To all (FE) teachers everywhere

Do you remember August, when you couldn’t imagine how to start? You walked into those echoing classrooms, with spaced-out, haphazard desks like a pre-schooler’s teeth, full of gaps where something valuable used to be, waiting impatiently to be filled with new life; though in this case, that wait might go on for years. Do you remember putting on a visor for the first time and getting vertigo, as though you would be shouting your lessons whilst trapped inside a fishbowl? There was the exhausting uncertainty of new procedures, every walk to the classroom becoming a fraught one way system that introduced you to staircases you never knew existed and blocked off familiar walkways without warning. You stood at the front of the room behind the ominous new screens and tried to remember what it felt like to teach a room full of students, when you hadn’t seen that many people in one place for six months at least; and all you were sure about was how utterly, bone-crushingly weary you were.

Do you remember September, when you thought you couldn’t go on? Each day started with the same PowerPoint, reminding all students that they must wear masks – like this, not like that – and stay at least as far apart as a full-grown alligator. Do you remember wishing you had one of those to hand, sometimes, walking around a room full of strangers as they crowded around you and you felt exposed and out of control? Your days became an endless looping lesson: smile, teach, wipe down the desks, take a deep breath where no one can see it behind your mask; and repeat. Half length lessons to allow for double the space between students; half hearted teaching to allow for the lack of movement, of resources, of relationship-building between everyone in the room.

Green background with yellow writing, saying "physical distancing - keep 1 alligator". Two white stick men with a white alligator between them demonstrates what is meant.

Do you remember October, when you knew for a fact you couldn’t go on? Do you remember that first time you got a call from a student, voice shaking as they told you that they had tested positive, how your heart pounded but your tone was steady as you talked them through what happened next whilst ending the call as quickly as possible to go through the increasingly familiar cycle of who needed to be told, and when, and how much? And the calls kept coming, and your own bubbles burst, and you became an expert in language that never had meaning before, like blended learning, and live-streaming Virtual Learning Environments, and “please don’t swear in this classroom, everything you say is being transmitted to those at home, and their kids are listening too.”

November and December blurred into one; no lockdown for education, no breathing space, no rest. Gather any evidence that you’ve ever completed work because we still don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know if you’ll have exams or not, we don’t know if we’ll be here next week, we don’t know if you will be either. And at last, Christmas came; and with it came the strong supposition that we would not be back after the break; the frantic reorganisation to see as many as possible through mocks, through assessments, through funding-driven paperwork before the clock struck midnight and we turned into too-highly-transmitting pumpkins; the knowledge that we had one afternoon to take everything we would need to prepare for potentially months of remote teaching.

January came, and I remember that. Mixed messages poured from the media, the government, the exam boards, bombarding us with “We know you want to know the answers; we don’t know when we’ll have them.” Students bombarded us, full of fear and uncertainty as they grappled with what might be asked of them, and we, who are so used to having all the answers, had no way of supporting them through. All lessons were live-streamed; all work submitted electronically; and we all spent hours hunched sideways over photographs of blurred handwriting, painstakingly drawing out the good points and the necessary improvements, only to have to start all over again when the mouse jumped and the highlighter flew in the wrong direction and the only way to correct it was to click to remove all ink from the photograph. January was also the month of upgrading home WiFi systems; of children unable to access Zoom calls from school because their teacher-parents had all the household devices in use; of teaching adults who did not know what a [shift] key or the @ symbol were how to hold them both down together to write an email address, and so allow them to access the lesson that was their only form of social contact in a week.

What about February; do you remember that? Do you remember talking to your students about the vaccines, answering their questions, hearing their stories, encouraging them to take it as soon as they were offered it, knowing that your own turn would not come for a long, long time yet? That strange sense of being proud of the care assistants, the school cleaners, the older and vulnerable and desperate individuals you teach and yet, for the first time in the relationship you have built and cultivated for years with your students, also being envious of what they had that you did not.

Do you remember March, with its feeling of being catapulted into a jet stream without being given time to work out where it was going, or how to get out at the end? Bam! Exams are back on for adult students – but to get them all through, they must sit them in 3 weeks. Bam! GCSEs are off and GCSE-style assessments are on; you know your students best, so it’s only fair you work out if they pass or fail; hope you don’t mind playing God with the lives of the people you have invested so much in for the last 6 months? Bam! Here are the new rules, the new requirements you need to remember, the new announcements that need to be made – masks must be stronger, lateral flow tests must be taken and reported, hope should probably be left at the door.

May. Beautiful May, that should draw the year to an close, full of presents and celebrations of the end of a hard year with a definite end. No beautiful May this year, but rather a bleeding into June, an unceasing cycle of exam retakes, and paperwork, and confused decisions that are reversed in minutes, and fear that, after all this, we would receive no funding for these students, forgotten at the best of times, and goodness knows, these are not the best of times; fear that as a result our own jobs would be lost, as rumours began, as rumours always do, about what next year would look like, and feel like, and how hard it will still be.

But do you know what? Now, it is July. And you, who were convinced at every step of this journey that you could not go on, have made it. You have done it. We have done it. And now, finally, superhero that you are, it is time to put down that cape and time, at last, to rest.

A lake with birds swimming on it, with a tree on the right-hand side, and dry earth with roots showing through in the foreground. It's a beautiful early summer day.
Peace. At last.

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