More of the same? On Teaching during Covid 19

On Tuesday morning school took a somewhat dystopian turn. My yr13 Psychology lesson was interrupted by a tannoy announcement

There has been a confirmed Covid case in yr13. Please can students and teachers of yr13 continue to wear masks until we have determined which students will need to self-isolate and removed them from lessons.’

My mind was already crowded – taken up by the demands inherent to teaching a live lesson and streaming to students already isolating at home. I continued to explain the methodological flaw in Lombroso’s research whilst juggling the following concerns

  • Well-being: Is maintaining a modicum of regularity helping distract students from wondering if their number is up – are they about to be picked out and sent home.  
  • Content:  Are they clear on the significance of failing to include a control group?  
  • Remote learners: Can they hear? Can they see the diagram? Are they engaging in the paired questioning/sense-checks which underpin my lessons? 
  • Noise : With windows and door open there is an intermittent stream of distracting sounds -everything from birdsong (a territorial Robin!)  to building work (an extension is being built to the dining hall) 
  • Personal Worry. My mind drifted towards questions about how safe it really was, being two meters or more away from potentially positive students, indoors, for extended periods.  

I suspect front of house became visibly ragged! 

Nevertheless, I carried on teaching – perhaps for me as much as them – as we awaited the deputy-head’s footsteps in the corridor. Some students seemed to be coping well, some were distracted, some seemed to find the paired-questions challenging. 

I couldn’t help all students adequately at once. So I picked the least worst compromise for the group. Or perhaps I picked the least worst compromise in relation to my own needs. Or perhaps I merely fell back on automatic behaviours, befuddled by the novelty of the situation. 

In areas with relatively low cases at least, the pandemic may not have substantially changed the nature of the job. However, it has intensified it, making many of us novices again as we grapple with new routines, timetables, classroom set-pieces and technology all in a context of increased isolation. 

I agree with Matthew Evans that the procedural regularities of schooling – the tracks which experienced staff automatically travel along – have been disrupted. The complexity of the landscape remains. We now navigate it as explorers rather than commuters. It takes a lot more thought and effort.

Teaching can be lonely. 

Teaching can be fantastic. 

Teaching is impossible. 

All of this was true before, but is more obvious and more pronounced at the moment. 

Teaching can be lonely.

We are physically isolated from each other most of the time. It is unusual for teachers to regularly observe and collaborate with others in the act of teaching. 

This isolation and the diverse views we hold about why, how, and even what we are teaching mean that even when we do talk about it, the superficial and generalised nature of our discourse often serves to prevent us from touching upon, and validating, the lived reality of our teaching experience. 

This point is often made of whole school CPD or improvement initiatives. Language around increasing challenge, targeting students, intervening, focussing on specific groups convey a desirable aim but often fail to translate into specific classroom actions. Where solutions are driven primarily by the need to demonstrate or ‘evidence’ success the effect is compounded. 

It happens in our ad-hoc conversations too. The familiarity of the language we use to describe our craft serves to disguise its vagueness. Georgie Bernard Shaw said that the US and UK are like two nations separated by a common language. I think that we teachers suffer from a similar problem. 

‘I was just teaching year 10, they were really hard work’. 

The brief chat sparked by this line may play an important role in our day – providing a empathy and a human connection.  I may agree that year 10 can be hard work and that it happens to me too. Sharing frustrations can be healthy – both to vent our feelings and because normalising the sentiment helps puncture the suspicion that such moments result primarily from our own individual inadequacies.

However, even if I know what subject you’re teaching I have no real idea of what this ‘teaching’ might actually look like. Nor, as it happens, do I know what constitutes ‘year 10 being hard work’ to you. There are likely complex reasons for this dynamic – which include the diversity of our beliefs, practices and experiences; the pernicious effects of accountability measures  the language (and certainty) which they promote, and the abstraction necessary in brief conversations bridging our relatively isolated professional experiences.  

