This is NOT so normal

ACS Teacher during COVID

Dr. Robert Harrison, ACS Education Strategy Director November 2020

Around the country and the world, teachers are having to re-think everything as if it’s their first year on the job. I remember my first year as a middle school teacher. I have never been so tired, before or since.

And this so-called ‘next normal’ sometimes doesn’t feel very normal at all. Students in their seats, apart, facing forward. Parents in their cars. Competitions cancelled. Trips postponed. Chilly classrooms. Quarantines and self-isolation. Travel complications. Tiers and tears. Handwashing, cleaning, masks. Schedules, facilities, transportation and catering, all upended. Not even a little downtime in the staff room to sit close and talk with the friend you need to help you get through a tough day. No Trunk or Treat!

Last month I covered a ninth grade English class for a teacher who was out of school that day. I was 2 metres away from the action, busily disinfecting my desk because it had been recently vacated by another substitute teacher. When it was time for lunch, we all put on our face coverings, and left the room, single file from the back.

We all are thrilled to be back on campus, learning with teachers and students in the same physical space. We are also working harder than ever before to maintain standards and meet the changing needs of our learning communities.

Seventy percent of ACS academic and general staff report that they are spending more time and energy on work than in a ‘normal’ year.

Most school staff have to be physically present to do their job, even in our current national lockdown. The well-rounded educational experience and interactive learning environments that we value aren’t always best delivered at/from home, online. ‘Education and child care’ is one of eight key worker occupation groups in the UK, and rightly so. Schools have a privileged place in community and family life; caring for and educating children is a top national and international priority. That means that staff in the education sector (including independent fee-paying schools)  are making a herculean effort to ensure that learning is the best it can possibly be, within the abnormal constraints imposed on us by concern for each other’s health, safety and wellbeing.

Almost everyone is feeling the strain. As winter approaches, and we cope with a second period of national interventions, school staff are often concerned about their own health and the wellbeing of their families. Like other internationally-oriented people, ACS employees have far-flung connections, and are often living away from home and loved ones. The stressors are consistent across the ACS community, and they’ can be heightened for staff who cannot work from home.

No one is feeling all that normal this year. So much is beyond our control right now. I think the only way we will make it through these strange times is together.

ACS Students during COVID

How can you help? Here are six suggestions.

Say thank you, genuinely and often. We are so grateful for the support and encouragement that many ACS staff members have received from our engaged parent communities. When things are nor normal, a kind word or expression of encouragement goes a long way. Gratitude is an excellent antidote to stress, fear and anger.

Expect things to be different, and sometimes difficult. We remain committed to the highest standards of safety and education. But that’s often going to be defined and enacted differently during a pandemic that’s changed so many standard ways of working. Pacing and priorities are likely to be altered. Tried, true, trusted and treasured classroom activities and learning engagements may be re-engineered, or sometimes set aside for a socially-distanced approach. Emails may take longer to answer, too.

Remember that everyone is not OK. School leaders are working every day to find effective ways to support staff, including teachers. But we know some people are facing exceptional challenges personally, professionally, medically and in terms of their own mental health. In times of extraordinary stress and workload, any of us may not necessarily always be our best self. And this is important: ask for help if things are not OK in your household or with your children -skilled helpers and a range of resources are available to support your family.

Be gentle - with yourself and others. Please be mindful of our common human frailties. Senior school leaders are carrying extraordinary responsibilities these days. Respectful, appreciative inquiry is always welcome; but disrespectful, bitter complaining is more difficult to manage when you’re tired and anxious. It takes more empathy and patience when you’re navigating through a crisis.

Stay positive. We have so much to be grateful for - not the least of which is being able to be back on campus. Even if it becomes necessary for some students to move online for a while later this year, we are prepared, and it will be so much easier having begun in person. We are lucky and privileged in so many ways, with dedicated teachers and school leaders, access to technology, and excellent facilities teams. We can help to keep each other safe.

We know that some students will struggle, but if we support them through their challenges, a little struggle is not such a bad thing. Trust in your children’s ability to grow, and be proud of their resilience. Some good things are coming out of this long, strange year - including new and better ways of learning and teaching. It won’t be this way forever. Find little joys to celebrate.

 

Finally: Please, please, please - insist that your children follow the rules about gathering and interacting with others. When students come in contact with positive cases of COVID-19, they not only have to isolate themselves, but they can potentially become ill and create conditions that keep many other students away from school. For older students, it’s especially difficult right now, because staying safe means going against their developmental needs and genuine desire to socialise. Parents can set good examples, support online connections, promote positive discipline, and provide perspective. Extra sympathy is a good idea, too!

 

Life is undoubtedly more complex right now. It’s a time to be generous with ourselves and forgiving of others. The best ‘new normal’ includes some extra room for each other--not only for physical distancing, but also for the social-emotional space and grace we will all need to make it through this decidedly not-so-normal year.