Life as a floating head: teaching while self-isolating

Sarah Ledger was self-isolating at home, teaching a class in school via Microsoft Teams. What could possibly go wrong?

Sarah Ledger

Pixellated woman's face

It sounded simple: send in cover, explain where all the books are and fire off a Teams invitation to the colleague covering my lesson. 

After all, I wasn’t unwell. Just waiting for a Covid test result to come in. What could be more straightforward than teaching from home? Let’s face it, we’ve been getting to grips with Teams since March, and we’re past those rookie mistakes where another member of the household drifts into shot in their underwear, noisily eating a sandwich and watching a particularly brutal episode of Peaky Blinders on their phone. 

These days, we’re working-from-home ready: there’s a note on the front door advising Amazon personnel to keep down the doorbell ringing. The dogs are outside. And the bookshelves – formerly filled with a jumble of Jilly Cooper novels and Princess Diana biographies – are now refurbished with leatherbound editions of the works of Dostoyevsky. And mics are off. Are they? Yes. Definitely? Er…they are now.

Coronavirus: When remote teaching is like a séance in reverse

Rather like a séance in reverse, I couldn’t see the class, but they could see me. What I could see was the medium – my cover-teacher colleague – hovering anxiously in the foreground. Behind him – projected on the board – my own slightly out-of-sync face, a browsed-by-an-individual PowerPoint presentation and (good Lord, it’s making me stressed just to write this) a thumbnail of the same PowerPoint presentation in the bottom right-hand corner of my screen.

Spatial awareness is not my strong point. If it hadn’t been for a helpful passerby coming to the rescue in 1998, jumping into the driver’s seat and deftly reversing my car out of a ludicrously tight parking space, I could still be trapped in a Vauxhall Zafira in Selbourne Walk car park. Negotiating the same but slightly different screen within a screen would be tricky enough for someone who has no problem with a rear-view mirror, let alone me.

The kids could, indeed, see me, but because of a mix up with the speakers, they couldn’t hear me. My colleague translated, bending low over the computer while I gave instructions. For a moment, I thought he’d say, “What’s that, Skippy? Timmy’s fallen down the well?” but, honestly, there was no time for frivolous 1970s-based humour. 

Instead, he announced, “Ms Ledger would like you to annotate the extract…” while I beamed enthusiastically and gave a vigorous thumbs up to show: yes, that’s absolutely what Ms Ledger would like them to do.

Lipsyncing for Dame Judi

So far, so good. The next lesson was not quite so successful. The speakers worked fine, but the projector in that room has an inexplicably unhelpful habit of making everything very, very tiny. 

I’d forgotten this detail, and my new cover colleague was under the impression that I was in control of the projector. She was very convincing, and between us, it took several valuable minutes to work out it was the zoom button on the projector remote in her hand that did the trick. There was an audible sigh of relief as the writing on the board became large enough to read.

I’d intended to show a clip of Judi Dench unsexing herself, but hadn’t realised that on Teams you can’t broadcast video clips. (As I write, I’m pretty sure that someone out there will know a way of doing this and will a) write a helpful comment below or b) tweet contemptuously about how my level of stupidity makes me unfit to work with children – just in case you’re wondering, I’d prefer a). Thank you.)

Year 10 were treated to the sight of me looking puzzled, while Dame Judi melodically filled herself topful of direst cruelty. After I’d adjusted the “allow audio” buttons, Judi appeared in spotlit monochrome, but silent. I had a split-second decision to make: did I ditch the clip or attempt to lipsync Act I, scene five? 

I ditched the clip, saved it for another day and – still facing the board, not the class – correctly identified the miscreants in the second row committing the small crime of low-level disruption by the sound they made shuffling paper and whispering. It’s times like these when you have to take minor triumphs where you find them.

A peculiarly exhausting day

By the time we’d got to Year 7, I was feeling less like I was blindfolded in the back seat of my own car, shouting instructions to the learner driver in ear muffs at the wheel. Although I hadn’t bargained for the final cover teacher of the day being without a webcam at all. But Year 7 – God love them – rose to the occasion. 

I have a special place in my heart for this class as, in our getting-to-know-you session on the first day of term, it emerged that I’d taught most of their parents and quite a lot of their aunties, but – strangely – not their uncles. They treat me like their collective nan, and accordingly enquired en masse about my health and gave their cover teacher a pretty accurate rundown of their class novel so far. 

I taught from the screen and heard the dutiful rustle of pages being turned at the right moment and the patient scratch of pen on paper. To be honest, my colleague and I could probably have popped out for a socially distanced coffee and come back to find the job done.

The day was peculiarly exhausting. I learned a lot though. When setting cover, there’s a fine line between the unhelpfully minimal “Read chapter seven and discuss” and the elaborate worksheet with two highlighters, a textbook and “Do questions 1, 4, 8 & 9 – DO NOT ATTEMPT Q5”. 

During a Teams lesson with a facilitator, that fine line becomes crystal clear. There were moments when my school-based colleague looked perplexed, and it was clear I’d added something to the lesson that did nothing to support learning – just wore everyone out.

I don’t want there to be a next time (the tests came back negative, by the way). But, if there is, I’ll aim to maintain that balance and – of course – ensure there’s a contingency in case the bloody speakers aren’t working again.

Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years

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