In 2020 – with reduced lunchtimes, closed staff rooms, restrictions on meetings etc – it’s more lonely than ever for many of us. The windows of emotional support and camaraderie that keep us going in more normal times are closed. It’s not just the ad-hoc conversations with other adults that I miss. There’s much less scope for sharing a moment of connection, a joke, a surprising story, an ‘are you ok?’ with students when I’m hemmed into the ‘technical area’ around my teacher’s desk. Making space for these moments is important. . 

Meanwhile we’ve probably greater need than ever to share the specifics of challenging experiences – teaching online for example. Therefore a bigger challenge lies around our need to develop language and contexts in which we can critically discuss our professional practice – something that in many school settings ‘requires improvement’ at the best of times.  

Teaching can be fantastic.

The moment when students realise they have learned something difficult. Their reaction when they encounter a world-changing idea – when they glimpse the world hidden in a grain of sand. Those flashes of unjaded enthusiasm for learning about the world. These moments make teaching great. This week I started teaching a new topic in Psychology. One student broke into a huge smile, she has been looking forward to this since starting last year. 

Beyond these individual mountain-top moments are the slower-burning but deeper successes. The way in which a class learns to lean-in to activities, tasks or questions. The point when students feel comfortable calling out a question, comment, joke, or to highlight an error which I may have (probably have) made. The gratitude expressed for introducing them to a world or a career path which was previously unknown. 

These successes are exciting – but they are not the neat and predictable consequence of individual teaching brilliance. There are barren spells and times when progress slows to a glacial rate, making success hard even to imagine. Teaching requires a supremely patient and optimistic imagination. We need to be able to imagine a time when the confusion, anxiety, problem, ignorance, misbehaviour or lack of interest we see now will be replaced by something else. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. It isn’t my place to decide these outcomes preemptively. 

I sometimes lack this imagination. It’s the same with parenting too – I often despair watching my son get himself dressed (he’s 3), unable to imagine past the tangle and tears as he hops around the room, two legs in one leg hole adamantly shouting ‘Do it ‘SELF Daddy, do it SELF!’ Before falling over and  Refusing my help and testing my patience as I can feel nursery drop-off time slipping away.

But young people will often surprise me. Just yesterday I received an email from a student who seemed close to giving up back in July. It’s only short. Here it is in its entirety….

‘I’m in the library. I have a double free. I’m planning to work for both periods.’ 

Also, this morning my son dressed himself. 

Brilliant.

There are also the unplanned moments when we teachers are able to give advice, encouragement, practical help or just lend a listening ear to help a young person navigate a crisis, seismic change or turning point in their life’s journey. They are not less important than ‘learning knowledge’ but I do think of them as primarily haphazard and unpredictable. They emerge just as frequently as my teaching has drifted towards more traditional methods compared with earlier in my career. 

The biggest challenge (for me at least) is ensuring that I remain open to them, and maintain an attitude that allows me to recognise when to abandon plans, stop marking, cancel a meeting etc in order to respond to someone’s need now. One of my ‘tells’ – that reminds me to slow down- is that people and their problems start looking like frustrating barriers to my work rather than the core of the work itself.  This tell applies to both my pedagogical imagination and my availability in those moments when a child needs something from a caring adult. It also applies to my interactions with other adults! 

At present, the pedagogical challenges and individual student needs are probably heightened. Simultaneously, I am experiencing reduced capacity – practically and in terms of mental energy – to respond to problems as well as I would wish.  I can’t do all that I would like as successfully as I would wish. Again, nothing has changed. It has always been thus, perhaps now it is a little more so. 

Teaching is impossible.

The ‘you should know this’ moment  when we realise that some (or all) students are not up to speed with the ideas we knew had been previously covered – and hence should have been learned – is perhaps more common currently given their diverse experiences of lockdown learning.

Schools are complex adaptive systems (thanks again @head_teach). This perspective helps make sense of the challenges which we face working in and leading them. If it is a valid categorisation then it also follows that we cannot ever ‘solve’ these problems. We can merely reshape them – sometimes for the better – our focus on one significant facet of the system provokes changes and adaptations elsewhere. Complexity and compromise are built into every attempt we make at altering the contents of 30 adolescent brains, simultaneously, in line with a predetermined curriculum and in pace with the finite series of hour-long lessons which each school year affords us.

