I spent most of last Friday, the day on which schools in England had to shut their doors to all but the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils, recording our pupils going to, or in, the last face-to-face classes we were sure to be experiencing for several weeks, if not months. There wasn’t much planning involved but as I read through Covid-19 Bulletin 5 from the Government or a sister communication from the brilliant organisations which have been supporting schools, I realised that I wanted to see the pupils and colleagues I knew I wouldn’t be seeing for a while, not on a screen, but in the flesh. Year 13 were milling around, resigned to the government-led postponement of their celebratory last day (we will mark their departure with proper fanfare!), making the best of opportunities to say thank you and goodbye to teachers and friends alike, and cheerfully, politely breaking the schoolchild regulations they had observed so well for so long in an attempt to fast forward the rite of passage to adult life. Others were piling into the library to take advantage of the offer to lend ‘as many books as you can carry’, and staggered home, bags bursting with reading. Scanning those news feed photos, full of sheepish grins and uncertain excitement, over the weekend as we limbered up to launching Highgate@Home, I wondered how we would keep that sense of connection and belonging alive.
Of course, working from home with your nearest and dearest has its comic and its hapless moments: conducting a Skype recruitment interview, I suffered the indignity of my laptop running out of charge, the noisy printer disgorging one of my children’s early Highgate@Home worksheets, a cat jumping on to the keyboard and the rhythmic thud from above of another child doing his SpEx workout with backing vocals, apparently with half his year group joining in. The interviewee took it all in his stride and was noticeably better adapted and prepared for his online encounter with Highgate School that I was. Funny what you notice: other people’s taste in potted plants and their fridge magnets, for example.
Just a week ago, Senior School teachers gathered for a crash course in ‘at-a-distance teaching’, and four days later, we were putting our training to the test. Rooting around to see what my colleagues have been doing, in order not to be outclassed in my own efforts to keep Year 9 German on the go, I’ve been struck by the inventiveness and adaptability on offer: colleagues have quickly got over shyness of doing their own David Attenborough voice-overs, and there’s a magical mix of the technologically astute (smart clips and animated diagrams) with the reassuringly straightforward, familiar explanation. Clearly, Highgate is not immune to teething problems and technical glitches but nonetheless, teacher voice and connection have felt real. I loved the art ‘survival kits’ and the daily listening suggestions from the Music Department or the painting a day from their Art History colleagues. And the ‘Daily Dose’, while it is aimed at our young people and the one-off gift of time they will have to gain new skills and hone older ones, has opened my eyes to the silver linings we must grasp in the midst of the seclusion which the virus’s spread has imposed.
It’s not only that Tom and Jerry, feline stars of this blog and our life, get to spend more purring time with us, or that our Year 13 child, already flexing his independence muscles, has been forcibly and charmingly re-woven into the fabric of our daily living, or that my wife and I, having first met team-teaching a wayward Year 12 class a quarter of a century ago, have time to discuss the pros and cons of literature versus topic teaching in the spring-time sun: no, in the shadows of the pandemic’s reach, we count and re-count our blessings, and regain consciousness of all that community and connection and belonging bring us, of how much we take for granted, how much we may stand to lose. For once, it seems, digital connection, while it can’t answer our fears about what the future holds, will help to keep isolation and its effects at bay; perhaps we are learning to re-live this uncertain life, tending those we might neglect, and making time for those we know and those we love.
Keep safe, keep well, keep in touch.