We must not lose sight of teaching’s human touch

We might be able to impart knowledge through the internet, but there’s so much more to teaching than that – and we need schools to be open for that alchemy to take place

David James

Coronavirus closures: Most primary schools aren't offering live online lessons, poll shows

Every teacher has felt, at some point, that the job is too demanding. There are times when we question ourselves at a profound level, debating whether it is possible to carry on. Fortunately, these moments of darkness normally pass, and even when they are at their deepest the working day is shot through with the support you get from colleagues, as well as the rewards that teaching young people brings, the humour and warmth they show, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, and always at unexpected times.

The topography of teaching is always demanding, but we were about to go into that intensely emotional and rewarding summer term, a downward incline, of final preparations, and tearful goodbyes, of jobs done, moderation and predicted grades agreed, courses finished, exams prepared for, motivational talks given to those about to move from being "pupils" to "candidates". What a maturing between two words. And then there would be the various rites of passages completed by Year 11s and Year 13s: the proms, the autographed shirts, the final selfies, and then that gift for you left surreptitiously on your desk by a boy you have spent two years battling with, the first steps into the examination hall, the instruction read out, day after day, like a catechism...all now gone. 

What we've lost...and what is gained

But this new, virtual workplace is no less demanding than the classrooms and corridors left behind. Not being a teacher in school is exhausting. Teaching from home is draining. Teaching from home with small children is almost impossible. That old imbalance, between work and life, has tipped resolutely into one or the other now: you’re either in work all the time, responding to every email, or chat comment; or you are out of work, the old pathways taped off, social distancing extended forever. Its suddenness was brutal. There must be staffrooms across the land with half-filled coffee cups, uncut cakes brought in early for the end of term, hardening on the side, the pages of Tes unread.

There are teachers and pupils in something close to mourning for the relationships broken off within hours. In every teacher’s mind’s eye there will be those familiar configurations of classes, those infinite and familiar interconnections, now shattered. When we attempt to reassemble them on Zoom they will be a liquid crystal simulacrum of what we took for granted, but now hold dear. We thought they would be with us until we had to fling open the windows week after week; now, even this glorious spring seems to mock us with its optimism. 

Of course, much will be gained from this disruption. When any workforce is suddenly forced to adopt new ways of working there will be beneficial, and unintended consequences. Perhaps schools will become emboldened still further, and teachers will value themselves in ways they have not done before. After all, we are being asked to contribute to keeping the country working, our professional judgements are being called on to decide the outcome of thousands of young people’s futures. That trust should endure.

Who's the expert now?

But we have to hope that teaching is not pushed back into familiar and old distortions because a new audience – the parent in the room – believes that they know what works and what does not. We don’t want every online lesson to feel like it has an Ofsted inspector sitting in on it, out of sight, still in their pyjamas, taking notes, writing that email to the headteacher, asking for more.  

By pushing schools into every home you make visible what was concealed behind those gates, but you also risk confusing teaching with learning. Misunderstanding is always easier than opening your mind, especially when it involves the strong bond of family. But focusing on the teaching without reflecting on the learning is like looking at a line of poetry and criticising it for its irregular syntax. Are we, as a profession, self-confident enough to say those now crowding into our homes that we are the experts, not them? 

Hopefully, that which has been temporarily exchanged for the touch of a keyboard is cherished even more when normality returns. Great teaching is not just about conveying knowledge (although, of course, it is substantially that), but is also about the human touch: the crouching down by the child’s desk, the knowing when something is not right at home, the hand on the shoulder, the reassurance and empathy.  

The shockwaves that tore through schools when they were closed have been discussed largely in relation to the disruption to the examinations about to be taken, and understandably so. But let us not forget those untold stories that cannot be predicted, evaluated, assessed, and made into data points. As we sing the learning electric, let us also salvage the human and the fragile.

David James is deputy head (academic) at a leading UK independent school

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