Why schools must try to move away from Covid talk

We owe it to our students to rediscover language beyond the coronavirus crisis, says deputy head David James
7th September 2020, 11:55am


Why schools must try to move away from Covid talk

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What will we talk about when we stop talking about Covid? What words can we liberate from that distant, more garrulous age before lockdown? 

The conversations we have had since schools closed have been dominated, obsessively, with coronatalk. Everything else has been forced out, understandably muted by a collective desire only to invest energy and ideas into thinking our way through the crisis. 

The despair so many felt all those months ago was deepened by the new quiet and the loss of conversation. And schools are word palaces, with a common language built out of shared experience: that linguistic bridge between teacher and student that is fundamental to growth and identity. All changed now, but for how long remains unknown.

Nothing has changed more in schools than the language we use. A whole new vocabulary has become rooted, spreading through the already dense nomenclature that traditionally clogs up departmental and senior-management meetings: screened desks, fogged classrooms, Teams lessons, CAGs and rankings, staggered starts, year-group bubbles. On and on it goes, each solution seemingly opening up a new host of attendant issues. 

The impact of the coronavirus in schools

And how quickly old verbal shibboleths have been relegated to afterthoughts: schemes of work, assessment criteria, differentiation, value-added, performance tables, Progress 8, HMI, CPD, ICT, ITT...

Unloved and utilitarian though they are, we miss them, aware that they are only used now hastily, apologetically, and usually as footnotes to Covid-19. 

The sheer scale of opening a school this term is impossible to explain to anyone not deeply involved in doing it. Little wonder that words begin to fail us, our minds blanking at its complexity. 

And each opening is rendered minuscule compared with the even bigger challenge of keeping schools open, week after week, into the winter. The virus has touched everything: from classrooms to staffrooms, libraries to lunch queues, textbooks to toilets. All things familiar - the apparatus of a school's daily life - have ineluctably altered.

The debate about face masks in schools has added intensity, because it is in our schools that our children's identities are so often developed.

Indeed, the face mask is the perfect symbol of our time: it conceals but reveals. It makes us, outwardly, all eyes: onlookers, with our mouths hidden, our words muffled. Daily, they remind us of the ever-present threat, never allowing us to forget what we're all straining to avoid. 

Teacher anxiety

And many teachers will struggle to return to what they once were. The new, learned behaviour that we resort to when we find ourselves unexpectedly in crowds, or in enclosed spaces, will be there in schools as well. How will we feel in a packed corridor or in a busy dining hall? Some will be reassured that something familiar is returning; others will feel exposed, vulnerable. 

Many will feel all these emotions and more in one working day. And although we will want to talk about each personal dilemma, framing each experience through the lens of the virus, we have to choose our words more carefully than ever.

Because it will be words that will create the schools that our children want to return to and stay in. Many will be leaving places of real isolation, both physical and emotional, and they will be desperate for the warmth of a welcoming teacher's familiar phrases and intonations. 

Now we are back in school, we will have to force ourselves to not talk about the virus. We will have to ensure that our conversations are not like the directed traffic in the corridors, all heading towards the same subject, relentlessly. 

As teachers, we should try to recapture the joy of the words each of our subjects gift us with, and delight in them. We owe it to our students to fashion conversations that take them away from the smaller, greyer, worlds we have inhabited since the school gates were locked. 

Now, more than ever, we need a language that is liberating, that allows us to return to open those gates with hope and optimism: freed, for a few hours at least, from the deadening, unchanging headlines. 

Our schools have been reshaped by the virus, but it's now up to us to try to stop them - and the children returning this week - from being defined by it.

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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