'If teachers can't make a difference...what's left?'

With schools closed, many teachers will be hit by a sense of helplessness – it's OK to howl about it, writes Emma Kell

Coronavirus: Teachers need to use the closure of schools to take a pause, says Emma Kell

So, here we are. The terrible B-movie plot continues to unfold, and somebody needs to get in there and tell those scriptwriters to call it a day. And then, surely, somebody will wake me up, and I’ll bore my colleagues with my surreal dream.

Yesterday afternoon, after the school where I’ve been working was forced to shut its doors, I drove around for almost two hours, sensing that, if I came home, I’d have to admit to being finally useless. 

Above all, we educators are driven by the desire to make a difference. If we can’t do that…what’s left?

Add to that the thousands of disappointments and tragedies, from the cancelled holidays after years of saving up, to the crushing disappointments of cancelled weddings, to the many, many people who are realising that they might never see their terminally ill parents again, and those whose relatives are dying alone. 

Then there are the social inequalities and the catastrophic effect this virus will have on our most vulnerable members of society. There are the collapsing family businesses, the selfishness of some people, and the criminality of others. It was all enough to send me to hide (quite literally) under the duvet.

Still smiling, still laughing amid coronavirus

Then a man from the local community called to say he’d secured laptops for the children who need them most. A woman from the local church emailed to ask if they could provide home-cooked meals for the children who need them, and I cried in a whole different way.

Then my self-isolated parents called to tell me about their daily walks, their online exercise classes and the remote dinners (and compulsory wine) they are planning with friends, and all the books they plan to read.

Then I slept for a few hours, finally, and had vivid dreams of old friends. When I woke up, my daughter got ready for school. Yes, our village school is still going – right to the end. Still smiling, still laughing. 

My eldest and I went for a drive, and she said: “Look – no aeroplanes. Mum, did you realise that the pollution is already starting to disappear? Look how many birds there are.” 

I pointed out to our youngest, who just two days ago was complaining of a lack of time with the family, that she’d be likely begging for release within a few days, and got a massive smile. Somebody insane suggested it might be time to get a kitten.

In work news, some students contacted me to ask for an online French lesson next week and I wondered how I can build on this. 

I realise that technology offers us numerous opportunities to reach out in all sorts of different ways. Our online networks can offer an array of support – the kind of support that is more invaluable than ever. 

As my diary taunts me with all the exciting and worthwhile events that have been cancelled until further notice, I realise I can still write – I still have a voice and it’s important to use it wisely. I may even get around to finishing writing that book – there’s a book in all of us, they say. Go for it.

Three essential mantras

All of my work on staff wellbeing comes down to three essential mantras:

1. Control what you can.

2. You are not alone.

3. Today, the to-do list doesn’t matter.

The big ideas and big projects can wait. I won’t finish the book or the research project today. 

Today, we are starting to build our nest with routines, responsibilities, movie nights and exercise. Today, we build in breaks from rolling news stories and talk about other things and make each other laugh.

Today, we make practical, small plans to support our friends and colleagues remotely and locally, from prescription runs to collating online resources. 

Today, we put one step in front of the other. Today, we choose love over fear, and we make sure we each have a corner of the house to howl in when the howling must be done. 

Sending you all love and strength and solidarity. I’m off to look at kitten pictures.

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets at @thosethatcan

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