Today began with tears.
In my wisdom, I had decided it was necessary to disinfect the kitchen. In her wisdom, my daughter had decided to log on to Purple Mash to complete some maths homework.
Every few seconds she was calling me to help her. One moment it was rubber gloves on, the next minute, rubber gloves off.
She was attempting to add fractions together with different denominators. She doesn’t think she has done this in school, and was adding both the numerators and denominators. I explained she was getting it wrong, and talked her through what she needed to do.
She seemed to get it, but then she didn’t. Every time I left her to work on her own she would get lost and call me back. Gloves on. Gloves off. At last, I thought she really understood, so I left her to complete the questions. Gloves on. Back to my disinfecting.
Next thing I hear is her panicky voice calling me again. Gloves off, I return and she is crying. She only got 3 out of 10 correct. Looking at what she’d done, she had managed to get the correct denominator each time but had focused so hard on that process that she’d messed up by adding in every question, missing that some tasks were subtractions, and in some cases she had worked the answer out correctly on paper but typed the wrong answer online.
My daughter very rarely cries. Like all of us this week, I’ve seen my job as a parent primarily to protect the children from fear, panic and sadness as their little lives have been upturned. Confronted by her distress I felt angry and like a complete failure. In my desperation to find a target for my anger, a few thoughts flashed through my head.
This is her school’s fault! Why are they setting her work she hasn’t done yet? Don’t they realise this is getting in the way of me disinfecting the kitchen!?
This is her fault! Why is she doing this on a SATURDAY? Isn’t it enough I’ve been trying to home school her all week and now she expects me to help her all weekend as well? When on earth am I meant to disinfect the kitchen!?
This is my fault! I am an absolute failure as a parent. I explained badly, rushed it and prioritised something else over her at a time when she needs me most. Why on earth am I disinfecting the kitchen anyway?
Of course, the blame game is daft. Just because she doesn’t remember doing it at school, doesn’t mean she hasn’t done it at school. She’s doing it on a Saturday because she’s in the habit of doing her homework on a Saturday, and is hanging on to the precious moments of normality that are available to her. And maybe I am a failure as a parent, or maybe I’m not, but that one moment in my child’s life won’t be the deciding factor in that.
Right now, it is natural to look for somebody to blame: the situation we are all in and the difficulties we are currently experiencing are caused by an enemy without a face. It’s really hard to be angry with a virus that we can’t see and much easier to find a person or group of people to target with our completely understandable anxiety, distress and anger. They become the bad guys.
None of us want to be the bad guys, but at the moment it is really hard to know who is right and who is wrong. In schools we are all making decisions in a situation that is completely new – not only to us, leaving us without a well of experience to draw on, but to everyone else as well, leaving us exposed and vulnerable as we cast around looking for experts that simply do not exist.
My cousin once commented to me that whenever I am faced with a problem or crisis I read a book about it. The problem here is, the book I need hasn’t been written yet.
So accepting that, currently, we are trying to run schools in a situation that is unknown, under huge amounts of anxiety and stress, what should we be doing?
Should we be monitoring what staff do? Should we be monitoring pupil completion of work? Or should we be leaving everyone alone, slow down, and let them be as they come to terms with this new normality? Should we be taking the chance to get everyone completing some CPD? Should we be piloting new remote learning platforms? Or should we just stick to what we already know and avoid complications?
Quite frankly, nobody knows. We have more questions than answers, and anyone offering an answer can only offer their opinion. In time, we will begin to get a sense of what has worked, what decisions were right, and which were wrong, but right now it is too soon to judge. So if we make a wrong call, does that make us the bad guys?
Thinking like that will lead to paralysis. We are all going to make mistakes at the moment, especially as different colleagues and families will respond differently to the crisis unfolding around us. What support should I be offering teachers when some of them are just about getting by, some are extremely anxious about being exposed in school, others are anxious about being isolated at home, others want to experiment with the possibilities of remote learning, and a few want to get their teeth into some professional learning? How much work should we be setting when some pupils and parents will be craving a sense of routine, staying occupied and desiring regular contact with their teachers and classmates, but others are struggling and feeling overwhelmed and want us to back off? It seems unlikely there is a way through this that won’t rub someone up the wrong way – especially in this initial period when we are all coming to terms with what is happening at our own pace.
