This has been quite the week for schools. We have had the re-opening announcement: all students to return. Seventy pages of guidance, from lateral flow tests to face coverings to ventilation to hygiene to “bubbles” to cleaning and beyond…with the health and wellbeing of our staff and students depending on its implementation.
Then we have had the decisions on how GCSE, AS and A level, vocational and technical qualification grades will be determined in summer 2021. 113 pages of guidance to digest and synthesise carefully, with the future prospects of our examination candidates depending on its implementation.
Is it easy?
Can we do it?
Yes we can.
When our students are faced with something difficult, they can sometimes feel overwhelmed, and want to give up. It’s our job, as teachers, to pick them up and encourage them, to give them confidence, to reassure them that it can be done – and that it’s worth it. As I contemplate my to-do list, I am thinking about our students. I can’t wait to see them. So whatever needs to be done, will be done – because they are worth it.
If the NHS can vaccinate 18 million people in two months, I’m sure we can carry out 1600 lateral flow tests in five days.
If a team of scientists can drop a 1000kg wheeled robot onto the surface of Mars in a perfect touchdown, I’m sure we can design a robust system that ensures our students get the grades they deserve at the end of this challenging year.
Because, when we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything.
Working in a school at the moment is unlike anything we have ever known. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any team work as hard as the Churchill staff since January: it has been awe-inspiring. Teachers have had to re-plan existing curriculum to deliver remotely, finding technological solutions to replace in-class interactions. Providing feedback has become labour-intensive: what would, in normal times, be a quick conversation with a student or working through a pile of exercise books or tests, now requires teachers to open each document individually, adding comments, marks and areas for improvement. Tutors are also phoning or emailing to check on progress, welfare and wellbeing – and this is on top of Frontline provision for children eligible to be in school.
Teachers and support staff are also on the front line as schools address a rise in domestic abuse and child protection issues, and try to support families medically or financially affected by the pandemic. Our staff have mobilised a lateral flow testing operation and implemented a raft of covid-safe procedures, all while keeping the financial, administrative and resource functions of the Academy operating remotely. And managing the ongoing building projects!
The pandemic has tested all of us, in all walks of life, in all lines of work: I am hugely proud of the way our staff have stepped up to the plate and, to extend my baseball metaphor, smashed it out of the park.
To our staff: thank you. You have done an amazing job.
To our families
We really appreciate how hard this year has been for families of students at the Academy. You have had to balance your own jobs and lives with the added challenge of your children being at home, needing the wi-fi and the laptop and lunch and snacks and motivation and encouragement and exercise and help with which year Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech and what’s the atomic number of carbon?
All this whilst you are trying to parent your young people through an international crisis which is causing all of us anxiety and uncertainty about our health, our economy, our friends, and our wider families. We can’t go on holiday, we can’t go out, and we can’t socialise except through a screen. It has been tough – and it will be tough for a while yet. So, for all you have done to support and help our students through this time, whilst holding it together yourselves – give yourselves a pat on the back, and treat yourselves to glass of something good. You deserve it.
To our families: thank you. You have done an amazing job.
To our students
As I have said before, and will doubtless say again and again, it is our young people who are the beacon of light in this dark period of our history. From the chorus of “thank you”s at the end of each remote lesson, to the fantastic work that they are producing, to the kindness they are showing to others in helping them with technical problems, resources and understanding the work…our students have done themselves proud during this lockdown. They have been there, turning up for the Zooms and Google Meets, engaging in the chat, introducing us to their pets and earning an absolute mountain of house points (over 140,000 at last count). It has been tough being separated from friends and classmates, tough to maintain motivation in the face of uncertainty, but they have stayed strong and kept going throughout it all.
To our students: thank you. You have done an amazing job.
To all of you: enjoy your half term. You have earned it.
This lockdown, through the winter months, is a challenge for all of us. We continue to be impressed by the determination of our students to maintain their educational standards and their spirits through this difficult time – but it’s hard! Here are some ways that families can help. They won’t all work for all families and all children – but I hope you will find something of use.
Show an interest
It may seem obvious, but ask your children what they’ve been learning about. If it’s something you don’t know, ask them to explain it to you. Even if it’s something you do know, ask them to explain it to you! Get them to show you how their Google Classrooms work, how they “hand in” work electronically, and how they can communicate with their teachers. Ask them how they’re finding remote learning – and listen to the answers.
Ask them what they found difficult, and celebrate it: if students find all the work easy, it probably means they can already do it, or they already know it. This can be useful to reinforce prior learning. But when students find it difficult, when they struggle – that’s when real learning happens, because they’re engaging with something new, something they don’t already know or know how to do. This is when they have to dig in and persevere – and that’s when your encouragement is more important than ever.
