We did a lot of “reflecting” while I was training to teach. This was often an individual activity – reflecting on a lesson or a training session or whatever – but we also had group reflections, where all the PGCE student teachers would sit around and talk about the things we had learned. One of my fellow students introduced the concept of the magical lesson rolodex, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.
Before he started teaching, he assumed that there would be this situation where you’d turn up in the classroom, have some kind of resource – like a magical rolodex – which you would spin to today’s lesson and hey presto! You have a lesson ready to go and the kids’ minds would just fill up with All The Awesome. He found that it didn’t quite work like that, and the amount of work and intellectual effort that went into planning lessons was orders of magnitude beyond what he had expected. Teachers need to think about the lesson content, some of which might be new to them, they need to think about how it is to be taught, which explanations to use, which analogies to employ, what work they are going to set, how they are going to monitor its completion, what they need to do if it goes wrong, how they are going to know if the students understand, as well as all the other stuff like setting and monitoring homework, bits and pieces of medium term admin and so on and so forth. That’s without even mentioning student behaviour.
None of that stuff is necessarily bad or wrong or whatever. It’s the job, it’s what we are paid to do. And, as time goes on, it gets easier and quicker. But for novice teachers it’s a seriously big ask, and brings with it anxiety and a deep sense of worry and, often, an accompanying sensation of failure.
It gets easier with time. But when your context changes, planning lessons and learning reverts back to an incredibly complex and intellectually stressful activity. Even experienced teachers when asked to teach a new course, or when they move schools or even classrooms can find things extremely stressful and destabilising.
Again, it’s a feature of the job – I’m not complaining about it. The reason I bring it up is because the past 9 months or so have been more destabilising than anything that could happen in normal circumstances. As a profession, we’ve been thrown through a loop and feel like we are back at square one. The feelings of anxiety and failure are widespread, despite us working harder than we ever have done before. And when we signal a note of caution, as I have written previously, it’s not because we are lazy, work shy or don’t want to do our jobs. It’s because we think there is a problem.
The last few weeks have been especially turbulent. Getting information to be able to plan has been next to impossible, and it has come in dribs and drabs through the media and muddled speeches from the dispatch box. We don’t know how to plan or what we are supposed to be doing, and we feel back in that place of anxiety and failure again. And now, on New Year’s Eve, the guidance has changed again for what we are supposed to be doing on Monday, in zero working day’s time.
I think some people assume that there’s a magical lesson rolodex. That you can just say to teachers “ok you’re online from Monday!” or “ok you’re in school from Monday!” and it doesn’t really make a difference. They’ll just turn up and get on with it. But it’s not like that at the best of times, and these are the worst of times. The time and intellectual effort that goes into preparing remote learning isn’t trivial, and it has to be done collaboratively across a school to be able to set the right culture and maximise your chances of success. We can’t just swan in with five minutes’ notice and get it done. It doesn’t work like that.
So please, bear in mind the following:
If you are a teacher: this is difficult. Really difficult. But you aren’t a failure. You are doing your best and history will thank you.
If you are a parent: please bear with us. It’s really hard and we are doing the best we can.
If, on the off-chance, you are a government minister: take a minute to actually talk to us. Pick up the phone. Figure out what is going on. What is possible, and what is not possible. And please, please, start communicating with us like grown-up professionals and stop treating us like magic-rolodex-lesson-deliverers.