It’s early days, and my bet is this isn’t going away any time soon. Personally, I’m struggling to balance the urgent desire to do what I can whilst I can, with an instinct that I must take more time to consider the best course of action, especially as the world around us is changing so rapidly.
Accepting this is just my opinion, and that I may well change my mind, this is what I think we should prioritise right now.
As all school leaders are agreed, the foremost focus must be safeguarding. Those calls are essential right now, and long term we need to stay in touch with students we worry about and ensure they are okay. We also need to remember that we may start to worry about children we never worried about before, so thinking about long term systems that will help us stay in touch with everyone will help to ensure nobody slips through the net. Make sure school sites are safe for those coming in. Make sure families know how to access support if they need it. Make sure staff and students know what is acceptable as they contact each other remotely.
I do think we should be setting students work and I do think we should be keeping an eye on who is engaging with it and following up when they are not. Not to chastise or cause anxiety but, honestly, I think engagement is a form of safeguarding right now. I am reassured that whenever students are working they are at home, staying safe. Is the child that isn’t submitting work actually okay? If I haven’t heard from a pupil for a week now, where have they been and what have they been doing? With plenty of work to do and a sense of being held accountable for it, the temptation to go out is surely lessened. Equally, as a parent I know I am grateful to my children’s school for giving me plenty of work to how to keep them occupied. I know not everyone will agree with me, but I think work is essential for our mental health, and I don’t want to risk promoting the idea that if students disengage, nobody will notice or care. But of course, any follow up needs to be supportive rather than punitive, and right now, we probably do need to be flexible in the level of engagement we expect.
This goes for staff and students. Keep talking to your colleagues and encourage them to set up times when they can still meet remotely, chat and support one another. Accept that this will look different for different colleagues. Likewise, with students. How can we communicate with them and what messages do we want to send? Should we set up online assemblies and regular updates that are reassuring and give them a sense of contact? What can we do to maintain a sense of a school being a community when we are not all in the same building?
We’ve all experienced the email that is misinterpreted, or the text message that offends because it is so hard to read tone without facial expression or body language clarify our intent. This week, I’ve witnessed a few heated responses to things that I think would have been dealt with differently in any other circumstance. The combination of missing face to face contact, the exhaustion and worry of the last couple of weeks and the tension we all feel is getting in the way.
Now, more than ever, we need compassionate candour. We need to be honest and direct in asking ourselves and others whether we are getting things wrong. Most of the conversations I have had with colleagues this revolved around the questions, “Have we got this right? What might we be getting wrong?”
When we think we see something that is wrong, we need to hold back on the blame, take a deep breath, and be compassionate in how we tackle it. To the student not engaging with work: let’s ask them why and what we can do to support. Maybe they don’t understand the work or how to submit it? Maybe they haven’t got access to a device at the time we expect them to log on? Maybe they are really struggling with worry and just can’t focus? To the teacher sending stroppy emails to students not engaging with work: let’s ask them why, and how we can support them. Maybe they are stressed and frazzled, living alone and this is the only thing they feel they can have any control over? Or maybe they are struggling to look after their own children whilst setting work and are frustrated because it feels like a total waste of their time. To the SLT member being unreasonable in applying heavy-handed accountability: maybe they are dreadfully worried about the skeleton staff in school, and are concerned about there being a sense of unfairness or resentment brewing if those at home are not held to account?
This is the really unpleasant one, but we must consider what we can do now to prepare for the virus peak. If things develop here as they did in Italy, we have a week or two before we really see the devastating impact of Covid-19. There will be serious illness in families. Staff will fall ill. Some will be very ill. Families will be bereaved. School leaders won’t be immune. This is likely to happen over the Easter holidays. What can we do now, if anything, to ready ourselves for this? What do we need in place that will help us respond when it happens? I don’t have the answer to this, but it is what I will be talking to my colleagues about on Monday.
Throughout all this we need to be kinder and more compassionate than ever. We are all going to get angry, frustrated and devastated, and we are all going to have moments when we make mistakes, jump to poor conclusions and respond badly. When that happens, we can take a moment to stop, think and breathe before we react. Vilifying others who have made a bad call isn’t going to help in the long run.
For now, metaphorically speaking, it’s more important than ever to keep the gloves off.