Back to School: reflections on a month of teaching…

So, as autumn descends upon us properly this weekend, it marks four weeks of regular back to school teaching, and I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what I have learned after a month of “normal” lessons and a return to school life.

What’s gone well:

  • Our SLT have done an incredible job in restructuring elements of the school day. As an small site all-through school where students automatically have lunch together, we have had a number of challenges to resolve – 96.4% room capacity, and very few big spaces for solving issues. I think, during INSET, I wasn’t confident it would all happen – and I know that I was anxious about a lot of things that we hadn’t experienced relative to normal. All of this was listened to, thought about, and respected. We’ve made it work – it’s not been perfect, but it’s worked, and our staff and students have responded brilliantly.
  • The students have been just great. They’ve adjusted to masks in corridors, sanitizing routines, shuffling rooms and accommodating space changes – and after an initial confusion, we’re just back in the routine of teaching and learning in our subject. It’s been lovely. We’ve had little behavioural difficulty, we’ve had minimal “catch up” – just “as you were”, and off we go. We talk about Geography, we talk about UCAS applications, we talk about life – we haven’t had endless COVID conversations – and for the time that I’m in my classroom, it’s almost as if 2020’s horribleness hadn’t happened.
  • Live teaching is better than online teaching, isn’t it? It’s the energy of a class, the sense of performance being rewarded – the audible discussion, the buzz and flow – it’s great to be back in the classroom.
  • Booklets have been a game changer. I thought they were brilliant before, when I was working hard to write them at the same time as teaching – but now that I can print them, have pre-prepared and distributed, and just get on with teaching every lesson, I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t work like this. The opportunity-cost came last year: it was brutal to create them all by myself – but this year, the reaping of that effort is immeasurable.
  • Similarly, the investment we made a number of years ago in educational technology (Virtual Learning Environments, visualisers) and learning how to use those, is paying off immensely. Work setting electronically, teaching and modelling from the front without the normal routines, and even blended and hybrid models from the classroom have been much simplified by having a lot of the tech embedded for a while, rather than having to add to the cognitive load of it all at this moment. Learning from lockdown, and implementing low-stakes quizzing via our VLE, and self-marking, is another huge gain.
  • I’m really proud of my team for thriving under these conditions, and just adapting – two fortnight cycles in, and it feels like the overwhelming cognitive load of the first week (“who are you? How do we do this again? How do we do this new thing?”) has all faded a bit and settled down.
  • One of the consequences of the bigger school changes is that I feel like I am a bit more on an “island” than before. The common staff spaces or times are much reduced: we don’t eat lunch together, and those random interactions, friendly chats and professional conversations are reduced a bit. However, I am really lucky to have a *brilliant* office, and hilarious and caring group in there, who make life really enjoyable. It has also made the interaction with other teachers precious: I don’t take it for granted, and make time to have the conversations I need and want to have, and that’s been really lovely.

What’s been hard:

  • I think the island nature of the staffing experience has been echoed in other spaces and places as well, and parts of it are sad. The joyful common experiences – clubs, societies, after school activities – are all significantly reduced or altered, and a lot of the things that made “school” more than just what was happening in a classroom are much missed.
  • Similarly, for logical and understandable reasons about reducing movement of large groups of students in school, many teachers have become far more nomadic than before. While there are consequences to this – weight loss, for example – the lack of a ‘home space’ and structured routines based on the same seating plan, and the same classroom have been quite challenging to adapt to. I think I’m getting there, but it’s slower than I’d normally want it to be at this stage, I think!
  • I feel like I’m more tired than I used to be. I do think a part of that is simply the exercise difference – climbing up and down a three storey building, rather than just staying in my class room! – but the work pace and space to think seems a bit pressured and reduced at this stage, too.

What I’m borrowing trouble on…

I am a great believer in giving advice that I can’t follow for myself – and this is one of my favourite hypocrite hats to wear. I always say to people “don’t borrow trouble” from the future – but I can’t help doing it myself. Here’s what I’m worried about:

  • Lack of clarity and confidence in the long-term plan from the DfE. We are a month in to teaching now; and we’re preparing to write mock exams, set internal assessments, start the process of end of unit tests and reflection for some components of the work we are doing – and we still don’t know what form, if any, the 2021 exams will take. The stakes on our internal exams have never felt higher – we don’t know if the exams we sit in November/December will end up being our Centre Assessed Grade data, or whether they offer our students the normal formative and diagnostic learning experience.
  • Lack of confidence in the specification edits: we currently don’t know if there are any changes confirmed for our GCSE specification. This is hard – we need that clarity, and I understand all the reasons why it’s not easy.
  • I worry about the sustainability of the pace and workload – particularly for our SLT colleagues and school leaders. I don’t know how they are staying sane, healthy or even upright at this stage.

How does this compare to other people’s experiences? What is working well for you – and what are you struggling with at this stage of term, having had time to settle in a bit?

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