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Dublin: 24 °C Tuesday 2 June, 2020
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Teaching during the Covid-19 crisis: Four weeks in, the novelty has given way to inertia for some students

One secondary school teacher describes the swift and extraordinary changes that she and her students are adjusting to.

Anonymous Teacher

WHEN LEO DELIVERED his announcement from Dublin just after 11 am on March 12, it felt like the start of some kind of strange school holiday. Not too far removed from the one described in Heaney’s poem ‘Midterm Break.’ There was a certain ‘knelling quality’ to the bell that rang out on the Thursday evening ‘counting classes to a close.’

Lunchtime had been particularly busy. Students were frantically clearing out lockers into whatever receptacles they could find. Unused notes were strewn across the corridors. First years students were excited in the foyer, moving between groups of friends and hand sanitisers that had recently been installed. Senior students were a little more concerned. The Mass Exodus had begun and some bailed out at lunchtime. Parents had arrived to collect books and Lever Arch folders packed full of notes.

I had sixth year students in the afternoon. We had been discussing the inevitability of something like this happening during the week and most considered this ‘extended study break’ as an opportunity to finally catch up on some revision. But when the announcement broke, some stared back at me in horror, thoughts of Irish orals buzzing about their heads. Classes were interrupted by some colleagues distributing notes. Many groups were called to the canteen for assemblies. The principal used these gathering as an opportunity to reassure all of them that we are ready for this ‘remote learning’ experience. She told them to stay safe until we saw them again.

A shock to the system

One the way home from school I picked up two first year students who were really struggling with plastic bags full of books and notes. I dropped them off at their grandparents’ houses, where they usually wait until their mothers return from work in the evenings. I thought about the risk of infection but could offer no alternative. My eldest son called me from Centra, asking me if I needed anything. ‘The shop is packed,’ he insisted, ‘and there’s no toilet roll.’ News of angry queues gathering outside of supermarkets circulated in the media and I was finally glad to get home.

On the first morning, the emails rolled in. We used the week before to practice. Email addresses had been checked and the first round of assignments had already been distributed electronically the Tuesday before. I sat at my makeshift desk, my first year son perched beside me and we proceeded with our work. At first, there was a sense of novelty about it. Conscious of keeping their mood buoyant at a time of tremendous uncertainty I used ‘#selfie day’ as an opportunity to get my students writing about something they love doing. I thought about my colleagues with small children managing all of this from their own kitchen tables. I thought about other staff members whose husbands had only recently found secure employment after the last recession.

I thought about Donal Ryan and his novel The Spinning Heart, depicting the shock in an Ireland in the throes of the recession, which my senior students have been studying, and I wondered if we’re about to see a sequel to its main character Bobby Mahon’s epic tale.

As the days moved along, sixth years were busy looking over the poetry of Adrienne Rich, the last poet on the course left to study. There was a sense of satisfaction in that. When reports from Italy were relayed to me from my brother I thought about Rich’s poem ‘Our Whole Life’ which explores the limits of language in times like this. I thought about her metaphor which expresses the helplessness of those searching for the right words to express the tragedy of their situation. Rich compares this to an image of a child ‘trying to tell the doctor where it hurts.’ There are no words for this, lives are being lost and destroyed on a massive scale. Sometimes language fails to capture the true intensity of our emotions.

Work still being done

Suddenly the endless emails filling my inbox are a welcome distraction from the brutal truth. I try to focus on the gratitude and admiration rising within me for my country’s handling of the crisis, for the frontline workers literally putting their lives on the line.

Focusing on work, I marvel at the depth of my fifth year responses to the poetry of Robert Frost. Thanks to the notes I’ve sent them and with the help of technology (particularly Connemara FM’s Leaving Certificate English Podcast Series) they’re really engaging with it. Some are finding solace in his wonderful poem ‘Birches’ which considers our universal desire to escape, perfectly captured in the line ‘I’d like to get away from earth awhile.’ The poem ends with the lines ‘and come back to it and begin over… Earth is the right place for love.’

That week, I used the breaks from my schooling endeavours to help my cousin move back home. Her landlord informed her that she needed the property back for a family member and suddenly in the midst of the crisis, my cousin found herself and her three boys without a home. Her marriage had ended a year ago, tensions rose and she had found a place to rent. With the prospect of homelessness on the horizon, she managed to convince her husband to split their family home so they could live together but separately. I thought about the victims of domestic violence and the children trapped inside these homes. Without the temporary refuge of school, I wonder how these children are navigating through this remote learning experience.

About half an hour after we had moved my cousin’s final piece of furniture back into her old family home (a dresser pressed up against a freshly plastered wall that now provided safe division) the Covid-19 shutdown was announced. I thought about how things had aligned in her favour for once. With a roof over her head, being out of work was suddenly a little less daunting. I thought about my eldest son who is working in Centra and how this would escalate the anxiety he is already feeling. He’s terrified of bringing the virus home. As people queued outside of supermarkets again on Saturday, I thought about all the workers like him. So many people are out on the frontline of this.

Our virtual school

In terms of school, for students already struggling with the uncertainty, the lockdown has brought with it a certain amount of inertia. I have a sixth year student who loves to write short stories and is desperately holding onto the dream of studying Creative Writing in UCD but finds the vision fading in the midst of this crippling crisis.

Another of my students, also a sixth year, contacted the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union for help. He was looking for their assistance because the worry of extending this pressure-cooker of tension until July is incredibly daunting for him. He suddenly understands the paralysing effects of procrastination that Hamlet must have felt. It reminds me of Yeats’s poem ‘Easter 1916’ and the line ‘a terrible beauty is born’. Perhaps in the midst of this terrible tragedy a much-needed discussion on whether the examinations are really an option for these students will actually take place.

My third years are also in my thoughts. They’re finding it all overwhelming and are desperate for connection, not only with their peers but most importantly with teachers. Some are really sinking in this remote learning sphere. We welcome the news that SNAs are being redeployed. People are waiting in the wings and are ready to help. Perhaps teaching staff will be called on too.

While news of schools potentially remaining closed, there has been little guidance this week from Education Minister Joe McHugh on exams. Suddenly my students are quoting Eavan Boland and are wondering if those essays they are working on are starting to look like famine roads ‘roads to force from nowhere, going nowhere of course.’

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Anonymous Teacher

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