As we detailed in our remote learning guidance: “We are trying to encourage our students to be proactive and independent in resolving any difficulties with online learning. Please encourage them to contact teachers and tutors directly to solve problems themselves – we do not expect parents and family members to be doing this for students (although we are grateful for your support!).”
This approach is designed to help our students feel ownership of their learning, and to give them agency in solving problems.
Give them a sense of purpose
Motivation is challenging for all of us – in or out of lockdown – but it can be especially difficult in the current circumstances. When struggling with motivation, it can be helpful to identify why working hard during this period of time will pay off in the longer term by keeping them on track for their goals – whether that be a massive haul of conduct points, keeping up with their peers, or as a step on a journey towards Sixth Form or a career.
It also helps to focus on the value of learning for its own sake – as a means to improving themselves, improving their prospects, and helping them to make their contribution to the world around them. Work is more rewarding when it has a purpose.
Show them you’re proud of them
We all like praise – especially from people we respect and admire. A “well done” or “I’m proud of you” from a parent to a child makes a world of difference to motivation and self-esteem – even if they don’t show it on the surface!
We know that praise works best when it’s focused on what people have actually done to achieve something, rather than on their innate abilities of qualities. This is why “I’m really proud of you for the way you’ve focused on that task, even though I know it’s not your favourite subject,” is much more effective than “you’re so clever!” Being specific about exactly what someone has done to deserve praise gives it value, and makes it more likely that we will repeat that activity to get the same results. Look for opportunities to show how proud you are of them, for the small things as well as their work over time.
Tell them to stop
We are setting five hours of remote learning per day for main school students. We do not expect them to be working beyond the five timetabled hours of lessons they have on a school day. Once the hour is up – we expect them to stop. Our mantra is:
Do as much as you can, with your best effort, in the time you have available. Do not spend any longer than the time allocated on your timetable. You will never be in trouble if your teachers can see you have tried your best with remote learning – even if you haven’t finished everything.
If your child is working during breaks or lunchtimes, or after the end of the timetabled school day, to finish off work: they do not have to do this. It’s not good for them. They need to stop – and you have my permission to tell them to.
Encourage exercise and activity
Teenagers spend long enough looking at screens in normal times – and this has been amplified through the remote learning environment we now find ourselves in. The technology we have at our disposal is wonderful, of course – but you can have too much of it! We are “mixing it up” as much as possible with non-screen-based activities and opportunities to be active. Please encourage physical activity – especially in breaks from learning and after the end of the school day. There’s a reason why the NHS recommends physical activity as one of the best ways to boost well-being…
Build good sleep habits
Many people have reported difficulty sleeping during the pandemic. This is perhaps no surprise, given the heightened level of anxiety in society at large. There are things we can to to help build those good sleep habits: exercise during the day will certainly help.
It’s also important to have a regular, consistent bedtime, with a structured bedtime routine. Switching off screens well before bedtime is also shown to help with sleep, as the glow from the displays stops the body producing melatonin, the chemical which sends us to the land of nod. Most sleep experts recommend charging your phone downstairs, rather than having it by your bedside. I took this advice eighteen months ago, when I bought myself an alarm clock so I didn’t have to have my phone by my bed to charge (I’d been using the phone alarm to wake me up). It has made the world of difference.
We are facing a world full of problems at the moment – some of them small, some of them massive. It’s no good pretending that things aren’t difficult when they self-evidently are. But fixating on the problems themselves, and their impact on us and our lives, won’t change anything.
Instead, try to focus on what we can control. We can’t make coronavirus stop, or speed up the vaccine roll-out – these things are beyond our control. But we can make sure we really focus on that Maths explanation that the teacher has recorded for us, to minimise the disruption to our learning. We can’t see have our friends round to our house – but we can call them up, see them on screens, and laugh with them. We can’t pretend that everything is going to be okay – but we can make as much okay as we can.
Our Academy values of kindness, curiosity and determination were carefully chosen to build balanced, well-rounded individuals. Kindness is a strength of the heart; curiosity is a strength of the mind; determination is a strength of the will. They form three sides of a strong triangle which supports our students to make a positive difference to themselves and to the world – and the people – around them.
Look for opportunities to praise your children when you see them demonstrating the Academy’s values – and tell us about them! Tutors, teachers, Heads of Houses – even Headteachers! – love to hear about how our students have been making a difference, especially when we don’t see them every day. They can also be modest, not wanting to blow their own trumpets – so please feel free to blow it on their behalf!
Thank you to all our Academy families for all you are doing to help learning continue through lockdown – we really appreciate it, and I know our students do too.