And it came to pass that, with no oversight from Ofsted, no national masterplan, no governor monitoring visits, together with their fellow staff members and leadership teams, literally overnight, teachers switched from their carefully-crafted long, medium and short term plans for lessons and teaching, and… learning continued. Yes, what has replaced it isn’t something entirely comparable, because we are navigating an international crisis. The idea recently tweeted by Lord Adonis that Ofsted should in the imminent future be auditing and assessing the quality of current arrangements is a nonsense, and unhelpful nonsense which insults our teachers and schools. Similarly, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s suggestion that teachers work evenings and weekends to “catch up” after lockdown does similar disservice to the amazing thing which has happened through our teachers and our schools since they closed to most pupils. Nobody is pretending that what is currently happening is what anyone would have planned in an ideal world because, guess what? These are not ideal circumstances, and yet teaching has continued to be available, not only to the children of key workers who continue to come onto school sites, but at a distance, too. Resources get to pupils. Opportunities to collaborate in learning with others continue by other means. A friendly face from school can appear on a computer, tablet or phone screen, or an encouraging voice can be heard over the phone. And, though you’d have to strain hard to hear the national applause for teachers singled out among the Thursday night “Cacophany for Keyworkers”, their share of the applause is surely due, though they have never sought it for themselves. Teachers have performed this minor miracle with no fuss, whilst under a lot of stress, with households of their own to rejig and navigate, whilst having to deal, in some cases, with pressure and criticism from parents and carers who believe something different ought to be happening. And despite doing this with no notice to speak of, they have done it well.
One thing we as a nation should be learning from this is that we can trust teachers and headteachers. It turns out that teachers and headteachers would not have been coasting complacently along were it not for the prospect of assessment and inspection. That insidious narrative is, I hope, dead and buried, Lord Adonis’ gibbering notwithstanding. I am really proud to be a governor of St Mary’s C.E. Primary School in Boston Spa. The way our staff have risen to the challenge has been wonderful. Their professionalism was never in doubt, and nor was their ability to teach, but they have proven themselves invaluable to families not only in terms of continuing to offer teaching, but also by being an anchor for children as history swirls around them, and helping children realise their own strength to meet the challenge of these unsettling times. All this at the same time as continuing to teach the children and support parents in managing lockdown by providing some valuable structure to the days, and resources to use at home. They are living out the Christian ethos of the school in how they lovingly serve their pupils, and model how the school’s values continue to be key to seeing everyone through the current situation. They continue to be there for them. They are not virtual teachers in virtual classrooms: the teaching and learning is real, it’s still on offer, and so is the teacher-pupil relationship.
From 12 years experience as a school governor in various schools, I know that monitoring and assessment were never the drivers for good teaching – that isn’t why they are important. They were, at their heart, tools for the teaching staff themselves: that’s why they are important! The real drivers of good teaching were the teachers all along. Many of us, especially school governors. are saying: “We told you so!”, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which the government decide to trust teachers and headteachers as our national future unfolds and the way “back to school” is navigated. It was because of who teachers are, their strength of character, commitment to the children, their professionalism and their amazing levels of skill at their job, that this new way of doing school has happened. It’s not perfect, of course – it’s a work in progress, and it hasn’t happened uniformly across the country, or even between similar schools in the same area. Some are Zooming a lot, others bob in and out of Google classrooms, and yet others are working via Microsoft Teams or using myriad other means to do this initially-scary, new, live online stuff. Classroom management skills online are a different beast. Interpersonal relationships play out differently there and there is netiquette to learn and different forms of safeguarding issues and protocols to implement. A lot of teachers. though, haven’t been doing heaps of live, online teaching, and that is fine, it really, really is, and do you know why? It’s because they are professional teachers, and they know how to teach. It also highlights the eternal truth that teaching is a collaborative act between teachers, pupils and parents and carers, and the new balance towards a more immediate and proximal involvement of the adults at home in the learning has been challenging in a lot of cases. But in terms of what teachers have been offering, it isn’t about the medium, or the resources first and foremost: they’re just the tools, so parents who worry that the school their child is at isn’t doing enough live screen stuff can rest easy. Teachers know how to use the tools available, and they put the learning and welfare of the kids first, which doesn’t always mean that the shiniest, newest bit of tech gets used. Teachers know what they can do with the new technology, and what its limitations are, and what their own strengths and limitations are. That is what informs what gets used. Teachers know what will work well with their own teaching style, even as they adapt that style to fit new times. And they know their pupils: they know what to provide to help kids and their households get through this. In supporting learning as they currently are, teachers are helping families through this current period of uncertainty, change and discombobulation. They continue to play a pastoral role in children’s lives. And they have performed this minor miracle with little applause, in a way which puts them and their own households at risk by continuing to go into schools to risk cross infection with a number of households which, by the very nature of the work the parents and carers do, are high risk. The other side of the equation is the parents and carers who have doubtless had new insight into the challenge of teaching and learning themselves, often as they try to work from home themselves. The thing is… children will learn whatever happens. The most important thing they will learn at the moment will be informed by how the adults closest to them react to events. Members of their household, together with the teaching staff at school (and perhaps even other adults they know such as the local vicar if they see him online, too) will teach this generation how our values and personalities are the key to tackling life’s challenges.
St Mary’s school had already taken up Galatians 5:22-23 as its key Bible verses to act as our guiding light, even before we entered our current circumstances. I thank the staff of St Mary’s for living out these verses and communicating the Gospel far more effectively than any sermon I could give on them. In these verses, St Paul encourages Christians in troubling times. Around them, the world is full of “rotten fruit”, namely that people are doing their own thing, not anchored in God’s ways, and living in a way which hurts others deeply, and does not make for a loving society in which things on earth are more like they are in heaven. By contrast, Paul encourages them to live lives which reveal contrasting fruit: Fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control should be evident, and in every single element of this fruit, the teaching and support staff of St Mary’s have not been found wanting.
Thank you for being a blessing to so many, and God bless you all. And hang in there…
*Author’s note: the views expressed are my own and are not presented on behalf of anyone else, or any bodies of which the author is a member*