A very difficult decision to leave this Christmas was taken over the summer – though it had been building up over the last few months. The proverbial straw for me was an article about EYFS reforms I was reading when I suddenly realised that I had reached saturation point. I was becoming someone who read education updates and news and sighed heavily. The type of school leader whose eyes rolled when ofsted tweaked guidance, or when subject reviews were announced. I was no longer excited by it all – and as the summer went on I realised that I was not looking forward to September – wasn’t getting excited about the return like I usually do. And any kind of school coverage in the news just caused outright dread.
Covid of course – but more than that – the realisation that, as we came to the end of it we would learn nothing. More than ever now schools were at the heart of their community. Schools, my school, had worked so hard to keep their community safe and to provide some normality for their pupils. (And don’t get me started on the Herculean efforts of staff to move provision online). Instead of a recognition that perhaps our professionalism was to be commended (or at least not doubted!) we had contempt from politicians and policy makers.
I am so disappointed that the chance we have had for a rethink, for recognition and for renewal has been lost. In fact, it seems to be more materialistic and about ‘end product’ than ever. The changes for baseline, the ‘advice’ from subject reviews, the Ofsted inspection guidance, the continual demand for ‘catch up’. It’s too much. It’s unsustainable and it’s not what I came into this job for.
I’m lucky, or at least I think I am. I am thinking in a new direction and am excited to be heading towards an MSc – exploring Climate Change policy and Zero Carbon Initiatives. But I know so many teachers who are really struggling with this. So many schools will be left rudderless – and governing bodies are going to need support. I don’t feel proud about my decision, it is sad. I will miss teaching immensely. It has been a privilege to work with hugely inspirational people over the years – I have met amazing and resilient children and have been honoured to be at the start of many teachers’ careers. I know I will never really leave…I know I will want to get back to it! It just doesn’t feel like it is the job I love right now.
Postscript – as I was editing this social media is awash with rumours that Gavin Williamson should get a knighthood. So. There’s that.
I, like many of my colleagues are ready for whatever this school term may bring. But I wanted to take the chance to reflect. I fear many school leaders are bracing for a storm. And in the spirit of airing anxieties I thought I’d explore just what the advice means for primary schools now.
‘Overwhelming’ – an ‘Avalanche’ – according to research carried out by the University of Cambridge and University College London these are the words that heads have used to describe the amout of information received since the beginning of the pandemic. Heads mentioned that they didn’t know what to expect from one day to the next – and that this was more stressful even than student welfare. This was my experience – this summer has been a breathe of fresh air because of the absence of government updates. So – all good right?
Well.. now we seem to have gone from one extreme to another.
The latest government advice seems to be fixated on ‘normal’ school life resuming as much as possible. Suggesting that assemblies resume and that masks are no longer necesssary. Ventilation is ‘important’ but we have received no support in enuring this over the winter months.
They emphasise that schools will no longer be responsible for track and trace and that bubbles are not expected. UNLESS. And here is a big unless – unless there is an ‘outbreak’ – defined as five closely related cases (or 10% of the school population, whichever comes first). Then there will need to be an extra plan in place that relies on the school knowing the close contacts of these cases and putting mitigation in place.
This concerns me (and others) because it appears that the government is waiting to be reactive instead of proactive – to me we are waiting for the inevitable rise in cases and then we have a selection of measures that we can out in place. These measures will necessarily differ from school to school and cause confusion for parents.
Headteachers told me that they find the measures lacking, that they are using local advice instead, that they are worried about their community and about the possiblity of infections spreading from their school. The ‘outbreak’ advice seems to be causing concerns as the management plan offers a ‘suite’ of ideas which Headteachers and school leaders have to choose from. Most schools that I know are using a kind of ‘hybrid’ approach and keeping some measures in place anyway.
Headteachers are not (even now!) infection experts – luckily I have amazing local Public Health support – but this may not be the case everywhere. In a small school like mine, just how many of us would be classed as close contacts? Should I be thinking of minimising this now before an outbreak? Should staff be encouraged to stay within ‘adult’ bubbles? Remember they still do not want us to close schools – but how realistic is this?
