Welcome to our world

Covid-19 has blown the doors off what was once a private, mysterious place, says Hilary Moriarty

A lifetime from now we’ll be wondering what came to pass as a result of the Covid pandemic. Lord knows the effects will be many and various, as well as tragic and heartbreaking in many ways.

One – surely unexpected – consequence of the pandemic will be a whole new kind of access to classrooms, and possibly more respect for what routinely goes on there. To coin a phrase, someone blew the bloody doors off.

Historically, classrooms have been mysterious places in which teacher-magicians conjured hundreds of tiny miracles every day – an amazing process colloquially known as learning.

OK, sometimes it was magic – people in high places regularly speak of how a particular teacher made a breakthrough for them, conjured a little miracle in the classroom, opened their door to great ideas and possibilities. But honestly? I would suggest that we are lucky if any of us encounters such a one in our school lives. Genius is rare – how many Einsteins do we know?

Classrooms have been mostly private places. ‘My classroom…’ a teacher would say, claiming ownership whenever threatened by a change of timetable or staffing. Ownership – ‘My books in a certain order on a particular shelf and don’t anyone move my hole punch’ – and power. Often that power was more than acknowledged, it was honoured. Brave the timetabler prepared to suggest that teacher A might use an unfamiliar classroom on an afternoon of, say, too many maths lessons on at the same time.

I used to think – writing timetables for six years – that life would be easier if children stayed in one place, their room, and teachers migrated as the timetable dictated. Think of the benefits. Much quieter, less dangerous – I speak as one almost run over by the rugby team once when I put my head out of a door into the corridor as the lunch bell rang. Why not let classes stay put and staff walk the corridors? Much calmer. Art rooms, science labs, gyms, courts and playing fields – all obvious exceptions.

And once you have them you have plaintive staffroom complaints that it’s not fair and why are they getting space when we aren’t and have you seen the stacks of exercise books I have to carry between rooms – oh, the marking! And I think I have damaged my back and it’s not fair!

And there’s no doubt that people gather ‘stuff’, as would anyone working with a desk to hand in any business setting. In some ways it’s part of the armoury – pupils come to our territory, where the teacher is still the boss. That must be a simple confidence-booster for the new or wary teacher. Territory matters, even if only at gut level.

So, teachers stay put and pupils arrive – ‘Insist on a silent line in the corridor before they are allowed in!’ say the staffroom sages, and they take their places in serried ranks in the teacher’s home territory.

OK, probably not serried ranks anymore. After some 10 years out of senior classrooms, re-entering an infant classroom for the first time was an education in itself.

Loose groups round small tables of various dimensions – which always looked to me as if we expected children to teach each other rather learn from what a teacher, the supposed ‘expert’, might be expected to know – a sandpit, playhouse and a ‘quiet space’. Verily, a whole new world.

Suddenly the whole world can be watching your classroom – perched at home, judging, approving, grumping

The arrival of inspection

Cheerfully closed establishments as schools were for centuries, they opened up considerably when big time inspection arrived. I was a furious head of English – two degrees, teacher-trained and experienced – when I discovered my next-door neighbour, a successful businessman in chemical engineering, had just become a schools’ inspector.

What? I was almost ready to man the barricades. Would he let me into his big factory to inspect their weird and wonderful practices? Of course not.
Outside my sphere of reference, information, experience – anything. But he could inspect my teaching of an A-level class on ‘Ant and Cleo’. Or ‘The Mill on the Floss’? Ha! He wouldn’t last five chapters!

There must have been sticky patches in the arrival of inspection as we currently know it. Inspectors were trained, teachers calmed down and in the independent sector, inspectors got to know our schools and how they worked. And classrooms opened up – less proprietorial, even if still classroom-based – particularly when teaching assistants arrived.

As a head of a school with very talented teachers virtually working daily miracles with dyslexic children, I was amazed at the reluctance to include TAs in our ranks. For many staff, the classroom really was their private domain and they had no wish for a permanent extra adult trespassing on their territory. But TAs – a constant audience – are now an invaluable addition to our teaching workforce.

So, a regular extra person in the classroom, regular inspections by professionals who know our world and keep us all on our toes in terms of practice and regulations, and whom it is lovely to feel you may even have impressed – ‘That lesson on the Battle of Hastings, and I brought in a real sword for the kids to get an idea of what they would be fighting with… it was magic! The inspector said it was brilliant!’

The classroom doors were open, but still in place. Entry and access still a bit under surveillance. Controlled and fairly predictable – mostly, you would know the inspectors were coming and you would know in advance all the regulations and queries likely to arise.

But now? Well, Covid blew the doors off. There was no choice but to invite the world in, even play to the gallery.

Suddenly the whole world can be watching your classroom – perched at home, judging, approving, grumping. And now, trying to do our job, maybe realising it ain’t as easy as it looks. We always knew that, while the world shrugged and dismissed – ‘Huh – a teacher? Is that all? I thought you were bright. Are you in it for the holidays? You’re certainly not in it for the money.’

No, it’s not easy. Even if we have the advantage of children mostly aiming for the same things and actually seeing the value of how you spend your day because you may be lighting fires of enthusiasm, interest, fascination and sheer fun in the classroom. Great? Yes. Easy? Not so much.

On the other hand, in our tidy classrooms, we are not trying to teach four children of four different ages four different subjects, while also making lunch and convincing our boss that we are really doing a morning’s work.

When this is all over, there will be greater recognition that teaching is not an easy, holiday-full doddle that many people used to think. If you can do it well, you are gifted and precious.

And the parents who are now valiantly trying to do our job, now they will know.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.

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