'Utterly draining': The reality of teaching in lockdown

Teachers reveal the struggle of delivering remote lessons that are like 'teaching through a letterbox'

Catherine Lough

Online learning: Delivering online lessons is exhausting and like 'teaching through a letter box', say teachers

It is a high-octane job at the best of times. No one would deny that teaching can be intense and demanding, but for many in the profession, the "buzz" of a joke shared with a form group at the end of a long day, or the energy of Year 9 as they realise just what sort of night's sleep King Duncan will have, make it all worthwhile.

But for those delivering remote lessons in lockdown, the realities of facing 28 muted screens on Zoom can be rather different, with one teacher describing the experience as "utterly draining".


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Another described remote learning as like "teaching through a letterbox" in terms of the difficulties involved.

Physics teacher Annie Scott said teaching online was as tiring as an amateur theatre rehearsal.

"Before Covid, I did a lot of amateur theatre," she told Tes. "Show week is always exhausting but adrenaline carries you through. But rehearsals are draining and working backstage is tiring without the adrenaline.

"Online teaching is like that: the draining of a rehearsal because you are getting so little back from your students. In school, however tired you might be, the students lift you. Now they don’t, and that is exhausting."

And Peter Tse, deputy head of English at Ark John Keats Academy in Enfield, North London, said that teaching online "feels twice as exhausting as normal teaching, which you think wouldn't be the case as I'm sat down and no behaviour management".

"I wonder if it's because you don't get that energy/buzz of a classroom? Or the frustration of not really knowing if the kids 'get it'?" he added.

Coronavirus: Teachers 'exhausted' by online learning

Many teachers felt the same, especially when it came to assessing students' progress – an infinitely trickier task without the ability to quickly chat with students one-to-one in the classroom.

One maths teacher said: "It's the not gauging their progress, understanding as you could if they were directly in front of you, that is the biggest issue for me," with Mr Tse replying that "not having that dribble of hands up after you've asked about something you had badly explained" was a concern.

"When my Y11s don't respond on the chat, I don't know if it's because they're confused or if they've gone to get a biscuit," he added.

And maths teacher Rob Brown commented that online teaching did not allow for opportunities to adapt tasks "on the fly", meaning more time spent on planning.

History teacher Katherine Rowley-Conwy commented: "I wonder if it’s because we have to push harder to get the responses we want from students (mine are trying but not as responsive as they are in the classroom!) and this makes it more exhausting."

Maths teacher Mr Gill from Gravesend told Tes that online teaching was more tiring "100 per cent. My eyes are so tired by the end of the day and it's actually really disheartening to have no idea if students are 'getting it' or not, and then not being able to target your feedback/help for them."

And English teacher Lynne Voyce told us: "The reason this kind of remote learning is so tiring is that you have to second-guess what students might not understand before either the Class Notebook lesson or the live lesson. 

"So, I will make extensive glossaries and picture cues to aid understanding, especially if the group is lower ability. Also, it is sometimes difficult to get full attendance in a live lesson – and the text has to be prepared for students who may not have had IT access at that particular time, for example (perhaps if they are sharing devices). Yes, they can watch a recording of the live lesson later, but they don't have the opportunity to ask questions to clarify things."

Another said: "I literally felt like crying this morning on Teams. It’s so disheartening. I’m exhausted. Feels like I’m doing so much and I’m a puppet there to perform. It isn’t feeling collaborative. It’s draining. Mentally and physically. It certainly isn’t enjoyable."

'More difficult' to start new topics

Others said that it was harder to start new topics and material with a group while teaching online. This was particularly true for English teachers who reported they were losing their voice through reading and commenting on new literary texts.

Heidi Drake, a deputy head of English in Essex, told Tes that she was finding live lessons "utterly draining. I had to finish a sixth-form lesson early today as I was losing my voice and have a parents’ evening tonight".

"It’s harder as it is the start of a unit so all the introductory work is being done, and you can’t see them to get instant feedback....I’m teaching Paradise Lost to my Year 12s and we’re still covering the text, so it’s me talking at them for an hour. I don’t think I’m going to have a voice tomorrow,” she added. 

Teacher Andy Korab suggested that the teacher-led nature of online learning jarred with those who prefer students to work in groups or pairs.

