OPINION: Classrooms fill up again as children embrace many new challenges
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Children have a habit of taking change in their stride, so our columnist, The Secret Teacher, says they’ll be fine as they return to classrooms
My class has returned, and it has been wonderful to see them all again.
As they entered their new classroom for the first time, their faces reflected many of the feelings that staff share with them: apprehension for what the day may hold, hesitancy of stepping into the unknown, but most of all, excitement at being together.
Without the social distancing and spaced desks of last term, the classroom looks similar to usual. If you ignore the tape (marking spots on which to queue) and hand cleaning areas, you might not notice too many changes. And that’s as it should be. The children have enough differences to tackle, from their staggered arrival at school and rigorous hand washing to their lack of time in communal areas, such as the hall or library.
Whole school assembly, singing and indoor PE are no longer possible. Mixing with friends from other classes or year groups will be avoided indefinitely. So in lots of primary schools, one room will house most of their school experiences this term.
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The work we’ve planned for these first few weeks is referred to as the ‘recovery curriculum’. This takes into account that children are coming from very different starting points and can’t necessarily carry straight on from where they left off. It leaves room for more flexibility to take things steadily, and build in time for discussion when the children need it.
After over a decade in which one of Ofsted’s greatest compliments was to call your lesson ‘pacy’, this will feel like a welcome change. And despite the government’s references to ‘catching up’, staff are planning to avoid cramming the curriculum in at breakneck speed, and instead take things at the children’s own pace.
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Some of them will welcome this, as they are trying to process many contrary feelings: joy at being with their friends again but nervousness at seeing so many people. Willingness to get back to lessons but uncertain if they will be ‘behind’, or will have forgotten something vital.
Some of their encounters with us are different too. Although I teach Key Stage 2, the pupils are still young enough to experience separation anxiety after months of being with their families. This can cause them to feel shy or reticent to have conversations with us, or it can have the alternative effect of needing our attention more regularly.
So as well as making allowances for children feeling wobbly or out of their depth, one of my first priorities is to create a fairly regimented routine. Just as at home, children feel secure when they know their boundaries and what is expected of them. With safety guidance in place about where and when things can happen, it’s more important than ever that pupils slot into the procedures to keep them and staff safe.
Having a structure to each day helps the children move from a stage where everything is unknown, to a stage where school is familiar once again.
In a smallish classroom, with around 30 children, some things have necessarily had to change. As the government recognises, the social distancing we are all following outside of the school gates cannot happen within the classroom. But we are limiting contact by asking that the older pupils stay in their seats.
The expedition around the classroom to gather resources, the quick chat at the bin while sharpening a pencil, the little wander to see a friend’s work: these spontaneous interactions are a thing of the past. And whilst not always purposeful, these snatched moments of downtime gave the children a minute or two to pause in the busy days.
The pupils’ role in the class has shifted too They have spent their school life being encouraged to be pro-active and independent, but I am now asking them to stay put while an adult brings them what they need. The narrow spaces between desks don’t allow for much freedom.
Some pupils are struggling with this. By mid-afternoon they are fidgety, their bodies unused to remaining in one place for so long after months of movement While the weather is dry, we are making the most of having some lessons, or parts of lessons, outside. This gives them a change of scene and position, and crucially, lots of fresh air.
Families may well bear the brunt of their children’s emotions for the first few weeks, as they readjust to school life. They have coped with a lot of changes and unpredictability this year.
But despite the challenges, we are together and on our way again. At the end of the school day, the children leave cheerful but exhausted, as do we!
The Secret Teacher has been a primary school teacher in East Anglia for more than 15 years.