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I can still remember standing by the photocopier when a wide-eyed teacher looked up from his phone to share the news that schools in Ireland were keeping every child at home.
I’d recently started as head of English at a new school and had been pouring my heart into the job, determined to establish myself. The previous few months had been a blur of 12-hour days, countless new faces and Excel spreadsheets.
But at that moment in reprographics room, I knew. We all knew. Exams season – arguably schools’ very raison d’être – was now off the table. Teaching would continue, but not as we knew it. I couldn’t help but feel apprehensive. And a little bereft.
One year – and a whole host of garbled government guidance – on, and after us reopening schools for the second time, here’s what I’ve learnt…
During the Covid 19 pandemic I found out that it seems even Luddites like myself can become confident online practitioners.
More significantly, having to deliver lessons in a radically different way has compelled us to critically reflect on the basics of effective teaching.
Between unreliable internet connections and competing distractions, we’ve had to refine our lessons, stripping them back to the fundamentals as we strive for simplicity and clarity.
Lockdown restrictions and lockdown measures may have limited our personal freedoms in the name of public health, but the cancellation of exams and a pervasive sense that all bets were off created space for more creative approaches to the curriculum.
With mass testing out the way we adapted our Y7 poetry unit, with less focus on analytical paragraphs and more opportunities for each pupil to write their own poetry.
These included uplifting poems in the style of Maya Angelou, odes in praise of everyday items inspired by Pablo Neruda and haikus on the theme of urban nature.
My colleagues and I have rediscovered our passion for the subject and transmitted this back to students, with many now flourishing as a result
You might think the school closures would have limited students’ opportunities for personal development, but in some ways the opposite is true.
Determined to inject some excitement into our students’ lockdown, we had some of Y7 participate in a national children’s poetry contest. We also set up our own ‘Letters from lockdown’ writing competition, transforming the tedium of lockdown into an opportunity for creativity.
The results have been humorous, insightful and moving, and included an encouraging number of entries from some of our typically least engaged students.
With fewer opportunities for classroom disruption, there’s less need for reprimands. We’ve seen how each young person, when not forced to attend school, has quickly discovered that they actually value their teachers and education much more than they realised.
The social media models adopted by a number of teaching platforms – such as the facility to ‘like’ posted messages – have also encouraged students and teachers to communicate in a more informal way.
The increased frequency of emails and phone calls has enabled private dialogues quite different to those rushed chats at the end of lessons or in the school corridor, which would often have been had within earshot of students’ peers.
There’s an intimacy to teaching and learning from home that’s reminded both sides of their shared humanity.
Nevertheless, the importance of returning to ‘real’ school remains clear. Remote attendance figures may have improved, with many more secondary school pupils having now received laptops, but overall access and engagement remains patchy.
Gaps in attainment have increased, perhaps irrevocably, and we mustn’t forget that there are those for whom home is a place of distress and danger.
Schools and school staff provide our students (especially vulnerable children) with safety, positive relationships and opportunity.
Let’s not focus solely on catch-up classes for our students when we return, but also do our best to provide excellent teaching, a rich curriculum and a wealth of extra-curricular opportunities, while building transformative relationships.
Amy Higgins is a head of English at a London secondary school.
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