Sausage in the vending machine and an appeal for common sense

We’ve made it through the first full week and normally I would say, when the bell rang (but we’ve had to switch those off to ensure corridor flow) at 3.40pm there was a tangible sense of relief abounding.  School had ended for another week, after the tables had been sluiced down for the umpteenth time and everyone made for the sink to wash their hands, donned their masks and legged it for the weekend; I had that Friday feeling for the first time in many months.

This week we’d followed the one-way system, we’d bubbled and sanitised and waved over at colleagues that aren’t in our departmental bubbles. Our faces are shielded or masked like characters stepping out of a graphic novel featuring some dystopian world. Gone is the solace of staffroom banter for the time being so there’s nothing ordinary about any of that but life in our school is still pretty normal in the ways that matter most. 

On Wednesday morning an unidentified wag had stuffed a sausage into the change box of the vending machine which the socially-distanced queue took great delight in informing me of. As everyone knows,  teachers are omniscient  and have solutions for everything. Bearing in mind that I was out of practice with my omniscience  skills (I must sign up for a refresher course) that didn’t stop multiple sets of eyes awaiting my wise resolution of the sausage matter, so I went in for a closer look. The offending, pre-cooked item had clearly escaped from a breakfast bap earlier in the day and someone had been unable to resist lodging it just at the opening where the change dropped down, so pupils repelled by the sausage had abandoned their money and a small bounty of coins had built up. When I pointed this out loudly so that I could be heard through my mask, an enterprising second form pupil gladly took one for the team and the offending item was removed and a few pence of profit pocketed. Not to mention the merit sent out to his parents for exhibiting school spirit! See me if you need your change from Wednesday morning.

Within minutes I was embroiled in another conundrum, a jammed  toilet door. An urgent  chorus of “Miss, Miss!” alerted me to the self-imprisonment  of a first year pupil, who had accidentally locked herself in the cubicle;  after a brisk rattle of the door the lock quickly complied and the delighted girl was free and basking in the attention of her new, solicitous classmates. She’d been in for a matter of seconds! 

First form, after a quietish start were a little timid for the first few days; when some were reluctant to speak, except for two boys at the back (they’d clearly bottled up six months of contributing to class discussions, thank heavens). Everyone has now relaxed a bit in class and feels happier to give an answer a go, as our rituals of handwashing, sanitising and masking have all reassuringly clicked into place. We now know who has a snake and who has a hamster, dog, goat, chickens etc. The growing gallery in our bubble room also reflects this. (Images sent by google classroom, printed and displayed with my own fair hands only.)

There’s a sparkle back in the eyes of many pupils after the awful reality of swapping PJs for uniforms and getting back on buses when it’s barely daylight. There’s a palpable relief too amongst my GCSE pupils now that we don’t have our google meetings currently. (This is a form of Zoom but a more secure option for teaching.)  As they recounted the highs and lows of lockdown, they rejoiced in how much easier it is to be talking and working with their classmates side-by-side. (In the first year of their GCSE studies this class continued to toil through lockdown despite many admitting to becoming nocturnal, so we quickly got started on our new text ‘Romeo and Juliet’.)

I’ve been teaching for decades now but young people have never ceased to amaze and on the whole impress me. One pupil had moved in with her two grandmothers who live together, just prior to lockdown; a close family they didn’t want their treasured seniors to be lonely.  Her dad’s mum, she informed us all had dementia. “I spent a lot of  lockdown with her back in the 1940s,” she exclaimed delightedly to us all.

This story generated other stories of how the pupils had shopped each week for their shielding relatives, sanitised their groceries and stepped up in a myriad of other ways when their families needed them. More than one pupil talked about getting to know their families during lockdown.  As they took turns to share their experience, I was struck by how many had blossomed, growing in poise and confidence; they talked at length organically and responded to each other in detail. Skills I’d taught them a year earlier but now they’d made their own. 

I know the word resilient is bounced around a lot in education and its importance is highlighted. I hope fervently that those making the decisions in education about what’s going to happen next won’t forget that the majority of young people did their best in lockdown; helped families or kept themselves occupied in a positive way. They’ve shown resilience but I would urge that we don’t push our young people to breaking point. One past pupil wrote to me this week telling me how she was struggling with the fact that she wasn’t able to prove herself in the A level examinations. I say to her, you proved yourself in all the years you showed up prepared to do the best that you could; you’ll have the rest of your life to prove things, if you must.

I haven’t seen a great learning deficit emerging as yet among my pupils but it’s still early in the year and I teach English, so I’m not faced with memory lapses of essential technical information. 

What would those in charge of education say to not worsening the experience of lockdown for our young learners in examination classes? If our pupils  remained fallow to an extent for a few months and are back ready to tackle what’s ahead, let’s not overload them. For that matter let’s not make education back into what it has become; an endurance exercise in testing for our young people. Let’s make this next year manageable for our pupils and our teachers. 

We teachers are often the psychological buffers for our pupils in times of challenge and during this pandemic that’s never been truer,  so I appeal to the decision makers, don’t be tempted to add to that responsibility by trying to pressurise us into squeezing work out of  our classes in a compressed amount of time. Imagine the faces of the children taking examinations behind desks all over the country; those who put others first during lockdown. Filleting the course content to be examined at this time won’t make a qualification any less pertinent or worthwhile, knowledge will have been ascertained and all done at a time when we’re beginning to realise that our approaches have to be discretionary to maintain well-being, as we build our pandemic coping skills.

To the poets enraged by the absence of poetry in the English Literature GCSE examination I would ask you to think about how you’d like us to teach your poems. Savour, unfurl them and celebrate the challenges they present ? Or hurriedly highlight what they’ll need to get through the exam as that’s most likely all the current timeframe will allow, given the necessity of retrieval practice of last year’s texts in many instances. Do you really want a year of pupils filled with trepidation and a niggling angst concerning poetry? Many are already fearful of the unseen element regardless of how well they are taught.

I worry this might create poetry-averse individuals and undo all the good work of prior years. During lockdown I’d coaxed my class into exploring what was so marvellous about poetry, steering them in and around the canon, imbuing them with the confidence it takes to make the necessary connections.  Many of them will continue their study of English Literature at A Level, I’m confident this will be a better point to pick up their poetry studies where we left off.

*Colette Thompson is a literacy specialist. She teaches in a large co-educational Post-Primary school with just under 1280 pupils. Colette has completed an MA CETL at Queen’s (Creative Excellence in Teaching and Learning.) In 2015 she spent two years as a literacy advisory teacher for the Education Authority in Northern Ireland where she worked with primary school literacy leads and Heads of English throughout Northern Ireland on easing transition from Primary 7 to Year 8. Colette is Vice-Chair of Fighting Words Northern Ireland. She will shortly begin the Post-Graduate Diploma in School Leadership at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown.