So, there I am, trying to pin a tail on a donkey – in a blindfold – at a kiddie party. It’s eerily quiet because I’m also in a police interrogation room; children and parents are behind police mirrors, watching me, listening. At some point, I lift my mask to discover an elephant, an elephant in the room, not a donkey after all, now sporting a donkey’s tail instead of a trunk. Silent waves of laughter and derision pound in my ears.
I woke from this dream far too often during lockdown, wishing it could be a normal school day. You see, in a classroom, I know the rules. I’m not perfect but I’m in the right ballpark at least. I can see and hear it in my students’ reactions, in their contributions from the stands. Lockdown teaching was different. I didn’t receive any feedback, beyond the odd emoji. I couldn’t see faces, couldn’t assess moods or feelings.
I also seemed to be working differently to every other teacher I chatted with, including my own husband, and it made me feel uneasy. He’s a primary teacher and is connected to his laptop via his naval, the unsightly cord criss-crossing our daily, frazzled family life. He’s cutting it this weekend. We might have a ceremony.
Primary students need more guidance of course, but his voice messages to students every night via Seesaw became irritating. Countless times I’d come into the sitting room to be told he’d have to ‘start again.’ Fair enough, I was usually singing, or saying/wearing something embarrassing, but what else is a sitting room for? As a secondary teacher, I was afforded more flexibility. ‘Age is everything,’ I told neighbours, chatting across the green in the afternoons. ‘Students are far more independent by secondary,’ I assured them.
This is why I worked mornings only. My husband worked afternoons, evenings and nights. I marked work from one class and set tasks for another every day. Was I teaching? Not necessarily. I was providing feedback, via a school app, so I was instructing them certainly, but real teaching is live; it’s an orchestral performance, a tennis match of participation, questions and answers, back and forths. Of course, without Zoom classes, I wasn’t doing any of that.
And why wasn’t I Zooming, you might ask? My school decided not to use it. Should I have been? I was still getting paid my hourly rate to teach. In other schools, particularly in international schools, students were on screen all day. Old colleagues of mine in Abu Dhabi were working non-stop. I wasn’t. I was doing a few hours a day. In other schools in Ireland, I’d friends Zooming too. I braved the screen only once to say goodbye and good luck at the end of the year. Have I been a bad distance teacher? It’s very possible.
This is where the donkey/elephant comes from, because it’s stressful, not knowing what’s expected of you. The Department of Education sent out guidelines to all schools at the start of April. But these were suggestions, citing examples of different practices, ranging from ringing parents to recording hour-long classes to setting independent tasks via email.
The document called for ‘regular engagement of students in lessons, tasks and learning experiences across the range of curriculum areas or subjects.’ I certainly didn’t teach lessons. I may have sent PowerPoints but no lessons happened on my watch, simply because my school decided against them. And I don’t blame them for that. It would have been difficult for students with connectivity issues, with behavioural issues, with special needs.
But for whatever reason, schools approached this time in unrecognisably different ways and the disparity of parent experience during lockdown was huge. Some felt disappointed by their teachers’ resources and their school’s level of communication. One couple we met in the park said they were ‘disgusted’, that they ‘simply couldn’t recommend their school anymore.’
Others felt truly supported, even inspired on occasion. Some teachers wrote postcards and letters. Some teachers sent out surveys to see how parents were feeling. Really lovely things happened during this period and it’s great that people began to appreciate the teacher’s role in their child’s life. But the mere range of experience reminds us that there is no uniformity across our state school system. Lockdown highlighted this in a very public and exposing way. If we’d a fairer and more cohesive system to begin with, the Department might have been able to do something more than make vague suggestions. We might have managed a cohesive response.
Of course, I don’t expect all schools to be the same but I’m not sure they should be quite so different either. Some schools in Ireland simply aren’t equipped to engage with technology and very many students still lack access. According to CSO statistics from 2019, 9% of Irish homes still lack connectivity. Teachers did their best and I know I worked hard over the period, however I might doubt myself.
But we should reflect on how differently we approached it, on a school-by-school basis. Because it’s telling us something. I missed my students and my classroom over lockdown and I missed knowing the rules of the game. I’m eager to see them in real time again. I might be wearing a mask in September, but I’ll take it over a blindfold in an empty interrogation room any day.