Coronavirus: 'Lower expectations on distance learning'

Teachers everywhere are busy trying to get to grips with distance learning - let's take a breath, says Sinéad McBrearty

Sinéad McBrearty

Coronavirus response: Let's lower expectations on distance learning, says Education Support

What a week this has been. There is so much going on that it’s easy to become overwhelmed – several times a day, if my experience is anything to go by. 

Now that the toilet-roll wars appear to be calming down, we are faced with news of loved ones, or known ones, or virtual strangers on Twitter getting sick. Really sick. And dying. 

The loss of Wendy Jacobs, a headteacher in Cumbria, brings home the reality of how the pandemic will affect communities, schools and individuals across the country. 

The shift to lockdown is slowing the spread of the virus, and the heroic NHS workforce is keeping most of the ill alive, and inspiring the rest of us with their dedication and selflessness in the face of extraordinary pressures.

The coronavirus crisis: grants for school staff in need

While the virus rages, employees in all sectors have faced uncertainty about their job security. Government initiatives will help. But, as I write, there is still uncertainty about the response for the self-employed and contractors. I am sure that government assistance will come, but right now we are handling emergency grant applications from supply teachers and term-time-only contractors, who face hunger and eviction. Right here, in sixth-largest economy in the world.

Education Support is open to help, and we are offering grants to those who are in financial distress, including people who are waiting for universal credit to kick in.

And then we get to what we’re hearing from schools. Leaders still don’t have clear advice about the best way to protect the staff and pupils currently in school. The Department for Education is working to improve this, but we need simple, clear and timely advice. Pace is everything. 

We also need clarity for school leaders and staff about what is not required: no one ought to be working on improving classroom displays or filling in timesheets to justify how they are spending their time at home. 

Working from home

This is not an experiment in working from home. This is an unplanned emergency. Let’s keep some perspective and not place unreasonable demands on people. Leaders will win loyalty, trust and affection when they allow themselves to empathise and to respond humanely. 

We are seeing hundreds of examples of amazing leadership across the country, and these are the heads who will be celebrated when the dust settles. 

Distance learning is the new religion. We’re all on board now. It is fantastic that so many resources have been made available so quickly. And there is plenty. 

As the weeks roll on, we will need more, but this week no one should be straining to produce more or to mark remotely. As a parent, there is no way that I can use all the stuff that I’ve already been sent. Right now, I just want to keep the children engaged and happy. The fronted adverbials can wait

So many teachers and education staff are feeling disorientated, as they try to fathom how to work from home while their own kids are in the house. Or they are concerned, because their kids are at the school site provision for key workers, and they worry about how safe from virus that leaves their families.

Or they have elderly relatives, and they are terrified that they won’t see them again. Or they are now working from home and feel isolated and disconnected, because teaching is surely the most profoundly social of professions. 

Let's be realistic

In this situation, I am reminded of the advice someone gave me when my eldest son was born: lower your expectations. We are in for a long haul. We need to do what we can, but a collectively hyperactive response is not helpful. 

For those who are scared, angry, anxious, flat, overwhelmed, bemused or lonely, our brilliant accredited counsellors are available 24/7. They can talk to you if you feel like it’s all too much. Or they can talk to you just because you’d like to speak to someone with whom you are not cooped up all day (I say that with the greatest affection for my partner). 

We are where we are, and it will be the simple things that help us to stay well: stay active, exercise, avoid over-doing it with food/booze/Netflix/social media, put ourselves around nature, volunteer if possible. 

We are at the beginning of this historical event. When we come out of the other side, much will be different. It probably isn’t too helpful to spend hours thinking about what that might be like.

For many of us, we still have a lot to process. We have lost our way of life. We have lost our jobs. We have lost our loved ones. 

There are opportunities here. The big one is in our relationships. I speak to my mother every night now. That’s quite a change from once a month. And that’s a good thing. 

It ought not to take the possibility of losing loved ones to make us appreciate them. But, since we are faced with that possibility, it would be daft not to act on it. 

For free, confidential support for anyone working in education, visit the Education Support website, or call 08000 562 561.

Sinéad McBrearty is CEO of Education Support, the UK’s only charity providing mental health and wellbeing support services to anyone working in education

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