As the strangest term many of us have ever experienced draws to a close, and most school staff can at last begin to relax, quite possibly for the first time this year, we can be forgiven for wondering what September will hold. While the government desperately hopes for, and expects, a return to normality, many others feel that this will be impossible. After all, SARS-CoV-2 is still in “general circulation” so unless something dramatic happens to curb its spread between now and September, measures are going to have to be in place to protect staff, pupils, parents and the wider community from Covid-19; and such measures could well mean flexibility when it comes to home and face to face learning.
Many educational establishments have been investing in flexible learning opportunities for children and young people for some time, but the national picture still varies tremendously. So while some schools were able to switch to an online model of teaching and learning relatively smoothly, while maintaining a face to face experience for the children of key workers, others were not so equipped to adapt. The learning curve for us all has been steep this year, but are we all ready for what the Autumn term may hold?
The chances are we are not. One senior leader in FE told me that we may be facing a tsunami of wellbeing issues, “not so much concerning young people, as staff. I don’t think we are fully acknowledging just what a toll this period has had on our teaching staff.” Another teacher told me, “I just need to stop working. Switch off completely. I know that will put pressure on the last part of the holiday, because I am not at all ready for September, but I have not stopped since Christmas and I am exhausted.”
Mental health expert, Dr Pooky Knightsmith, shares these concerns. “We’ve seen an incredible response from school staff who’ve stepped up in a big way. Often providing food, counselling and a whole new way of learning for our pupils. It’s hard and they’re having to teach and provide pastoral support in ways that are new to all of us. I’m full of admiration for what many have done but I am deeply worried about their wellbeing. Many staff haven’t had a break in months and whilst schools are now finally closing for the summer, I think many people will struggle to switch off and besides, there is a lot of preparation to do for September as we prepare for the next phase of the pandemic.”
For those of us facing the real possibility of balancing online teaching and face to face teaching in the coming term, these strategies may help to maintain balance and minimise the risk of overload…
Regardless of the goals and intentions of institutions, schools and the government, the safety of individuals must come first. If your specific circumstances mean that the risks of face to face teaching are elevated for you, this must be taken into consideration. One leader of an FE college told me that staff with additional risks – age, health conditions, the age and health of people they live with etc – are a priority and they have processes for helping those staff to meet the needs of students from home if necessary. Sadly, this is not always the case. The key is to talk to your leadership team about mitigating risk.
Collaborate and borrow
If you are having to prepare for real and virtual classrooms, aim to collaborate with colleagues to split workload as much as possible. If everyone works to their strengths productivity is, in theory, increased. There are also excellent ready to use resources available on BBC Bitesize, and Oak National Academy is developing resources for 2020-21. It is fabulous that some are exploring innovative ways of balancing online and face to face teaching, but this is usually achieved in the context of an incredibly supportive framework and not all teachers have that. If you are such a teacher, focus on essentials and build from there, but do not feel you have to invent anything from scratch. If such expectations are placed on you they must be reasonable, and it should be possible to collaborate with colleagues either in your school or in your wider teaching network; even if that collaboration is in the form of a supportive professional conversation about the tasks and challenges you face, and how best to approach them.
There may be times when the young people you teach are not in the classroom – they may be shielding others, themselves, or isolating after contact with someone with Covid-19 – and will need to continue with school work at home. While we are all concerned about how effectively children can keep up with their peers in this situation, one head told me that he is just as concerned about how they maintain relationships with school and how they are feeling in themselves. “A quick welfare chat on the phone or via the internet can do wonders for helping to keep our community together,” he said. Wellbeing and progress go hand in hand.
We do not know what the coming term has in store for us. It may be that everything runs perfectly smoothly, the virus declines to nothing and life is returned to normal. It may be, though, that there are significant disruptions either locally or nationally and life is again thrown into varying degrees of disarray. If you are adversely affected, tell someone. Speak up about what is happening for you. There may be support available in your school, or from your GP.
Balancing the demands of the coming term may well prove to be a challenge if Covid-19 is anything but over. Take care of yourself and watch out for others. But first a rest (if you possibly can)!
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.