I’m sharing my own experience here. I make no claims to being right, they are personal opinions and I am in no way some kind of an expert in anything.
I do know that I know nothing, or more accurately that what little knowledge I’ve acquired amounts to less than a grain of sand.
I also know that kids will always surprise us and that teachers are among the most amazingly resilient and decent people on the planet.
They say that knowing the limitations of one’s knowledge and experience is the beginning of wisdom. If that is true, given the situation we all found ourselves in, I would say that we are, as colleagues, friends and human beings, in great need of wisdom in our schools and colleges at the present moment.
So what can I say that we’ve learned from the first lockdown?
Mental and emotional wellbeing first
Hundreds of colleagues attended the National Education Union (NEU)/ Anna Freud Centre’s Mental Health training this summer. It’s as clear as day that mental and emotional well being are absolute priorities when thinking about teaching and learning. We know it. If it was ever out of focus the pandemic has brought it front and centre.
The news this weekend that Donald Trump’s presidency is coming to an end may reassure some students so that they feel a least a little safer in the world, but they are still left facing a global environmental crisis combined the consequences of the current ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Anxiety is running high and we’re running from one thing to another, many of us without breaks, trying our best to provide suitable digital resources, not to mention living through the ramifications of Covid-19 on our personal and family lives. In our role as educators we’re doing our best to manage that anxiety and create environments where students can flourish.
It’s never been an easy job, but now under these conditions it’s harder than I ever.
I can’t quite get my head around it, but somehow I am now one of the longest serving members on our staff. I remember being young, but it feels like it mostly happened to someone else. One good thing about the accruing years of experience is that somehow, gradually, over vast swathes of time, learning eventually appears to emerge. How it happens is a bit of a mystery, but what seems obvious to me now is we need to look at some of the assumptions, the soil so to speak, out of which our current system grows.
Moving past competitive individualism
More politically astute readers will do a much better job that I of tracing the effects of competition in our education system back to their roots but It’s clear that competitive individualism is very bad for people’s emotional and mental well-being.
The basic idea is that anyone can make it if they work hard enough and everyone is in a competition to see who comes out on top. Well maybe that’s a good thing but one of the flaws of applying competitive models to education is that being compared, ranked and tested on a narrow set of skills, feeling less than others who do better than you, isn’t the best start in life for children.
Whether learning is happening online or in person a compassionate approach is the most suitable now and for the foreseeable future.
I do remember a time before the ideology of competitive individualism became something society takes as given and natural the background to our experience. Yes, students do need to prepare for exams but how that happens does not have to be as stressful for them as it has been in recent years. Conversations during the first lockdown with Dr Theo Gilbert about his work in compassionate mind training in education further opened my mind to power of compassionate pedagogies in supporting both student and staff well-being and learning.
The Compassionate Mind Foundation have programmes for teachers wanting to bring more compassionate pedagogies into their school. There’s information and contacts on their website. https://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/.
What does the research tell us?
Whatever approach we take, we need to think and act globally and locally to build upon evidence based practice.
We also need to help each other decide on realistic expectations regarding workload.
The best way to respond to a crisis is, in my view, to empower the people on the ground to form interdependent teams and groups. That means as teachers we feel free to innovate and respond to meet the safety, wellbeing and learning needs of our students.
If a workload item comes in that clearly serves the safety, well-being and learning of the students, it becomes a priority. Tasks that don’t serve our most direct needs have to move further down our list of priorities. Under the present teaching conditions the demands on staff are off the scale. Can we really expect of ourselves that we will get every task item completed? At what cost?
Workload was heavy when the system was stable and certain. In the current uncertainly many of us are faced with choices between responding to the demands of the situation and maintaining our own health and wellbeing. We do need to support each other with this, because teachers are excellent at feeling guilty plus government advice is insufficient and unreliable.
Working in a profession where you can never fully meet the needs of your students lends itself to feelings of not being or doing enough. The more autonomy departments and teams have to support each other in making workload decisions the better, because on our own we’ll tend to just soldier on until we drop. That’s never been a sustainable approach and we don’t know how long this thing is going on for.
Staff well-being is foundational for the well-being of students. It’s a well known metaphor. When the air masks drop, put your own on before tending to those in your care. If you become unconscious, what hope do they have?
If there are any colleagues out there in a situation that feels sustainable please share your experience in the comments or get in touch we need your input.
So, wherever possible we’d ideally be working in autonomous interdependent teams. Strategically prioritising workload to free up staff energy and morale.
That would be perhaps an ideal to aspire to but anywhere closer than where we are now would be a step in the right direction.
If concerns for our students and colleagues make it hard to prioritise workload so building a culture where prioritising is normalised is important. Cups of tea and jokes help a lot too and so does belonging to supportive networks of colleagues and friends. What the students said they missed the most during the first lockdown was seeing their friends. It’s the same for us. Sharing a few words in the corridor or during line-ups – anything really that’s kind and humane is called for now more than ever. Everyone is finding this hard. Compassion is all inclusive. Indiscriminate kindness and compassion are powerful healing forces. It’s a holistic approach that’s needed now.
Holistic, meaning to be whole. To be whole is to be healed. Healing calls for unity. Unity being our greatest strength and most effective healer. Any humane touch in these times is hugely appreciated and valued, I think it’s useful to remind ourselves of that.
In future articles I’ll share some of very positive experiences I’ve had with online education and look at the challenges of staying sane in front of or behind a screen.
Mike Warwick, Haringey
Drama teacher, author, life coach and therapist.