This lack of mitigating advice will have repercussions elsewhere – as a small school two or three staff members either ill or isolating will create huge problems in providing quality education. Parents (and indeed staff) who are anxious, or who have responsiblity for vulnerable members of the family may worry about children returning to ‘normality’.
It will also mean that in the event of another serious wave, or a different version, then the government may have to rush out advice and measures, reverting back to last year, which will lead us right back to the initial ‘avalanche’ of advice.
Young activists are really making a difference. From an international level with activitists such as Greta Thunberg to local influence – here in Cumbria with the excellent ‘Another Way’ set up by the inspirational Amy Bray.
Emphasising the positive and looking at what impact the next generation can have will be a vital job for teachers.
Have the Facts Ready – Age appropriate, obviously – but you need to know what the science is. Knowledge can be reassuring – and it can help to put concerns into perspective. Talking about what is on the news is a good first step and will allow you to see what the children already know.
Share Good News – There is so much good stuff happening out there right now – sharing success stories is important. Negative and ‘shock factor’ news stories often get so much more publicity – which is a good discussion point with pupils.
Encourage Action and Agency – Individual actions are important and are not futile. There are plenty of opportunities already within the school curriculum to discuss these. Likewise, as they get older they need to see how their individual actions can affect the larger system. PSHE lessons and British Values give our children the chance to learn about rights, responsibilities and democracy. Use this to demonstrate the options they have for lobbying, or for talking to those in power. Invite local politicians in, business leaders, shop owners; keep the conversation going.
Finally, find likeminded individuals – Groups to explore the issues and what can be done. Locally, or in school, there may be youth groups already – but starting one could also provide opportunities to be useful and to share worries and concerns.
As I started writing this I realised that, in fact, it would be impossible to write an adequate blog post on the whole year. This then is more of a summary, a review – a kind of diary into what did happen. There is more to be written here – and more time to give this. But – we need to start somewhere, and so to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, lets start at the beginning.
This, I hope, will be a more optimistic piece – after all – we have soft sunlight here in Cumbria right now, vaccinations are going well (so far) – and I haven’t watched any government briefings for ooh, at least a week.
What has this last year given us then?
The beginning – preparedness – how were we prepared for what is probably the first national crisis that any of us have led schools through? When it became clear that the virus was spreading – as Italy suffered and went into lockdown suddenly we were all paying attention – well the public health messages were all about hygiene and that phrase ‘social distancing’. And, well we were, quite honestly found lacking. It turns out that many of our policies and risk assessments were not really written for a pandemic of this nature. (Why they were written is another question.) Government-level communication was too big of a juggernaut to respond to our questions and concerns mid-March, and schools found out about closures along with everyone else. From then on we were running to catch up. And of course suddenly everyone was talking about social distancing.
Once it became clear thought that schools were closing for a while – and that lockdown was the way we were heading well then schools could start to support their communities better. By April we were settled into Co-operation – school leaders showing a previously unknown level of comradeship and peer-support throughout this crisis. For me, here in Northern Cumbria, it can often feel isolating, but the machine that is School Support kicked in and school leaders worked together magnificently. We planned hubs, we identified vulnerable children (and staff) – we volunteered, we cheered one another up and we listened to what others were going through. But mostly we marvelled at how much life had changed in such a short time. The support from our Local Authority was astounding – and as an Academy Head Teacher the irony of this is not lost on me. By the end of April it seemed very clear that everyone was experiencing this very differently – and each school needed different things.
Of course in the background of April, May and June teachers across the country were transferring their skills to online teaching – a process many of us are just starting to feel comfortable with. Often with some pupils in school as well, meaning staff were juggling parallel plans – and we became more familiar with this as time went on. Parents were adjusting to juggling their own family life and everybody was suddenly more acquainted with the twists and turns of school curriculum than they had ever wanted to be. Meanwhile schools were embroiled in an ‘access’ panic – whereby the government and school leaders were at odds over the provision of tech – it turns out that large swathes of the country did not have good internet access (who knew?) and the online provision of easily accessibly lessons and content was sapping teachers morale and time.
