'Five periods in, my brain has turned to soup'

Teaching online is exhausting, says Kester Brewin – at the end of the day my eyes feel like they're stuffed with needles

Kester Brewin

Coronavirus school closures: Teaching online is exhausting, says Kester Brewin

Today, my brain has turned to soup. Today, my eyeballs are begging for mercy; they want to be taken to a dark room for a thousand years to avoid seeing a screen again. Today, I had five hours in a row of online teaching, and tomorrow I’ll do it all over again.

The day actually begins the night before, anxiously sorting links to online whiteboards that I’ll be screen-sharing, populating them with questions students have struggled on for homework, readying more online worksheets and explainer videos, outlining the plan for each lesson on Google Classroom and scheduling it to appear and notify students in the class at the right time (the right time being some minutes before the lesson begins so they at least have a chance of logging on in time and looking awake.)

The morning comes early, answering late-night emails from my sixth-form students who are throwing everything they have at every last piece of work I set, just in case

One has “handed in” her homework by taking 15 different photographs of questions she has done. All in different orientations. All with some level of fuzziness. All to be cropped and ordered and put into some kind of document that I can print and mark. None of which is her fault, all of which she should be praised for because she’s been bothered, has tried incredibly hard to get around the fact that there’s not a scanner at home and she’s not an expert in image manipulation.

Coronavirus: An onslaught of online learning lessons

Then there’s the online staff briefing. Camera off, I’m spooning down cereal, and no one wants to see a grown man mainlining caffeine, looking like Crusoe pulled through a hedge backwards.

And so it begins: an onslaught of lessons. I hit the Google Meet link and remember to smile. I grapple with the online register that logs out every two minutes and wants passwords changing more often than the Pentagon.

I introduce a starter activity, already prepared for the fact that half of the students will have forgotten their log-ins to the system I want them to use. Someone leaves a message to say that their wi-fi has gone down, and I swallow the metaphysics about how it’s possible to send a message about wi-fi going when your wi-fi has gone. 

I share the online whiteboard and go through some questions, kicking myself for getting the tiny sharing settings button wrong, as I watch 25 of them scribble joyfully all over it all at once. But somehow they smile and nod when I ask if they now understand how to use the trigonometric formula to find the area of a triangle. 

And lo, green boxes begin to appear as – on the fourth digital platform we’ve used this lesson – correct answers to the questions I’ve set are achieved.

Period one done. The second jumps in immediately afterwards, though I’ve also got to kick my own two teenagers into gear and check that the No Netflix During School Hours policy is being adhered to. I’m informed that we’ve run out of wraps and other essentials. Somehow I’ll have to fit in a dash to the shops.

'Who used the last of the loo roll?'

During the second lesson, a student’s brother crashes into her room shouting "WHO USED THE LAST OF THE F****** LOO ROLL??!” before realising he’s bombed a Year 9 maths lesson, which has now quite rightly dissolved into hysterics.

There are absences in other lessons. Not enough devices to go around at home? Grieving the loss of a parent or grandparent? Ill themselves with Covid?

All of these have been real situations for us as a community, and it has both bruised and tenderised us. We hurt together, trying to keep enough energy aside for kindness. I need to remember to message the others in my department, scattered behind screens across London. A full staffroom is a distant memory; now we just miss the chatter within our tiny bubble.

I foolishly thought that I could use lunchtime to sort final prep, but my own children need feeding, and one is stuck with some maths questions. 

My son’s drum practice is both a pain and a joy; I don’t have the heart to ask him to stop. I run to the shop. I don’t get a chance to eat because I then need to be back online. 

Five performances a day: plenty of comedy, too much tragedy, the whole thing a grim pantomime. But I hit the button again and they are pleased to see one another, and somehow pleased to see me.

The levers connecting mouth and brain have broken

I know that I don’t even work as hard as others: I don’t teach in a “tough’ school, nor do I have the fullest timetable. But by the time I get to the last lesson, the levers connecting mouth and brain have broken. My eyes feel stuffed with needles, having kept the same focal length for hours. My wrist is swollen from grappling with a mouse. My neck hurts. 

I’m not pregnant or vulnerable, not nearing retirement nor an NQT, but when I say “exhausted”, I mean that almost everything in me has been emptied out, and I worry that I won’t have time to refuel before all of this is to be done again tomorrow.

But I have a secure job when so many don’t. What we’re doing to keep learning going is the right thing, and I’m glad to be able to deliver what I can in a safer environment than school. 

All these children – like my own bouncing around me – are actually glad to be kept busy. This work is, in truth, my privilege, though few in government or the press seem to believe me.

But the cost? The emotional mortgages we are all taking out? The physical damage to eyesight? The tripled heating bill? The strain on relationships? I doubt any of this will ever be fully accounted for.

But to my fellow professionals out there: whether no one else understands, whether Ofsted or the Daily Mail care or not, your pain is noted, your service is saluted. Now go: roll camera, and deliver again.

Kester Brewin has taught mathematics across a wide variety of schools for the past 20 years. He tweets as @kesterbrewin

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