Craig Barton looks at how both teachers and students will need time and patience in order to make the transition back into the classroom.
Speaking of “unprecedented times” has become something of a cliché. And yet I know of no other phrase to better describe the period from when schools first closed because of the Covid-19 outbreak to now.
I am not in the classroom this academic year. Much of my time is spent working with individual teachers, maths departments or running workshops at conferences. Needless to say, all my outreach work was cancelled, which has its own implications, both financial and in terms of my mindset. But I know that I have had it easier than most teachers.
I have a podcast – the Mr Barton Maths Podcast. As soon as schools closed, and it became clear this wasn’t going to be simply for a few weeks, I decided to interview teachers for a Teaching from home series. I spoke to a wide variety of people across 11 episodes. There were teachers of other subjects, state and independent sector representatives, early years and SEN specialists, as well as colleagues from other countries who had started teaching from home earlier than us. I wanted to get a collection of ideas and strategies from teachers facing similar constraints and challenges to my listeners. I also wanted to get across the message that we are not alone in our struggles.
Listening back to those episodes now, with schools open to certain year groups and the prospect of a wider return in September looming, I am struck by something. It is not just the students who have suffered, but the teachers too.
My guests spoke of guilt. There was guilt that they could not support their students as effectively as they liked, either constrained by a lack of widespread access to technology, the shortcomings of such mediums, or having to make it up as they went along due to the short time from the government announcement to the closing of schools. But guilt also stemmed from letting down their own home-bound children, turning to Netflix as a child-minder whilst they wrestled with a live lesson on Zoom, or tried to give feedback on blurry photos of student work sent through on email.
One question I asked every guest was: Is there anything about distance teaching you prefer to “in the classroom” teaching? By far the most common response was a rather downbeat “no”.
My experience from speaking to my guests on my podcast, former colleagues over the phone, and keeping an eye on Twitter is that teachers are desperate to get back into the classroom. Desperate to return to the job they love, to support the students they care deeply about, and – in many cases – to escape a house-bound routine that has provided many challenges.
But the transition is likely to be tough. Teachers may have spoken to very few people face-to-face outside of their immediate family over the last few months. What was once normal is now alien. Speaking to five – let alone twenty-five – people in an actual, physical room. Standing up for hours on end. Using that sixth sense to detect an issue before it arises. And that is before we confront the new challenges that social distancing measures in classrooms may impose.
And then, of course, there is the challenge of supporting our students. We know there will have been a significant range of experiences at home during lockdown. Some will have thrived, more will have suffered. My sense is that far more students will be eager to go back to school than thought they might when this all started. The prospect of three months out of the classroom sounds great, but the reality is often very different.
Students have missed seeing each other, missed their teachers, missed the structure and comforting routine that school brings. They may not realize it, but they have also missed learning.
But just as for teachers, the transition will be hard. Some students will take longer to readjust. There are likely to be more behaviour issues than normal. Gaps in knowledge that existed before may well have widened. The students who most needed to access the support teachers provided during closure are likely to be the ones – for a variety of reasons – who accessed it the least. Schools can combat inequalities far more effectively face-to-face than across a screen or at the end of a telephone.
So, what can we do?
Well, above all else, I think we need to be patient. First and foremost, patient with ourselves. Teachers will be rusty. At first it may feel like we are NQTs again, or even student teachers. It will take time to get back into the swing of things. But it will come. And then we must be patient with our students. They will test us, but they have also missed us. They need to know we care about them, we are empathetic with the struggles that many of them have gone through, but that the very best thing we can do for them – indeed, for all of us – is to get back to learning.
Craig Barton has been involved in teaching maths for 15 years. He is the Head of Education at Eedi, the TES Maths Adviser, the author of the best-selling books “How I wish I’d taught maths” and “Reflect, Expect, Check, Explain”, the host of the Mr Barton Maths Podcast, the creator of mrbartonmaths.com, diagnosticquestions.com, variationtheory.com, ssddproblems.com and mathsvenns.com, and Visiting Fellow at the Mathematics Education Centre at the University of Loughborough. He currently has a range of online courses available here craigbarton.podia.com