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Coming together despite driving us apart – Therapeutic reflections from teaching during the pandemic

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Victoria Chapman has over 15 years teaching psychology and working in school management before retraining at Quest Institute.  She now combines the two and works with both young people and adults to help them overcome any limiting beliefs they have which hold them back personally and professionally.

Coming together despite driving us apart

Therapeutic reflections from teaching during the pandemic

I like the quiet moments after class or catching a student on their way to lunch to develop rapport. I find that in these moments, when you aren’t sitting opposite each other behind people and desks that you really get to know them. These too are the opportunities to hold them to account, to have those all-important check ins and catch ups which somehow encourage them to hand in their work and face up to any issues or barriers which are getting in their way. Those little chats and cues are all so important in my teaching, making it personal. In the same way these informal conversations help my development. So much of what we do in education isn’t the formal CPDs but the chats in the staff room or the quick exchange by photocopier which provides you a different insight or way of doing something.

But, along comes a pandemic, the new normal shifts, none of those normal checks exist. No training, no intervention takes place to empower you to switch to online teaching. Suddenly you are just doing it. Some schools were set up for this, my school could hit the ground running having the infrastructure in place, others weren’t so lucky. Either way, we aren’t all IT savvy, I felt like a ‘digital immigrant’ suffocated by tabs playing catch up when I rejoined my colleagues after my maternity leave ended. I missed the first lock down but by the time that I returned new phrases like ‘break out rooms’ and ‘jam boards’ were normalised. I felt out of my depth.

But there was one overwhelming feeling that I felt when I re-entered the school community. It was, as my colleague summed up “the explicit humanity” that everyone had for one another. The concern for one another’s welfare was front and centre to all that we did. Colleagues would happily pick up slack for those that couldn’t due to isolation and other personal barriers. When schools closed again we were more physically prepared for the teaching but the guilt of parking your own children in front of Disney + to teach other people’s children is tough. What got me through this was the support of my colleagues, the empathy people had for each other’s personal situations and the agility that we had once the constrictions of the school walls and days had disappeared.

Whether consciously or unconsciously some therapeutic strategies were being used and despite a pandemic taking away all of our normal opportunities to catch up and build rapport. Enabling me to walk away at the end of the year feeling a real closeness to my students and colleagues and a sense of optimism for how we could learn from this.

  • Grounded optimism – this is the principle that optimism can be chosen and optimism can be learnt. Much like the kindness I have spoken of, grounded optimism provides people and leaders with the tools to ‘face reality as it is AND move towards a better future’. By simply reframing how we think and address a situation we can see it through fresh eyes, having a more positive outlook.

    e.g., I am really worried if students are engaging with online lessons AND I have the support of my team to help contact those that I fear are disengaged.

    I am worried that my online lessons are flat and boring AND I can get feedback from my students to find out what they like and what I should ditch.

    By changing the rhetoric AND forcing us to look for a solution we are becoming more positive, more agile in our teaching methods and actively seeking solutions.

  • Panning for gold and gratitude journaling – There is a wealth of research to show the positive effects of journaling such as writing down “Three Gifts” at the end of each day helps prime us to see the good and more importantly seek out the good in our day. This technique has been proven to be effective at helping the brain regulate emotions and lessens the effects of physical stressors on health. My school has always been big on recognition, ring fencing meeting time to say thanks. But somehow, during the pandemic it felt more sincere, there was a general feeling of thanks for showing up and doing the best we could. I felt it from the students as well. Something about logging on from home and getting an insight into each other’s wifi issues, reasons for not turning on our cameras and interruptions from my 4 year old made teaching more human and this shared humanity seemed to follow us back into the classroom and I thank them for that.

  • Reframing and becoming ILOC – At the start of each lesson we were encouraged to check in with our students, asking students to add in the chat how they felt on a scale of 1-10 and often I followed it up by asking them ‘what could you do to make your mood 10% better’ or ‘day 5% better.’ As noted by Maria Sirois in a lecture I attended, just by acknowledging that they/we have the power to lift and change our mood gives us a sense of agency. The pandemic and lock down has a tendency to put us in a state of external locus of control, whereby the government and health ministers are dictating our choices, our activities. Stepping back from this and reminding ourselves that in fact WE are responsible for our mood/ day/ outlook/ achievement is powerful. This sense of agency, also known as internal locus of control puts us in the driving seat, reminding ourselves that we have the tools to improve ourselves, our mood and our day.

All of these ideas support the principles of Carole Dweck’s Growth Mindset, we are growing if we are trying, trying to support one another, trying new strategies to develop our skill set. Allowing ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them. Reminding ourselves that “there is no failure, only feedback”. The pandemic was tough and for some, way tougher than others. There were some real barriers in teaching but, in speaking to my students, many of them seemed to get something out of it. Mostly they weren’t defeated or deflated by the pandemic and there was a real sense of human connection. They were thankful for the routine, the distraction and our input and this shared event drew us closer despite driving us apart.