A queue of 14-year-olds has formed outside my classroom. There is no teacher inside because I have forgotten I’m meant to be teaching Year 10 first period. Late and panicking, I hurry to greet my students but can’t remember their names and don’t recognise their changed faces behind their masks. With no lesson prepared I stand rooted to the front of the class — as the government has instructed all teachers to do — and start singing (badly) the songs from the musical Hamilton. At this point, the principal walks into my classroom and asks what the hell I think I’m doing.
At the beginning of every school term I have anxiety dreams about being unprepared for my classes but never have the dreams been as vivid or as bad as this time. Before the first day back I wake in a sweat at 3am and arrive at school to find my colleagues have been suffering similar night-time tortures. If returning to school after a gap of nearly six months is this stressful for us, what will it be like for the children?
The first day turns out to be a relative doddle, as it’s teachers only. I arrive at the red-brick building and let myself in with a pass I last used on March 20. It still works. Reception looks identical. Upstairs in the maths office there is my desk. There are my colleagues, and the principal — all are exactly as they were.
Not everything is the same of course, but the new guidelines seem manageable enough. There is a new timetable with staggered starts and breaks so the year groups can be in “bubbles”. Every desk must be disinfected between lessons. All of us are issued with a visor and told it is “advisable” to put it on if we need to leave the front of the class to write in a student’s planner.
For the students, the school year starts in stages. First come the little Year 7s in their enormous new blazers and their badly tied ties. They seem pretty anxious, but the new kids always are at this east London comprehensive as it is one of the strictest schools in the country. The awesome display of discipline in the hall first thing is the same as in previous years — only with the added novelty that the member of staff in charge of retying the most wayward neckwear makes a point of sanitising his hands before he touches each quaking 11-year-old and putting on a stretchy black face mask that makes him look like a cat burglar.
The next day the older year groups pour through the school gates, buzzing with excitement. I have no difficulty recognising my students, even though some of them have grown so much that instead of looking up at me they now have to bend their heads to meet my eye. I spot a boy who was last seen back in March punching the air in delight at the school closing. He, along with half the students at the school, is on free school meals — suggesting his living quarters were not the most compendious place to be cooped up in — and, as with 40 per cent of his peers, has spent lockdown doing precisely no work at all.
“Are you pleased to be back?” I ask.
“Yes Miss,” he replies swiftly. From the smile on his lips I think he means it.
Many of the students have, like me, spent the night before in wakeful anxiety, but once through the gates found everything spookily normal. “It’s just, like, school, yeah?” as one student put it.
This, it occurs to me, is the beauty of routine. Its effect on us is so overwhelmingly powerful that it seems, for the first few days at least, to have trumped any trauma of lockdown. But even though I’m stuck by my students’ sangfroid, I’m not entirely deceived by it. I have just sat through a safeguarding session warning that any pupils with existing mental health problems are likely to be in worse shape than they were in March, and that others will have suffered from anxiety, self-harm, insomnia and abuse. I scan the face of one student I’m particularly worried about and ask how she is.
“Good, Miss,” she answers straight back.
Just wait, warn more experienced colleagues. It is too early to see the problems. Give it a few weeks.
As well as worrying about my students, I’m also worried I will have forgotten how to teach, so have planned my first lesson within an inch of its life. I know it’s going to be harder than usual teaching my Year 11 class — the gaps between them were wide enough anyway and now will be worse.
Third period on Monday finds the real me, unlike my dream self, in the playground on time to collect my Year 11 students from their line-up. I march them to the classroom where they each take a piece of tissue while I squirt disinfectant on their tables.
So far so good. I’ve planned some dead easy questions, starting with the almost insultingly basic “What is GDP?” to get them in the swing of things and give them some confidence. I set them to work and squint at their books from a safe distance.
GDP is Gross Demand Production, writes a student who used to know this sort of thing. Other students do equally badly, which is more than disappointing given that they spent two whole months studying GDP last autumn. I would be in despair were it not for one thing. The students who gave wrong answers seem unusually keen to know the right ones and are eagerly writing them down in green pen.
I ask the other teachers if they have noticed an unusual hunger for knowledge and they say they have. What is happening here? Is it that having been deprived of education for so long, the students now value it more?
How long is this keenness going to last, I ask a senior colleague. Same for them as it is for us, he says. They’ll be flagging before half-term.
The gaps are only one problem. A second is that, with half a year’s work to catch up on, as well as previous work forgotten, I am going to have to teach the rest of the course at breakneck speed to cover the syllabus before the exams next summer. I am clear about this: the best way I can help my students is by mounting the biggest spoon-feeding operation ever. They need to get good grades to get a decent start in life — for most of them, there are no safety nets.
For their sakes I will slavishly teach to the exam, but my heart is heavy. Lockdown has made the government act as if GCSEs and A-levels were the point of education; it is as if they have forgotten that exams are merely proof that you’ve acquired some.
But the saddest thing of all for a teacher of macroeconomics is that everything the textbook says about fiscal policy is now wrong. Most laughably it says that governments strive to balance their budgets.
Towards the end of Monday’s lesson, I let slip that UK government debt has now risen above £2tn, and it’s not the end of the world because interest rates are so low money is virtually free.
“Yes but Miss,” one of my more average students pipes up. “I’m not being funny, but what if interest rates go up, then won’t they have to pay back a massive amount of money?”
Were it not for social distancing and were it not for child protection rules that forbid that sort of thing, I would have hugged him. As it was I gave him an achievement point and hugged myself instead. There is a point in teaching. The children want to learn. It’s not easy, but at the precise moment of writing this, still on a high from being finally back at school, I think it may all work out just about OK in the end.
Lucy Kellaway is a co-founder of Now Teach and a former FT management columnist
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