I was the first teacher to have a period with my Year 7s this morning, the morning of school closure. I was officially there to teach them maths, but for the last twenty minutes I let them ask me any questions about what was happening. “Do you know when we’re coming back?” “Will we have to stick to the exact school timetable?” “What if some of us are slower and we can’t keep up by ourselves?” The question that they seemed most concerned about was one I would never have expected. “In the top left-hand margin, will we put c/w or h/w? Will it be classwork or homework?” Nobody could decide.
For the whole of yesterday night, I dreaded seeing my Year 13s. This is a class I’ve struggled to gain the respect of. It’s been an emotional couple of years, and now the one crystal clear goal that’d been driving them and me on – that hard-earned A or B-grade that meant unlocking whatever doors they saw in front of them – had been snatched away. I remember asking myself: how do I plan a lesson for a class I might never see again, and who will never sit another school exam?
We teachers heard that, before school had even started, some of the Year 13s had behaved poorly. But few of us were surprised. They’d had their muck up day, their goodbye-and-please-sign-my-shirt-day forced upon them. They didn’t blame the government for taking drastic action (though they did blame them for leaving them with such confusion).
I didn’t see much jubilation. This wasn’t the start of a long, lazy summer, or even a surprise snow-day. That the school was being forced to close meant that the grim news was not going away, and friends would not be allowed over. One student told me they couldn’t stand to live just with their parents; another said that they would rely on the peacekeeper of the household, who was their dog; many students pointed out to me that, no matter what snazzy resources us teachers used, learning by yourself at a computer would become so boring. These kids are not used to being alone. I believe we will be very grateful for the social media platforms we have spent so long warning them against.
My final year 13 lesson came and I still didn’t know what I was going to do. Then I saw one of them – a girl I’ve told off about fifty times for chewing gum (who was chewing gum) – and she said, “So we’re playing Werewolf, right?” And of course we were. It’s the game we’ve played on every other last day of term. Before we played I asked them how they were and reassured them as much as I could. “Finish the course, and finish it well,” I insisted. “This morning,” one of them said, “on my drive to school I pulled onto the hard shoulder and cried for five minutes.” They were confused, anxious, and angry. But we played a game of Werewolf and they had fun. The Werewolves played it masterfully. As all of them were joking and playing, one of them caught themselves laughing and pointed out: “This is the last five minutes of normality.”
Soon we were bumping elbows and saying goodbye. “Have a good Easter, sir, and a good quarantine.”
Then we had the final event: an ad-hoc assembly for all of the Year 13s. Dozens of teachers – none of whom had to be there – filled up the back of the hall. I saw a teacher handing out hymn books and one girl scoffed, “Why would we be singing hymns now?” Then the same old pattern of assembly played out, but most of the teachers who stood up to speak were choking back tears. We all sang the final hymn. It was ‘Jerusalem’; it’d been requested. And that girl was singing as loud as the rest of them. “This is not goodbye,” they were told by our headteacher in the end. “We will meet again, one day, to say goodbye.”
It is not common for students to say that they love their school. But I’d guess that in fact most do. It is friends and it is normality and it is structure and it is progress. I think we will all welcome it back.