the multiple ‘use me, try me’ blinking web of ‘free’ resources and of course mediating learning is a tricky business.
Most parents and care-givers know that teachers do a good job. Never more than this Christmas will that box of chocolates, hand-made card or bottle of wine be so firmly affirming of the genuine thank you behind it. When the current crisis lessens, and as autumn comes around again, and we do know that it will, initial teacher educator providers will start to wonder what will happen to teacher recruitment, which has been on a downward trend, in England at least. Those furloughed may take the opportunity to change careers, or those who left within the first 5 years of their teacher training (and 30% do) may realise they miss teaching, miss making a difference, and miss the belly-ache of laughter.
We should take the opportunity to reframe education, to learn lessons from what teaching and learning have looked like during lockdown, both at school and in homes. Undoubtedly, education will change and, hopefully, along with it the high stakes testing culture. Ask a 16 year old who’s no longer revising for GCCEs what their views are – they’ve spent five years being told they need to study, that getting good GCSEs is the only gateway to sparkling future. They feel let down, and a bit cheated maybe? If only learning and education hadn’t been so inextricably tied to testing, they might feel differently. We should take the opportunity to reframe education, to learn lessons from what teaching and learning have looked like during lockdown, both at school and in homes.
Let’s lobby and argue for a reset and restart a movement of learning for learning’s sake. Let’s remember the playfulness, the creativity and that when children got bored they found ways of entertaining themselves – they wrote on pavements, put teddies in windows, took nature walks, made up games, found their own cut off point on tablet usage, or the just enjoyed being with their adults. Let’s remember the types of learning offered through the refreshed BBC Bitesize, the maths sing-alongs with Karim Zeroual and the CBBC’s Hacker T. Dog, and the reading we did with Oti Mabuse and Tom Hardy. Despite the celebrity names, teachers were included, patiently explaining how to sound out letters and words when there you were thinking you’d been a reading expert for years. Welcome to the world of phonics.
Remedying the impact of school closures won’t be based on children repeating a year of learning or attending catch-up classes, but it will be based on what quality teaching and learning has always been based on – relationships. Headteachers know this, and they’re finding all manner of ways to support all staff; teachers and support staff know this, it’s what they turn up to work for; and so do parents, as they look forward to first day back a school packing up the school bags and popping the newly-made 1m social distancing hats on their children's heads.
To parents and caregivers, you’re doing a good job – your children are safe, they know they are loved and they are getting to spend this unprecedented time with you.
To teachers and support staff turning up every day – whether in person or online – you are all heroes. We’ll need you more than ever when pupils and students return to schools and we step forward into post COVID-19 world. Let’s hope we remember the lessons we’ve learned.