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Teaching during a global pandemic

At Hopscotch, our thoughts are very much with all schools at this uncertain time and we are keen to support educators in light of the nationwide school closures. Each week we'll be posting a blog, direct from a teacher on the front line, about their experience and challenges they're facing. Below is our first in the series, from a secondary science teacher based in the North East.

No time to say goodbye

There’ll be no school as we know it on Monday, and I’ve just created a resource pack for home learning and saved it into a folder called ‘quarantine’.

The last full week of school is the most stressful of my life. Everyone is waiting for the news that schools will close. Many of the staff and students break down in tears each day. I’m especially worried about exposing myself to the virus and taking it home to my partner, who is in a high risk group.

Eventually the news report comes through that schools are closing. The relief from knowing we now have a plan is short-lived – what about exams, vulnerable children, those whose parents have to go to work? How can schools just close their gates?

Then, the government announces the cancellation of GCSE and A Level exams. I am a year 11 form tutor and I’m suddenly hit with the enormity of what this means for the young people with whom I’ve worked for my entire teaching career. I feel selfish that up until this point I have been so concerned about the effect of the pandemic on me and my loved ones, that I feel a fresh wave of emotion and I’m fighting back tears.

For my students, this means no qualifications, no leavers’ assembly, no prom. It’s so unfair. I know some of them will be high fiving over the prospect of no GCSEs but most will be heartbroken that they have no chance to show us what they could have achieved.

I do my best to reassure them that they will still have their final day of school as the wanted, telling them to bring in shirts to sign and to make sure they come and see me before they go. I wipe away the tears and try to focus on the day of lessons ahead of me.

In my last lesson of the day I put a past exam paper down in front of each student. They don’t even open it and I don’t tell them to. We sit and chat all lesson; I laugh with them and listen to their gossip and plans for their last day. As I’m about to dismiss them, I see an email come through on my phone from the senior leadership team, saying that they will be telling year 11 students not to come in tomorrow; staff shortages mean that it doesn’t make sense to have them in when they have no exams to work towards. I see the logic of it, but the emotion overrides it. Their last day in school – their chance to say goodbye, get shirts signed, visit all their favourite teachers - all taken away.

About half an hour before the end of the school day, two girls from my form class burst through my door into my classroom. They’ve heard the news and they are crying, devastated. Other students are in the corridors, some sobbing, hugging teachers and hugging each other. It is heart breaking. More kids and more teachers join, and I’m being asked for hugs and to sign shirts. I cry with joy as the worst behaved lad in my form, whom I have spent 5 years shouting at, tells me he’ll miss me and asks me to sign his shirt.

Adjusting to the new set up

It’s day three of lockdown in the UK and I’ve settled into a routine. On my morning run I noticed far fewer people, and most of those I did see were adhering to social distancing rules well. I feel positive - a stark contrast to the feelings from a week ago.

After the horrible anxiety that hovered like a black cloud over that last week of in school, it is a welcome relief to have some certainty about the term; our Head has devised a rota system that ensures staff are fairly allocated to provide sufficient care for the children of key workers who are attending school, and I’ve only been given two days in the next four weeks.

I’m so immensely proud to be part of a public sector workforce who are needed in this crisis to support other key workers – NHS staff, delivery drivers, emergency service workers. The pandemic has brought out the best and worst, from the people hoarding 600 million toilet rolls to those posting notes through their elderly neighbours’ doors, offering to do their shopping. In the education sector, you can already feel the sense of pulling together and sharing the burden. Everyone is willing and wanting to do their part, whether that is supervising children, providing distance learning packs or doing welfare checks on vulnerable children who are now staying at home. It’s incredibly heart-warming.

On the first day, I go into work with all the other staff, not knowing quite what to expect. We have just under 70 students, from over 1100 on roll, who qualified for a place at the school during its closure, but when I arrive, there are only two children sat in the cafeteria, looking terrified. Several staff mill around nervously, not wanting to get too close to each other. Over the next twenty minutes or so, a few more students come into school and we end up with 14 in attendance. There’s a lovely, but sobering, moment when one student – a challenging young lad from our on-site exclusion unit – moves away from his friends to properly socially distance himself. It’s great that he understands and is being responsible - it’s horrible that he has to.

The science department spends the day working together to plan engaging and fun activities for the next few weeks, both for in school and to upload to Class Charts for home learning. We are no longer bound by the national curriculum and have been given freedom to plan activities around our subject area.

That evening, the Head sends out an email to all staff, thanking us profusely for our efforts and informing us that the 14 terrified looking children were happy and smiling by the end of the day. As the number of kids attending inevitably dwindles as the weeks go on, we can be sure in the knowledge that any number of students coming into our school will be well looked after and will leave smiling at the end of each day. That is the kind of school I work for and it makes me immensely happy that I can say that.

I’m not in school again until mid-April. The days of no work stretch out in front of me and seem worryingly long and empty. One of the reasons I was drawn to teaching as a career was because I enjoy structure and routine. Not having my days shaped by the school timetable, my year by the approaching holidays, could be a real challenge for me. I am thankful that I’m in the middle of writing a Masters’ thesis, which gives me a goal and structure to my days. I endeavour to keep my days as close to a normal working day as I can – at my desk by 9am, working on something productive, even if it’s just life admin, until around 3pm when I feel I can close my laptop and do something more fun. As someone who has never had a job which allows me to work from home, this is a wholly new experience. There are many more food breaks, and significantly more cats involved compared to my normal working day.

I also know that everyone around me is experiencing the same and will be at the ready with a phone call, a video chat or an online pub quiz to help me through it. I still catch myself pondering how surreal the whole thing is. But what are humans better at than adapting? We will get through this. I know that for sure.

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