I popped down to the Junior School hall last week to see how the lateral flow testing was going. It was the turn of Year 9 pupils and I was hoping I might catch sight of some of the pupils in my German class: even though we have been meeting over Zoom twice a week since January, I haven’t seen them (or anyone else, of course) in 3D and was finding it difficult to wait until the day of our official return to face-to-face school to say hello in person. You can’t really tell how much a fourteen-year-old has grown physically or emotionally in a Zoom classroom, but I am guessing a lot has happened and I was, am, curious to know how they are faring.
As it turned out, my pupils weren’t among those lining up to enter the hall which had been transformed into a testing centre: nine pristine white booths, curtained and traffic-lit, staffed by an enthusiastic army of kind parent and carer volunteers who admitted that this was for some of them the first beyond-the-home experience they had had since Christmas. As I tapped on the improvised entrance, I cheerily asked a pupil whether he was looking forward to Monday and thus to seeing his friends. The slightest of hesitations hung in the air as he brushed the lockdown locks out his eyes, and my words, stupidly formulaic as they were, hovered between us: I realised that he had mixed feelings which were coming to the surface on this first encounter with school life in three months. And why shouldn’t he?
The re-opening of schools in England has understandably prompted a lot of reflection on the impact on pupils of what we have seen over those last three months. Of course, there’s a lot of concern about the loss in learning which some pupils will have suffered and the best means of catching up. But then there is also the rise in anxiety which has been detected in young people. The media coverage which tends to sensationalise, well, almost anything, to grab our attention, impresses on us the importance of having good mental health and understanding what gets in the way of it: there’s no doubt that changes of the kind our children will have witnessed will have had unforeseen consequences, and not all of them positive by any means. But it’s also possible for children to be anxious, to feel anxiety about the unknown, and for this anxiety to be ok, for it to fall in the range of emotional experiences which they can cope with. Which parent and carer doesn’t remember the anxiety about their children starting school: for all we say and do, we know that the anxiety will only dissipate once a child has made that first, freshly be-blazered journey into school and made it through a first day, a first week. We know that we can’t bat that anxiety to one side; we know that we need to listen and to reassure, not only that everything will work out well and what the basis of that confidence is, but that feeling anxious is a normal reaction to the unknown, and certainly not the preserve of the young.
It’s a little tough, and even a little unfair, that this lockdown means we – and I mean pupils, parents and staff even if it’s the pupils we have at the forefront of our imagination at the moment – have to re-acquaint ourselves with this kind of anxiety, whether it’s about friendships and fitting back in, or whether it’s about being well placed for exams now or exams to come, or whether it’s about the risk of infection. These are concerns which will affect each of our children differently: the fact there will be a spectrum of responses including the ‘mixed feelings’ mentioned above, for which we read ‘pretty uncertain’, to the happily carefree shouldn’t be a surprise: it’s fine to be anxious – it doesn’t mean that you are ill or irrational – but it does mean you’ll need listeners when you feel like talking. Which is what schools are about, which is what the return to school will be about.
I expect that for many the eighth of March will be marked by chatty excitement and cheerful re-discovery of a happy familiar. But we will be underlining the importance of making that empathetic leap into our friends’ and colleagues’ minds, realising that schools must cater for those who need time to bed down and for those who want to get cracking, for those who are thrown off their stride by the unfamiliar and those who take each day as it comes, for those who dive in and those who stare at the water. I’m something of a diver in (to metaphorical waters, that is); I’m glad we are thinking about the water-starers.
As I said, I’m fascinated by what I’ll find in Room 13 when live German lessons kick off again. What I’m not at all bothered by (but was, before we went into lockdown) is how much progress we have made: amazed and impressed as I have been by the efficiency and conscientiousness of the Highgate pupil, and touched as I am by the palpable sense of teacher and class bond having somehow grown stronger to bridge the physical gap, I’m also excited by the phenomenon of the pedagogical bounce-back when we are together again. Just wait and see that happen! But I’m also convinced that we aren’t going to return to quite the same normal, and I don’t just mean the continuing and critical health-related routines or the lockdown wins of online parents’ evenings and information briefings: pupils have developed new skills and worked up qualities of resilience and self-propulsion which regular teaching hasn’t always brought out. Coming back should lead us to ask what we want to keep as well as put aside. We hope that no other generation will experience a lockdown, but are there things this lockdown has taught us which we won’t need another lockdown to value?
One footnote: we are all likely to be wearier than normal at the end of a week which will see us getting up earlier; bedtimes may need to move earlier but falling asleep earlier won’t come automatically. It’s fine to be a little weary, and we’ll be bearing that in mind, too!