Teaching in the Time of Covid-19

  • Not to be confused with the Gabriel Garcia Marquez classic, Love in the Time of Cholera….

Check on the teachers in your life because they are exhausted. Teaching in the middle of a pandemic is one of the biggest challenges of my teaching career. One of the biggest challenges comes down to health and wellbeing, both of myself and of the children I teach. COVID-19 has changed our world and we are collectively dealing with the effects in real-time, as are our children.

The stress and impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of our population is yet to be fully measured, but it will have a long-term impact on both adults and children. It is important to recognise the impact for ourselves in order to support those we care for too, including the children in our care. Emotional trauma experienced by children doesn’t necessarily end when the difficult time is over. Studies have shown that it’s consequences can last a lifetime. There is evidence showing that adult health problems, mental health struggles, relationship and behavioural difficulties all have their origins in childhood stress. With this in mind, it is essential that we take this current collective trauma seriously and understand the possible long-term consequences for our children if swept aside.

A Finnish study in 2013 demonstrated that emotions are physical and leave physiological traces. While we may think that some emotions are fleeting, if we experience an emotion often enough it can change the way our body functions. (Nummenmaa, 2013).

This global pandemic has now been happening for more than half the year and, unfortunately, is showing no signs of slowing down until a vaccine can be found. This means we will continue to go through spikes of the virus in the near future. One of the key things that helps slow the virus down if there is community infection is the closure of places where there are large gatherings of people – of which, schools are pretty high on the list. Earlier this year, I spent 16 weeks teaching virtually due to my school being closed. For the majority of this time, the children I was teaching were also in lockdown and having limited opportunities for going outside or being social. They were unable to continue to build connections outside their home.

Children thrive on connection. Attachment is the biological need for relationships that all human beings are born with. It is especially important in the early years of life as it shapes the way our brain and body handles emotions. Attachment-theory tells us that there is an instinctive priority of attachment over the brain’s exploratory system – feeling safe and secure is more important than learning. Additionally, connections in the brain are reduced and lost through toxic stress. Fewer connections mean it is more difficult to utilise the brain capacity and learn effectively. 

This applies to both children and adults. We are social creatures and we rely on connection to not only thrive, but to survive. As a teacher, I instinctively build connections not only with the children in my care but, as a result, with their families too. And yet, this year, my introduction to many new families was socially distanced and from behind a mask.

I welcome children to school every morning while holding hand sanitiser, a thermometer and wearing a mask. They don’t see my huge smile as they arrive or receive the gentle touch of connection that I would naturally offer – a hug, a high five, whatever way they want to say hello. Instead, their first interaction with me is a temperature check and a squirt of hand sanitiser while I desperately try to show my smile through my eyes and offer them the reassurance that, while everything has changed, we will try and keep things as normal as we can.

In the classroom, we are constantly reminding children to wear their masks if they are close to each other, to only use their own individual equipment, to sit on the assigned distanced spots, to wash their hands between activities, and to try not to hug and touch their friends… it is soul-destroying. Yes, we are keeping them safe and minimising the risk of the virus spreading if it is within the community, but as a teacher, I am so lost.

I’ll say it. I am tired and frustrated. Within Virtual School, I felt like we could manage it better because the expectations were clear and we could build up our connections and support in the online classroom without the cognitive dissonance of a socially distanced classroom. In the classroom, I feel like I am not being a good teacher because the environment that I would create for children to learn most effectively is not this environment. The happy, cosy bubble of a classroom family that thrives within a teaching year can’t exist under these circumstances. Our children are missing out on the essential connections that are built within this time and, while we try to protect them from the emotional and mental impact of this, it is highly likely that the connections in their brains are shifting and being damaged by this long-term stress.

You see, I can see it in their eyes when they arrive in class in the morning. Wide-eyed and concerned, they come into my classroom, say good morning to me and wait a beat…. wait for the instruction to do ‘something’. I say good morning and, rather than ask them what they want to do first today, I ask if they have got their name on their mask and sanitised their hands, then direct them to a ‘spot’ to sit at. How cold a welcome to school! It is a stark contrast to children bouncing into the classroom like the happy bundles of curiosity that they are, immediately diving into an activity, surrounded by friends in close proximity, bubbling over with excitement and questions and touch and hugs and smiles and love.

I am so deeply worried about our children and their experience of learning in this time. I am deeply worried about our teachers and their experiences and compromises in their teaching at this time. Albert Einstein said ‘I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.’ These conditions are not optimal.

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