"I also think it’s challenging teachers' subject knowledge," he said.

"Teachers who are used to lecture/individual task-style lessons are thriving as online lessons are similar in format. I’m finding teachers who have a more interactive/group work style are struggling."

Simon Tomlinson, an English teacher who advises for the website SchoolExams.co.uk, said the teacher-led nature of introducing new texts could make it harder to support students who were struggling.

"I think what’s really a challenge….is that there are some topics and some texts for English literature such as Macbeth and A Christmas Carol which are quite, especially at the beginning, teacher-led," he said.

"So it really does require the teaching input and as much as you can do that online, I suppose the accessibility you would have in the classroom of being able to respond to questions or go over to a student to help, it’s not quite the same dynamic online. While they are engaged in the lesson, they have messaged me privately to ask for extra help or say, ‘Can you go over this again?’ which is probably a lot easier in the physical classroom than when remote learning.

"It will vary from subject to subject but for English and English literature particularly, time is of the essence, especially in the early weeks. So it is actually quite brave to start something new remotely."

He said that while he had been using live lessons, some colleagues had recorded lessons and tasks but were then concerned about their quality and would spend time re-recording them, making the prep time for lessons much more onerous.

The class doesn't talk

While, as Mr Tse points out, the idea of a muted classroom might seem like a dream in terms of behaviour management, it can make it tricky when delivering subjects that require in-depth responses.

One history teacher told Tes that remote classes were "utterly exhausting" as "the classes who are normally really chatty (sometimes when you don't want them to be!) are completely silent so there is a lot of just staring at the screen, hoping someone will reply to the question you've just posed."

"I'm a history teacher and since at KS4 it is very content-heavy with some elements which students might not get, it ends up being a lot of talking."

She added that exam classes in key stage 4 were "logging onto the lessons but not submitting the work" and that the quantity of online learning she was meant to produce meant she spent all day staring at a screen.

However, not all the feedback on remote learning was negative. Biology teacher Anna Ingham said she was "finding that the more I do, the easier it gets. Becoming competent with the tech helps as actions are becoming instinctive, not taking conscious thought".

"Students appreciate my presence and input. I’m using the chat better and emojis," she said, while others suggested that as long as online learning involved some extended quiet work and varied tasks, it was manageable.

'Exam students are desperate for clarity'

But many teachers suggested that remote teaching was also more exhausting because of their concerns for students' mental health, as well as the impact that remote teaching was having on their own wellbeing.

English teacher Hannah Logan said: "We’ve been told we can set Oak Academy lessons but must explain first – video and record ourselves explaining the tasks students will have explained to them by the video anyway – basically doubling workload.

"We don’t do live lessons as so many students have no devices or there aren’t enough when there are siblings. Students in exam years are desperate for clarity but we can't offer them concrete answers.

"The mental health of both staff and students is horrendous. Physically we haven’t been offered any equipment to work from home – some having to work from the sofa/bed as their children need desks and tables; some teachers are spending small fortunes on microphones, visualisers and graphics tablets to enable them to deliver the lessons at a good standard."

The strain is having an enormous impact on teachers. One humanities teacher told Tes that she had fainted because of the sheer amount of screen time. Others said that using new technologies with students who certainly were not "digital natives" presented a challenge.

And chemistry teacher Natalie Eley said that online lessons were more tiring because "even when not doing lessons 100 per cent live, it's a feeling of always being 'on', perched on a knife-edge throughout the lesson waiting for questions to come - which often don't".

"Wandering around a classroom, peeking at work or intercepting uncertainty, is not quite the same: yes, I'm 'on' throughout normal lessons but it's so much more relaxed."

Ms Eley added that she was also worried about students' wellbeing, and that it was difficult to share these concerns when teaching remotely.

"It's sharing your concerns about the fact that Sarah sounded really tired and when you checked in with her she said she couldn't sleep last night. It's the tears you blink back when you hear that a student's parent is in hospital, and that's why he wasn't online.

"It's a student saying something funny and then having nobody around to share the joke with after the lesson.

"And the final punch in the gut is not being able to switch off fully at the end of the working day or leave work in another building that can't be accessed until you drive back there."

"Perhaps it's my anxiety. Perhaps it's my perfectionism. ..But I have never been as exhausted as the past two weeks."

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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