I don’t know how anyone else feels about this most recent lockdown (number three, at the time of writing), but I came into it with a feeling of deja vu. I felt like I’d been here before, the sound of the “ping” from a Teams chat bringing back the PTSD of the constant pinging from lockdown number one.
I also entered this lockdown with positivity. I have the benefit of hindsight this time. I felt like I knew how the shift to teaching online would start and then how people would quickly feel burned out, through the constant battle to keep on top of things and not let themselves or their learners lose the momentum they’d worked hard to build.
I love where I work and I'm really lucky that I work with some amazing teachers, managers and support staff who had really gone above and beyond to do their best with online learning during the tough months of lockdown number one. There was a real focus on getting things right with the technology, making sure that teachers could confidently set up and execute a lesson online and that students knew what to do. There was definitely a need for us to recognise that in order for teachers, learners and support staff to flourish, it was less about the technology and more about the people.
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With the knowledge gained from previous experiences, I started to think about where I saw the gaps in our previous online efforts and some of the things I could easily implement to try and bridge some of these gaps. One thing I felt was missing was a place to build community.
I’m really passionate about building communities. Spaces for people to come together and share. Whether that’s on some macro scale in a classroom, or within a whole organisation. It’s important – people need to feel like they connect to people and belong somewhere.
Teacher wellbeing: The virtual staffroom
With this in mind, I started a virtual staffroom. For an hour a day, people can drop in and talk to each other. Sometimes there’s a loose agenda to these sessions but the aim was simple: give people a place to belong. We talk about wellbeing a lot, and connecting to people is a proven method of improving mental health.
We have laughed at stories, offered advice to those who are struggling, shared successes, been given tours of people's working spaces and been introduced to pets. We have invited a local organisation that works to raise awareness of mental health problems to get involved once a week and provide tips and ideas about the things that people are struggling with directly. We are a multi-site college and there’s a feeling that we are bridging gaps that existed, even before Covid.
I won’t lie and say that everyone loves the idea of the virtual staffroom. Some would much rather head off outside for a break or enjoy some time away from the screen. Some just don’t want to talk to work colleagues when they don’t need to. I’m not going to evangelise that this is (and I hate this term) a game-changer, but something so simple to set up could become important to someone.
I would fully recommend that other organisations develop a sharing forum for all staff. Lockdown can be an isolating experience. Don’t expect or force people to turn up – but, as the saying goes, “if you build it, they will come”.
Mark Beetlestone is technology-enhanced learning manager at Fareham College