School systems and policies premised upon a naive or idealised understanding of the school – namely that adherence to specific procedures can neatly solve significant problems –  run into problems when they encounter the complexity of school reality. This dynamic is something I explore here (wicked problems). 

US Sociologist, Seymour Sarason after years of interviews and conversations with US teachers concluded that 

The modal teacher divides the adult world into two groups: those who understand this complexity and those who do not, and in the latter group they place many school administrators and most parents.

Where expectations, or even specific policies, are not informed by an understanding of complexity it is likely that teachers will feel the strain between what is expected and their daily reality. On top of this, a tendency to produce policies which ‘evidence’ excellence against a quality assessment framework which also fails to adequately engage with complexity means that official policy and daily practice rarely align neatly.  

In schools in which I’ve worked or visited there has invariably been a gap between official process and policy and daily practice. Experienced and wiser staff are often quicker to identify what they actually have to do, what they need to pay lip service to and what they can entirely ignore. Failing to recognise this dynamic can introduce a further type of impossibility – the expectation of doing it all. Whilst I appreciate that this dynamic may be endemic to complex systems, I am of the view that senior leaders do well to seek out and publicly ‘strategically abandon’ policies and practices which sit in the latter two categories. Without this the most hard-working and conscientious staff will often feel the strain. 

The need for pruning is probably high now as systems and processes have recently emerged and the perceived demands which they produce for staff of differing levels of experience may be significant. Equally, additional demands which in normal times were completed in from a need to comply rather than for their actual benefit – many performance management processes for example – could probably be pared back.

Teaching successfully has always been impossible – possibly more so now. I am lucky in that the subject which I teach is not significantly affected by physical restrictions to the classroom. The way in which I teach is largely similar – though the ways in which I can engage with individual students, check in when they seem confused or hesitant etc are somewhat restricted. I am also lucky in that demands in the form of meetings, training, and paperwork have been pared back considerably in my school this year. 

Nevertheless we are facing challenges around how to help students who were less successful during the first lockdown; how to engage with individuals when face-to-face interactions are limited; how to support students in useful study habits and techniques; how to engender motivation in a context of uncertainty – especially around exams and what constitutes the end to which students are working. 

Life in school at present includes new demands upon our time and attention. Revised timetables, new duty schedules, new behaviour polices, one-way systems etc are a lot to take on. We don’t have habits and routines to lean on. Habituated behaviours are triggered by familiar cues and can, quite literally, be carried out on autopilot. In novel contexts, even simple tasks are likely more draining as they require our deliberate thought and attention.One practical example is that many of us are now moving from room to room between lessons. We need to enter, sanitise the work area, set-up potentially temperamental tech, log into a ‘meet’ with remote learners and start the lesson. Previously we just welcomed the class and started. 

This is all happening in a context in which opinion pieces, policy makers, unions and exam boards express views about what we should or should not be achieving. 

Teaching is normally tiring – now it’s more so than ever. Each lesson is a performance seeking a particular response. Or more precisely seeking a set of particular responses from disparate individuals. There are frequently moments of breakthrough, humour, joy even, as well as frustration, irritation and confusion – within a single lesson. This pedagogical (and emotional) rollercoaster is repeated 5 or 6 times a day. Each episode has a tendency to produce work. This includes physical work – marking and planning in particular,  and mental work – making sense of what is happening and deciding what to do next. At the end of a teaching day we may be presented with further work via meetings, duties and catching up on emails.

By the evening, my laptop is often running multiple windows and tabs. It slows down and needs a restart. It’s common for me to feel the same! 

Teaching is impossible. Most of us ‘know’ this at some level. But we would do well to allow it to filter through to the expectations we have of ourselves and (if in positions of leadership) the demands we make of others. I also believe that it is possible to accept the inherent impossibility of the job without losing the sense that nevertheless, what we do can matter, can sometimes make a big difference to individuals. I can still strive to do my best whilst sidestepping the strain which cascades from an expectation that it should work perfectly and the false assumption that outcomes indicate my professional worth.  

Teaching can be lonely. Taking time to chat with colleagues, to share our feelings and lived experience and making space to consider pragmatic responses to specific challenges with them will likely help. 

