For anyone in employment, the Covid crisis has been a difficult time. Scarcely anyone has had the ‘normal’ experience of pre-lockdown work, whether you’re a banker or a burglar. Many people have been furloughed; sadly, some have lost their jobs altogether; key workers have done their key work and rightly have been praised for it. Then there has been the curious phenomenon of ‘working from home’.
This latter has proven to be a very mixed bag. Some people, including one worker in this home, have really liked it – many of my non-teaching friends say it has given them greater focus and that, while they have missed office society and banter and birthday cakes, they have, inevitably, worked more efficiently. In a large number of households, families have, for better or worse, spent more time together. And, of course, many mums and dads have had to spend some of their scarce time helping their children with their schoolwork. The papers have been full of articles describing the travails of home educating children while at the same time trying to do your job, with titles like ‘I Didn’t Realise Teaching Was So Hard!’, with columnists of all styles bewailing their problems helping Percival/Charlotte/Constance/Bunny – always aged about 7 – to conquer long division or apostrophes. In this, of course, they are mistaking teaching with tutoring. Lots of teachers, meanwhile, have found themselves in the position of home educating their own children while simultaneously educating other people’s children in their homes. All of this should, one assumes, lead to a new respect for the teaching profession.
However, during lockdown – with the exception of the continuing education of the children of key workers – there hasn’t really been much teaching going on, or not, at least, teaching as most people think of it. This is, of course, the view of someone not long retired and who didn’t, in any case, actually teach much for the last sixteen years of his career (but, my goodness, what balm these periods I did teach were in the midst of the accumulated joys, responsibilities and dreck of being a Head!) So, call me old-fashioned, but I really think of a teacher as someone in front of a class of children/pupils/students/teenagers trying to help them understand something and grow as a result, with the young people working together and helping each other, and making friends and doing sport and having wee romances and gossiping and going for chips (often in contravention of national Healthy Eating guidelines…)
So, many teachers have I think struggled to work from home. They may have tried very hard to produce online lessons and some of them will have done it very well but we cannot pretend that this is what teachers do for a living, or of course – and I have said this before – that it’s what they were trained for: managing a classroom is very different to managing Microsoft Teams. My guess – borne out by many conversations with colleagues in both state and private schools – is that many teachers have found the past three months really dispiriting as they sit at their computers and try to do their best for young people who may or may not be sitting at theirs. Or who may be still in their bed. Or watching Netflix. Or arguing with their mum. You may have followed the story about the Head Teacher of a primary school in Sunderland who was suspended following an interview on BBC Newcastle. Apparently, she told the interviewer that while some teachers in her school had been coming up with ‘the most imaginative, amazing things’ in terms of teaching remotely others ‘sit at home doing nothing’.
I think this was, to say the least, not a wise or loyal thing to say on radio, but I suspect it is at least half true. It might have been more kind, and more accurate, to say that lots of her staff were capable of great things in online teaching and that others….well, others found it very, very hard and it might, thus, appear that they lacked commitment – it might even appear that they were doing nothing (but that, of course, she and the other senior managers at her school were doing everything they could to support such unfortunates….)
What this – now departed – lady said is, in truth, reflected in what lots of parents have been saying: their children variously, have been getting great work, boring work, no work at all, too much work, work that’s too hard for them, the same work twice, work that’s not marked etc etc. Some of this is to do with teachers’ efforts; but much more to do with their personal skills. Thank God for the holidays, say teachers and kids alike, time to take stock and not feel guilty about not switching on the computer to stare at it alone. Again and again.
So, teachers in Scotland are at a reputational crossroads. When they return to school full time in August with their young charges, I think many of them will shed a tear or two to be back where they belong, doing what they love – this intensely difficult, wearing, joyous work; this astonishingly important job, holding in their hands the future lives of Scotland’s citizens. The online offer, the threat of ‘blended education’, the difficulty for the general public of simply seeing what teachers were actually doing during lockdown whilst all too clearly seeing what other brave caring professionals were achieving, all of this is past, and teachers must really rise to the challenge of showing Scotland what key workers they really are.