The seven stages of grief for a teacher during the pandemic

Sasha Stock, Leadership Legacy Fellow at Jewish Community Secondary School, details the seven stages of grief for a teacher during the pandemic.

Perhaps it’s the English teacher in me that uses writing as a tool for therapy, but that’s what I feel I need at this present moment, to pour my feelings onto a page as an outlet. To be open and honest. Below is the unpredictable and unexpected waves of contrasting emotion that only a teacher can understand as we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic.

Gavin Williamson once spoke at the Commons and explained that schools were to shut and exams were to be cancelled, I entered into what can only be described as a ‘teachers seven stages of grief’. Of course, this is in no way to be compared to real grief, the heart wrenching type that so many are tragically experiencing right now. But instead, it is just meant as a metaphor, that I know my fellow teachers will understand. The notion that for now, my old life as I know it different and a ‘new normal’ begins. However, I wasn’t ready for this, I am still not ready for this and nonetheless there is comfort in knowing I am not alone.

How can we teach from home?

First came the shock and the denial. It must be a mistake. We were following the protocol of herd immunity and now we are closing our doors. It just cannot be true. How can we teach from home? Online? Impossible! Why couldn’t we close till Easter and then reassess? I have my ear to the ground, I live and breathe this, day in and day out, I can help… this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.

Teachers are creatures of routine and for the best part of 6 years, I have followed the same routine in the working week. Now it was all changing and I wasn’t prepared, organised, equipped. The first thought, my wonderful Year 11 class… they need to finish Romeo and Juliet. Yes, I know that they know that they both die a beautiful but tragic death, but we are only halfway through, and I have now finally hooked them in, they want to know more.  Even Emma, the young woman who at the start of Year 10 would whisper ‘’yes miss’’, as the register was taken in a bid to not get seen, she is now reading Juliet. She needs to finish this year as Juliet. Please!

But slowly the denial resided, and our community geared up for leaver’s assemblies, online lessons and email lists. This was happening and I was part of it. As I stood by the doors at 10 past 8 and welcomed them in, knowing I would not be able to answer their streams of questions, I only felt guilt and pain. In the last two years, I had been gearing them up for the exams. The endless stream of the same parental conversations, ‘we want you to have every option available to you next year… you need to start knuckling down’. Behaviour reports followed by revision timetables, with the ultimate goal… to learn. And why did they need to learn, so in that cold gym they wouldn’t be focusing on the ticking of the clock but instead they would hear the sound of their pen scribbling on the page, safe in the knowledge that they would pass and excel.

Shamelessly, I reminisced on the role-play that I could have done but traded in for a mark scheme. The rich discussion I cut short because I absolutely had to finish a timed question. The hours after school that Victor had stayed, going over the same character in An Inspector Calls, albeit knowing that after a two-hour journey by bus and train, he would be wiped out for the evening, but safe in the knowledge that it was worth it. I felt that they had been robbed and that I could have done better, what was it all for? I was devastated that for so many of them, they couldn’t see their hard work come to fruition. On Thursday the 19th of March, as I waited for my students to enter the school building, I reminisced back to my teacher training where I told myself that a love for learning came first and results came second. Somewhere along the way, like so many, I had forgotten that, and it hit me, like a stack of History textbooks. Here I was, filled with guilt.

Our whole profession is based on contact

But the guilt slowly transferred to anger. I was furious for the ones that tirelessly spent so many hours revising and working, giving their all and overcoming personal hurdles along the way. I was livid for the parents who had sobbed in meetings because they had hindsight on their side. They knew how important it all was, and whilst balancing two jobs, and two younger siblings, they still sat there, night after night, testing their teenager on French vocabulary, whilst receiving evil glares across the kitchen table. They never gave up. And wrongly (or perhaps rightly), I was angry for the ones who I felt had got away with it. They hadn’t picked up a book, they hadn’t grafted, and they hadn’t learnt. They needed this life lesson, they needed to know that hard work was worth it, they needed a wakeup call so that they could enter the next stage of their lives, rich in the knowledge that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. They needed to be that phoenix who rises from the ashes of defeat to something greater and better.