Teaching can be fantastic. Despite the challenges, despite the complexity, and despite – or even perhaps because-  of the impossibility of ever mastering it, teaching can be a rewarding career. Playing a role in introducing students to new ideas and ways of thinking. Playing a role in supporting young people through life’s inevitable ups and downs. Both of these are worthwhile uses of our working lives. 

The challenges of the job have been dialed up somewhat. But the positives are still there. We can’t always succeed as we would like but we can help. In the long run our patience and persistence in the face of  individual daily challenges is most likely to lead to long term successes for our students. On any given day our impact on an individual student may be greater than we imagine. 

Hope

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all

Emily Dickinson

Hope is what protects us from proceeding directly from naive idealism to jaded cynicism.

It is great that many teachers enter the profession with ideals around what they can achieve. But is is likely that these will sometimes clash with the complex reality of the role. It is easy to become disillusioned – especially where the demands we experience (from ourselves and others) constantly imply that we should be doing better than we are. These ideals can actually push us into personalising the reasons for the dissonance gap between what we feel we should achieve and what actually happens. Or we may blame problems upon individual agents higher up in the educational system – policy makers or school leaders for example.

An interviewee in research I was conducting a few years ago described teaching as a role in which ‘Your best is never good enough.’

There are times to critically consider our own actions, and actors higher up in the system also need to be subject critique. However, at times I suspect our frustration that the system is complex drives a need to find someone or something responsible for it – an agent who could resolve things if only they acted properly.

In contrast complexity theory suggests that messiness, a degree of volatility and a system which resists our attempts to systematically implement neat resolution to challenging problems are innate to the system rather than necessarily indicative of individual failings.

On Quiet Desparation

The mass of men [sic] lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. 

Henry David Thereau

The isolation of teaching, the complex nature of the job, and expectations which belie this complexity make quiet desperation all too common. Our despair is perhaps driven by frustration that things are not working as they ‘should.’ This drives activity (often futile activity) which serves to assuage our sense of guilt but which may have little impact upon the problem. The extra challenges we’re experiencing now could also tip some of us towards resignation (either literal, or given the state of the wider economy, existential!). 

To summarise what has become a lengthy blog post. It’s understandable that we teachers feel particularly tired. We can’t change the situation. We can’t fix all the problems we see. We probably need to pace ourselves and accept that things will be messy, but we can act in useful and positive ways. This increases the chances of us coping during this period of increased strain. It will allow us to maintain space and mental energt for those moments when we can make a particular difference, and (though it may strain our imaginations to countenance it) over the long term we will contribute to some positive outcomes.  

I am attempting to navigate this term with these strategies: 

  1. As Jurgen Klopp knows only too well, increased working intensity can lead to injury! I am trying to pace myself – going home early whenever possible, streamlining marking and planning,  making time for other things and also (very occasionally) nothing. 
  2. I have felt the strains of isolation this year. I am deliberately using some of my non-teaching time to check in on and chat with colleagues. We’re restarting a ‘remote teaching’ video chat which 10-15 attended over lockdown. I’m also making contacts with a few teachers and writers in similar fields elsewhere.  Connection can be a positive in itself and we can sometimes get closer to sharing and reflecting on the specific realities of our experiences. 
  3. The complexity and impossibility of the job is more prominent. When it arises I’m trying to remind myself that it was always thus and that all I can do is look to the next specific action I can take. Now more than ever I need a patient and optimistic imagination.
  4. I think that the student experience is more isolated too. Normally by now I would have had individual conversations (in ad hoc fashion) with most of my students and mentees. This is now now happening at random so I’m trying to build it into my day. We’re also restarting pupil voice initiatives in which we’re trying to get a better picture of the lived experience of remote learning, and school in semi-lockdown from our students.
  5. The disruption to routine, and need to provide support to remote learners has prompted me to think more carefully about my teaching habits. Conversations and shared examples of teaching with colleagues at school and in similar roles elsewhere are something I am trying to build into the next term.
Bird, Animal, Art, Abstract, Watercolor, Vintage

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