In support the Government funded the set up of Oak Academy – which, regardless of the political or pedagogical wrangling managed to galvanise the profession and provide some much needed sequential learning that was accessible. They are still wrangling with the organisation of physical devices but some progress has been made: we have had sim cards, some data free academic websites and my school did get two chromebooks. Of course by this time there were other cracks showing in the school leadership systems – most notably the constant and often downwright confusing communications from Government. And, whilst changes to testing regimes, risk assessment, guidance for online provision, Ofsted (don’t ask) were all passed on to schools almost daily, and usually at unsociable hours, schools supported their communities as much as they could. It should be mentioned here that system-level communication has improved, but press briefings prior to any official announcements just seem the ultimate act of disrespect. Unions and government began to look at just how safe schools could be, a topic that is still the point of much debate now.
The summer is an interesting time to look back on. Like many schools we welcomed limited year groups back in July, but the stress and anxiety for school staff was palapable, and whilst we concentrated on providing for all of our pupils many of us were beginning to see the personal toll the pandemic would take first-hand.
This huge part of school life is one that I think we are still not learning from – following on from a full opening in September schools are still not supported for covid-related staff absences and are not offered support to provide more staff (which would help provide smaller classs sizes, provision of PPA and sharing of the workload) – this in turn leads overwork and burn out for school staff which will ultimately hurt pupils.
Other changes for school staff involved openness – schools were sharing much more with each other, both internally and with parents. Communication had to be very open as we had to find ways to talk to those who may be ‘hard to reach’ – social media came into its own and WhatsApp groups replaced the morning coffee.
Our school, like many others, began to look outside more. Being in such stunning and inspirational surroundings this is something we can do more of – and outdoor education (not just education in the outdoors) needs to flourish in the future.
All of this – these societal changes – the working from home, the online element of schooling and the emotional toll of ‘keeping up appearances’ means that many of us may not have been at our best this past year. We may not have made all of the best choices – or given ourselves enough time to learn from these choices. And we are not looking back objectively or clear-eyed just yet, we are not yet in a position to collecitvely breath out and survey the landscape. The changes and the education priority shifting we can do post-pandemic is something else to reflect on.
Teaching online, it turns out, is not that different from in the classroom… Somethings definitely take longer – especially at first – but then there are some things that are easier. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.
Timing, and that dreaded word, pace – is harder to judge when working online. Especially if you factor in any connection issues. The first time I set my class a First News based task (which would have been a lesson normally) and it took them almost all morning I realised I needed to rethink how I broke down the tasks and how I made sure they had the time. I’ve found that ideally you give them longer to think, slightly smaller tasks with less time to complete and specific time for questions using visuals – e.g. a physical clock you have with you or one shared on your screen.
I’ve been modelling how I take notes on jamboard – especially when working with history and science topics. Sharing the screen to watch or listen to a presentation and taking notes together not only models this important skill but also gives them something to refer to later. Of course, depending on your platform – they could all contribute – but some children may find this a challenge. Equally those children who have got this skill could then lead the note taking.
Questioning is still so important – and it is easier to give all the children the chance to answer online. Depending on the platform you are using the children can reply to just you, or you give them some thinking time and then ask them all to type in at the same time. You can also ask specific children first, which then allows you to check understanding. We use Google Apps and so you can open a jamboard as well as using the chat.
You can always get them to write on paper and hold answers up as well!
This is tricky – especially at first when you don’t know what the children have at home (or they don’t know themselves) – but there are lots of ways to share video, to make use of the share screen and to give presentations. And there is some really high quality stuff out there now – we use White Rose Maths and often share screen their videos. This allows you to pause and ask the relevant questions, as well as to extend areas that you know your class need to work on. Many of the ‘home learning’ video based resurces do not require logins either – which means you can leave the links up for those children not online.
