The view from Italy: Teaching on lockdown for six weeks

The principal of St Louis International School in Milan reflects on six weeks of teaching remotely, from the practical to the emotional

Jennie Devine

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Yesterday was a typical work day. I had lessons with my students, caught up with some colleagues over coffee, held leadership meetings and even joined in an after-school workout session with members of staff. 

Though all of these interactions were done virtually, this is our new normal in Italy, where we we have been in various degrees of lockdown for the last six weeks. 

The UK is beginning this process and this means a great deal of adrenaline and purpose to get systems up and running will have taken hold at first. But once routines are established, different emotions take over.

Further apart, closer than ever

I miss the students and the families. We are social beings and teaching online is not the same as being with the children in real-life. As teachers, we are implementing planning, delivery, marking and tracking, though without that face-to-face warmth of a classroom. 

The most rewarding part of the job is being with children and the online version of school is a pale imitation of face-to-face human connection.

And yet...I feel even closer to the people in our school community than I did before.

Though we are distant, there is a strange level of intimacy. You see the layers of people’s lives. You see into the houses of colleagues and students, you hear background noises, you meet family pets and family members, you are privy to parents discussing family dynamics and logistics. 

All the mechanics of everyone’s individual circumstances are now much more visible and as a principal, I am trying to help teachers manage teaching and child care, parents balance their work needs with the education of their children, all while trying to manage the realities and fears of being in lockdown.

Stepping up, stepping back

I have had to be more resilient, too. There have been angry outbursts from colleagues, staff, parents, students. Everyone is scared, everyone is stressed and so reactions from others can seem excessive and emotional.

When going to the shops becomes a strategic effort that can last a few hours, even the simplest obstacle or frustration can cause great stress.

However, people need the knowledge that they are not alone, that there is a support network, that they are being heard. It is hard not to take these outbursts personally, but it helps to remember they come from a place of great anxiety. 

Working at home is a mixed blessing too. Usually there is a physical break between school and home. Now, though, the lack of a split between home life and work is disorientating and the days begin to merge together, especially as we can’t go outside.

One way I have adapted to this is that I stop working. In the past, work could bleed into the evening, night and the next morning. I initially kept this up, but now for my mental and physical health I stop and step away from the computer and more sharply define the times I work.

Unbreakable bonds

Through all this I have found myself feeling even more strongly about the students than I did before.

They are wondrous, positive people who are battling through an incredibly difficult time, but they still want to learn, to greet their friends and to see the face of their teachers. I have great admiration for them.

I have started a list of things I am looking forward to doing when we get out of lockdown: marking work with a pen, having a child greet me with a smile as I pass them in the corridor, leafing through exercise books to watch a year of student progress unfold, wandering around the playground and hearing the happy laughter of students, a child proudly coming into my office on their birthday, students telling me about sporting successes.

Though it has been hard, we have got to a point where we can keep going. Hopefully, it won’t be long before we can see our colleagues, the parents and, most of all, the reason we do this job – our students.

As we say in Italy: Andrà tutto bene...everything will be fine.

Jennie Devine is principal of St Louis International School in Milan, Italy

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