And like that, I was home. In an instant, everything had changed. I was sitting at my dining room table…alone. A teacher doesn’t work well with disorientation. Our whole profession is based on contact, the hustle and bustle of the corridors, the rowdiness of the school canteen, the smiling faces of our colleagues and the power to stand in front of 30 brilliant students and teach. Now I find myself grappling with online systems, virtual team meetings and a fear that I wasn’t doing enough. With any stage of grief, you wait for the upward turn and here I find myself, sitting at my dining room table, waiting.

December 1st 2020: The new normal

As I reread my entry from March, it almost feels like a different world, yet still so familiar. Online meetings, virtual staff briefings, remote learning. These new circumstances which I have come to know as the norm over the last six months have only reaffirmed my love for the school community in which I work. My marvellous colleagues continue to join together as a united front. My students and their ability to adjust never ceases to amaze me. I have spent the last six months contending with a new normal and whilst the doors of our school remain open for now, we continue to adapt endlessly, spend longer on simple tasks, think about new and unfamiliar challenges or approach old and familiar ones in new ways.

I laugh when I think about my first online lesson, it was nothing short of a shambolic. I was speaking on mute, staring at blank screens with initials, begging and pleading for someone to answer questions, all whilst knowing they are attending from under a duvet and probably making memes of my nostrils, as I came too close to the camera. Moreover, as the teacher in charge of Pupil Premium, I also found myself in the thick of it, driving around London dropping of laptops to students who needed to access the online provision. We set up and delivered our first mobile phone to a student who did not have one, so they could join the TikTok mania (I may or may not have also been swept up in the phenomena). Personal wake up calls and reminders became an everyday occurrence to some students’ dismay.

Home visits became an exciting outing to see those children that desperately needed some face-to-face comfort. Going to the school library and sending care packages of books so they could enter into magical worlds and for a few short hours, escape this one. I found myself knocking (virtually) on the doors of different foundations so we could secure some additional funding for our students who needed the extra help over the summer months. And CAGS. Need anymore be said. I became a new type of middle leader, a middle leader who had to think quickly and act even faster. A leader who needed to be both reactive and proactive in equal measure. Completely taken out of my comfort zone, I realised that my school was still here in all its glory, just in a transfigured form and they needed me, as much as I needed them.

The power of face-to-face interaction

And as the school gates opened in September, a swirl of emotions circulates the school as there was even more change to contend with. One-way systems, year group bubbles, calls for lunch, classroom cleaning operations and social distancing.  Yet none of it really seemed to matter. The power of face-to-face interaction, the human chemistry of the classroom, the myriad benefits that flow unconsciously when we see students each day. Finally, we were back in the classroom with our students having a good time and that’s what really mattered… that they were finding joy in their education for no reason other than to enjoy it, because they could.

In the that mix of joy, self-doubt, fear, and exhilaration that seems to have consumed the last 9 months, there has been a great deal to learn about being a leader in education. What was once dread has now become opportunity. The remote teaching platforms have become part of the everyday and have allowed student teacher relationships to form, grow and flourish. And there is another – positive – caveat to insert. Whatever the impact school closures have had on the school and whatever the adversity experienced by each child, what matters now is how we respond and how we use what we have learnt to better the education we provide our students. Now, I often have students writing to me privately, showing me a piece of work or a reflection, they had from the lesson. Yesterday, a student who is in receipt of the Pupil Premium, accessed an online opportunity that was posted to the newsfeed. Pedagogy and research is constantly being shared across our online teams and instead of ignoring the email, we virtually respond and debate. This is a huge part of leadership, the opportunity to access, the ability to adapt, learn and persevere in an environment of unknowns.

At the beginning of this reflection, I used the analogy of the seven stages of grief for a teacher. I believe I am finally at the penultimate stage, reconstruction, where we continue to work through these ever-changing times as leaders in education. The final stage is hope, and I can safely say that I have this in abundance.

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