An excellent side effect of remote learning is that the children have to learn the be slightly more independent… Of course the first step to this is encouragement – raising their confidence – sharing good examples, asking the children to explain their learning and allowing them to read out what they are proud of are all good ways of doing this. However the technology itself can also be a barrier – and so model the different ways you can present your screen, watch video, share work etc etc. Ask the children to explain to one another – teaching one another so that if they cannot get hold of the teacher, but they are finding something tricky, then they can help one another.
Other tips I have picked up along the way include planning for online and offline work – so that the children can pick up what they are doing without needing to be online all of the time.
It would be great to share any more tips that you have!
“Okay, as we come inside – wash your hands. Oh, you came in quickly – have you washed your hands?”
” With Soap?”
“Oh – I’ll be right back”
” Miss I’ve got Teddy to show you”
“Ah now, remember we don’t bring things in from home. Pop it back in your bag and wash your hands”
“Miss, I used soap now – here – smell”
” That’s good – now don’t put them near my face, remember? Go and sit down in your seat”
“Miss, can I go and hand in this form to the office?”
“Yes, off you go…Oh wait, no, that’s the other bubble isn’t it – here leave it on that table there. No Jimmy, I don’t want your homework now, remember, your Dad was going to sign in your diary to say you had done it. Oh, you’ve lost your diary – right – I’ll message your Dad. Okay , lets start the register – right, Sarah? oh of course, Sarah is at home – right who is the Google Classroom monitor today? Okay, could you login and see if Sarah is on there and say Hello? Great, thanks!”
This could be the typical conversation in any primary school up and down the country. This pandemic has affected schools in many different ways. Schools have had to take an almost obsessive approach to assessing risk; to cleaning, visitors. We have amended the curriculum to better suit the lack of trips, or to help fill gaps. We have produced back up plan on top of back up plan for home learning , isolation learning, bubbles bursting and full lockdown.
Our pupils too have adapted thoroughly; severely restricted in their movements in their own school they have lost various chances to mix and to lead – reading buddies, playground leaders, digital leaders and many other ‘small’ activites they were used to have gone. Other routines that they have been using for the last few years have disappeared or changed. Different playgrounds, different lunchtimes, not meeting their friends in other classes or chatting to their favourite teachers. Our youngest children are starting school with minimal physical contact, and very little home / school sharing. Parents may feel shut out, or helpless as their access to teachers is appointment only and virtual.
Schools are being inventive with school and community activites too. Think about those traditional activities that we would be doing now, especially at this time of year; the Christmas Fayre, the carols, the Harvest Festival. Every event is now planned through a filter of infection control with audiences moved online and all of that extra worry about just how the technology will work.
Teachers meanwhile are losing their support networks and their chance to reflect and work with colleagues. Chatting online from your classroom does not feel like the time to bring up just how terrible yor last dision lesson was. Zoom fatigue feels like a real thing – fifteen minutes of online teaching feels like an hour, whilst difficult conversations are even harder to have when not in person. Handling lessons online and talking to parents only on the phone is not a natural way for us to work – especially with younger children or those vulnerable families.
We should be so proud of how we have adapted to this way of working; but we should also be aware of the consquences.
There is no easy answer to how we can be supported – this post is not about finding answers – this is a plea for understanding and a reminder to the profession to go easy on ourselves. Of course, government could help immensely by taking the pressure off and funding appropiately. But, whilst we wait for that, lets all take step back and reflect on just how much has changed over the last six months.
Consider your own progress: Just how many times have you stepped out of your comfort zone in order to go to work? How are you tackling your own worries to answer the worried questions of parents and pupils? How many times have you not seen your own family and friends because you feel you an increased risk?
As you think about these take the time to breathe – and to find a way to be pleased with just how far our school communities have come – after all the post pandemic planning may be just as much of an upheaval.