Why it’s time for teachers to get lazy

Ben James Connor

Ben Connor is a Primary school teacher in Lancashire. Teaching since 2010, Ben has taught from Year 2 to Year 5. Since September 2018 he has been English subject leader and SLT at a school in Bolton. In his spare time he writes articles, and leads workshops mainly focussing on Music and English, sometimes a combination of the two.

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If you had said in February that we would spend the whole of Summer Term teaching from home, I would have been gobsmacked. The last term has been the strangest of my decade-long teaching career. Not all of the events that unfolded post-lockdown were unpleasant. If you believe some online ‘commentators’, teachers spent that time sitting on the couch, which I did at some points. I spent more time with my own children, even becoming their teacher for a couple of months (more difficult than teaching my pupils). I provided online learning for my class whilst also spending one day a week supporting key worker children.  

All-in-all, a strange time. But once I got my head around online learning, it was manageable. I’ve had a lot more time to think, less time physically marking work and more time developing the curriculum. More time to innovate for the future. Whilst doing all of the above, my colleagues and I have gone through our curriculum provision with a fine-toothed comb, ensuring that from September, every element of our planning and resources is well-thought out, easy-to-use for staff, and providing a well-rounded experience for our pupils. 

That process has been challenging, of course, but also refreshing. I’ve had a chance to do those things that teachers don’t get to do usually, the jobs I’ve put off for a decade. It’s been a chance to get our house in order, and we’ve made the most of the opportunity. Teaching is a conveyor belt. Barely has one lesson finished when another starts. Barely has one term ended before the next begins. 6 weeks holiday? A blur. Whilst this hasn’t been the all-expenses-paid Netflix binge-a thon that some people think it has been, it has certainly been a change of pace. Different challenges, different routines, a different focus, very clean hands. I’ve spent time with pupils and staff that I wouldn’t usually. I’ve played a lot of socially-distanced tennis and invented new versions of games which followed our strict guidelines. I’ve planned and prepared lessons which inexperienced teachers (parents) have had to deliver at home (with a modicum of success, apparently). I (an experienced teacher) have struggled with teaching my own children at home. 

The experience has been strange, that’s true. I would much rather have been in school all this time; a normal term and a normal life. You couldn’t have made the last few months up if you tried. But there is a lot to learn from the way teachers and school leaders have responded. And a lot more to learn from the way most of our pupils and parents have. Hopefully, in being kept apart, we’ve actually grown stronger together. Hopefully, pressing pause on our normal teaching will have afforded us a chance to make sure that, in future, learning is even better than it was before. I’ve a feeling it will have to be.

Priorities, priorities

Prioritising is the supreme skill of an excellent teacher. We spin plates in a way that would impress Barnum himself, constantly keeping everything going whilst ticking off jobs from a to-do list which grows and never shrinks. There are infinite jobs which need to be done before school magically reopens as normal in September. But the first, and most important priority is a simple one. In fact, it should really be our only priority because without it, nothing else we need can be achieved. The main priority for the summer holidays is to decompress. 

Whilst there have been unexpected benefits to the lockdown and the enforced time at home, the situations revolving around school closure, partial reopening, extended reopening etc have been stressful at times. Whilst class numbers have been much lower and direct teaching has been rendered almost impossible, simply having to constantly observe pupil interactions to avert the risk of close proximity is draining. If I never have to say “remember 2 metres distance” again in my life, I’ll be a happy man. 

Teachers aren’t heroes, despite me having a number of mugs in my cupboard that claim that we are. We aren’t heroes but we are vital, important. It’s no wonder that school reopening was high on the agenda and one of the first elements of lockdown to be relaxed. Teachers take a mess and make a masterpiece. We respond to situations quickly and with ingenuity, rearranging rooms and planning systems for handwashing, organising rotas and routines to ensure the maximum safety for our pupils. Despite negative press (no change there), this has been our finest hour. But that has come at a cost. I personally am the most tired I have ever been (and I’ve done my share of the baby night-shifts). The last few months have been emotionally, mentally and physically draining. Of course we need to think ahead to next September, to work through yet another round of Risk Assessments and plans. But first, we must rest. Without renewed strength and a time to unwind, we will struggle to create the safe, welcoming atmosphere that our pupils need to smooth the transition back towards a semblance of normality. It’s time to actually put our feet up and binge-watch TV shows, do that exercise we’ve been putting off, see loved ones we’ve been avoiding. It’s time for the Summer Holidays.

Recovery 

With the best will in the world, we cannot ‘recover’ the time that has been lost. Even the most accomplished home learning systems are no match for the skill of a teacher with a class full of pupils in front of them. Learning will have stalled; some children will be not only four months ‘behind’ where they could have been, but undoubtedly even worse off academically. 

I’m sure there are children out there who have had an idyllic time away from school: baking, being creative, exploring nature. I’m sure there are pupils that have completed every sentence of home learning set by school as well as hours of extra work. Some of those children might return in September having benefited in some ways. However, for every one of those lucky children there will be a child who has not engaged, not explored, not benefitted. Thousands of pupils will have done no academic work from March to September, missing 15-16 weeks of direct teaching. Thousands of pupils will have spent the majority of that time within the four walls of their bedrooms. 

We face the complete unknown. Most of the children I have come into contact with in recent months have seemed happy enough but most of their peers have not been in school at all. As always, Schools have two priorities: education and wellbeing. Both of these are vital, as both have been affected negatively. These priorities need to be balanced in the coming term. We have a responsibility to ensure that children make up lost learning and return to their pre-lockdown position as quickly as possible to minimise the negative impact upon learning. However, this cannot be achieved in a hothouse environment of cramming and a narrowed curriculum. These methods would undoubtedly achieve superficial acceleration of results. But to rely on these methods would be to ignore the impact of lockdown on the wellbeing of both pupils and staff. A return to school in September needs to be managed carefully. Obviously, learning needs to happen and quick gains need to be made. But a return to school could be traumatic for pupils who have been away from a school environment for an extended period. There needs to be a careful plan in place to smooth the return to school and ensure that the psychological impact is taken into account. Balancing these two priorities is what the best school leaders are experts at, but there is a temptation to take shortcuts. The return to education will be a long-term process.

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