Whispers of Despair from the Forgotten Frontline?

Image by Oriel Butcher

Unless you’ve been a teacher, or lived with one, it’s hard to imagine how much they actually care about their students. Apart from the occasional anomaly I think that applies across the full range of what could loosely be covered by the word ‘teacher’: from pre-school to doctorate level and everything in between. Questions of how best to help their students keeps a teacher awake at night. Preparing materials and marking work consumes your evenings and weekends, dealing with statutory and administrative requirements…sometimes parents, guardians, social services, probation services, deprivation…It all adds stress to a teacher’s working day, but they care deeply and a small part of them is invested in every single student…Every student, whoever they become, is part of our future. Teachers know that and they dedicate their energy to those futures in the best ways each knows how. Over years they hone their skills and available resources within their setting. And then almost overnight it all went on line…

The shift to online happened almost silently to the public eye and ear, as organisations rallied internally to rise to the challenge as quickly as possible. Emails and online-meetings flew back and forth between management, colleagues, admin, students…a few weeks of mayhem, then business as usual. Except of course it’s nothing like usual and the silence is almost ominous.

First, lists of resources began to appear, hastily compiled and shared on social media. Dave Cormier’s collection from across his network is the most comprehensive I’ve found so far: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Rz4qjMRLA9dVx2ExxTwBg1FtXMVh5ruQMQTs4eG3_oc/edit

Then the almost silent, fleeting whimpers of pain started to appear as excellent teachers and educators suffered multitudes of difficulties while trying to continue serving their students. The result: stress, self-doubt and even self-hate. This morning I read a Tweet from an educator I deeply respect along the lines of “Please God help me to pass today without screaming at my child”. My heart broke for her as my respect grew. Respect for her honesty. Another educator Tweeting in a cry of despair said “I waited ten years to have my daughter and now I just want her to shut up so I can get on and sort my students out.”.

Everything has changed for teachers and their students, and now they are in limbo again waiting for the next directive that will impact their entire lives. And as with every single one of the policy changes they’ve had to deal with over the years, they’ll do their best to do what they’re told, or make it up when they’re not told, with just occasional whimpers escaping.

Stepping back from the stress

I’m in the slightly strange position of not being directly involved in any of it but feeling totally invested. Having spent the 10 years up to 2016 more or less full time as a teacher educator and then a further two mentoring teacher educators, I cannot help but think about all of them right now. My ‘thing’ from the beginning was integrating digital technologies, leveraging the Web 2.0 applications and trying to ensure that teachers and organisations were adequately equipped for the inevitable future. I worked with many cross and multi-sector organisations on different Professional Development programmes, almost all based around effective use of technology. It was a very, very slow and surprisingly difficult process with many wide-ranging barriers. As we are all now painfully aware, embedding of digital skills and technology in education has not progressed quite as much as it might have. Innovation needs a driving force to create change. We have that now, big time. At first it was really hard for me to watch from such a distanced perspective. My instinct was to get in there and help where I could, but realistically I can’t just now, so I observe with a growing pride in the profession as they just get on with it. They don’t even get any clapping. But there’s also a growing worry as the whimpers begin to emerge…

And I remember, there’s value in being outside and able to look at the bigger picture, not just my own corner which is where I’d inevitably be (along with everyone else) if I was actually teaching….With four international colleagues on my Open University MA in Online and Distance Education, we are tasked to create a website. The focus of the task is the design process, but the content of our site is ‘Providing teacher support in response to CV-19’. Our group meets and discusses how we’ll address the challenge and we find that actually, despite being based in England, Wales, Ireland, Brazil and Malawi, we are all at base, finding the same problems. I root around a bit and discover, unsurprisingly, that there’s little research out there as yet so it seems the obvious thing to do is to collect our own. I’ve been collecting my own data for many years, a habit I think I started as a means of tracking and evidencing outcomes when piloting new ideas and initiatives so I was a little surprised that others don’t seem to have done the same. There is another cohort working on the same topic as us. I was surprised to read that as there was no research available specifically relevant to the current situation, they plan to draw on previous research. That led me to wonder why large, well-networked organisations haven’t implemented some wide-scale, snapshot research themselves? With a sigh I return to typing out my survey and surmise that it sums up the lumbering, slow moving education system that has, until now, viewed technology as an optional add-in. A system whereby changes have to be justified through longitudinal studies or cabinet changes – both outpaced by the exponential advances in technology and how we use it and access learning.

I’ve been surprised by the responses so far. Maybe not surprising is that 80% of teachers say they’ve suffered a lot or some stress as a result of going online. It’s interesting that 80% also identify student lack of motivation as a cause of most student difficulty. I’ve also been surprised by comments that answering the questions helped to prompt personal reflection about practice and the teachers and students under someone’s responsibility – bonus! Comments expressing interest and surprise that I’m inviting participatory research. How else to find out I wonder? If I was teaching I’d be questioning my students, my colleagues and my professional networks constantly, trying to gauge the route to take in this unprecedented situation…Then I remember – if I was teaching I would be consumed by keeping my little little bit of world going and exhausted by my efforts. Trying to think outside of even more boxes is just too much to ask so maybe that’s where already being on the outside can help.

I’m excited about being part of this project. For me it’s not about the university outcome of the design process. It’s about actually understanding what’s going on for educators and their students in different contexts around the globe and seeking ways to support them now and into the future.

Be kind to yourselves

That’s become a sort of motto within our little cohort. It’s impossible to be kind to everyone else in your life if you’re not kind to yourself and just because you’re dealing with a world of change doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher, or a bad parent, or a bad manager. Find the moments, however brief, to step back from the stress and let your mind wander. Dwell on the successes, the moments of elation and the all the solutions to problems you’ve found so far.

When I wrote the survey it was with the thinking that responses would help to inform future, more focused questions. Immediately I want to drill down much deeper into the question of motivation. Ideally I’d like access to students as well to get their perspectives. Please share (and complete) if you find yourself reading this. the survey

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