Corona Diaries: The Pandemic From a Biology Teacher's Point of View

July 13, 2020

Interviews & Inspiration | Lauranne Heres

For our 'Corona Diaries' this month we talk to Cécile, 38, a Biology teacher at a private school in London.

How long have you been a teacher / working in education?

I’ve been working in education since 2015, but I’ve been a teacher for only 2 years.

When did your school close and how was remote teaching put in place?

It closed after the last lesson on the 16th of March (a Monday). The staff had to be at school the day after, then we had one day “off” to get ready, and the remote teaching officially started on Thursday the 19th.

This remote teaching had been in the air for a few days as many countries had begun their lockdown, especially France. As a French school, we knew this would most probably happen sooner rather than later, so we had a few chats about that among colleagues. We already knew about Google Classroom, though we weren’t using it at the time, and we had hopes it would be available for us soon.

As a department (Biology-Geology) with many “pro-tech” teachers, we were (well, the majority of us) already using other e-tools, such as Genially or Padlet, Quizziz or Google forms for homework, and the school has used a French software, Pronote, for years to communicate with pupils and their parents, to tell them what homework they have to do or to keep a record of the lesson we have done. So, all in all, we knew we would cope. It was not the same in every department, and I felt lucky I had been trained by my colleagues on these tools.

The day after the school closed, we went back for a huge meeting (can you imagine that?) to be told we would be allowed to use Meet, and that everything was done to make Classroom available for us, which happened less than two days later.

By the way, hats off to some people of the IT department who worked so hard and so efficiently to make this happen, and who had to put up with some colleagues that barely knew how to send an email (no kidding).

How have you found teaching remotely? Are there any particular challenges you’ve faced?

Well, where do I begin?

I will honestly say that before it was put in place, I thought life would be much easier: no more hours of commuting, no more queuing for the copier, no more arguing with the lab technician because he hadn’t understood my request. I would be able to organise my days and weeks more freely! So cool! … Well, it wasn’t like that AT ALL.

First, I spent hours trying to understand how to use Classroom (creating all my classes, understanding how it worked…), then I had to rethink most of the lessons and work I was to give to the pupils. As a science subject, Biology-Geology is very often about experimenting with specific tools that you don’t have at home. So, it meant changing everything all of a sudden to find another way to teach, via documents or simulation software I had to find on the net, asking colleagues if they knew about some...

Then, there were the tons of emails. From the colleagues, from the headmaster, from the pupils, from their parents, and from Classroom anytime someone would add work or write something in the stream. I was going mad, my phone buzzing every 10 seconds day or night.

Eventually I had to shut down the Classroom notifications, and after a few weeks it calmed done, but phew!

Another HUGE challenge is that time becomes blurred. I wake up a bit later than usual as I don’t have to go to school, but I kept many of my habits from work (oh the orders of coffee I had to place!). As I have video-meetings with my classes, the schedule is roughly the same, but at the end of the afternoon it’s another story. I always have something to finish, to start, to mark, to read, an email to write, 10 emails to answer to, so I stay in front of my computer, and then when I look at the clock, I realise I should have had dinner an hour ago, that I didn’t do the bit of housework I was supposed to do, and that basically time has flown… I don’t have the school bell reminding me of the time, I don’t bother about getting in a less busy bus and doing the groceries before the shop closes, etc. The thing is this is surprisingly tiring: not having markers makes you work differently, and it’s upsetting.

I also really don’t feel as efficient reading and marking the papers when I have to do it on a computer. Sometimes it’s understandable: try to decipher someone’s bad writing on a blurred picture of their work, and then tell me about it! But in general, I find it harder, even when it’s typed: my eyes and head get sore quite quickly, and I need a break more often and for longer than usual...

Then there is the “small” issue of having a bad internet connection when your entire life revolves around it… Sooooo unnerving. Similarly, my laptop died after two weeks and a half: it wasn’t supposed to be switched on all day long every day, as I was scarcely using it before, doing most of the work from school with a much better computer and a much better connection. So, I had to buy another one, which was not supposed to happen before a few months…

Last but not least, there is the relationship with the pupils, but I’ll talk about that in the next question.

What do you miss most about teaching in person?

Let’s get right to it: I feel helpless not being physically with the pupils!

When you’re in the same room, you can see their body language, you can feel the uneasiness of a pupil that hasn’t understood but won’t say it, you can see the doubt in their eyes, or even the boredom if everything is already known.

You can move from a table to another to explain again to someone who didn’t get the question while everyone else is busy answering.

All this is impossible through a computer! Even though you’re having a video session, you can’t always see the real expression on their faces, you can’t FEEL what is going on…

And then of course you can’t see what’s off screen. You can’t be sure they’re writing down what you’re telling them. Sometimes you realise they are talking to someone else in the room, even if the mic is switched off. It may only be a parent, a sister, the pet, getting in the room for whatever reason, but the truth is you can be sure the pupil you have here is not focused as he or she should be.

And that’s the main thing. I know I can get distracted by my own cat, by the neighbours, by an unusual noise in the street… So of course, they would be too! But I am the one teaching, I’m not the one supposed to LEARN something completely new. And how are they supposed to do that when everything around them might be a distraction?

The simple fact that you are in a classroom helps you focus. There’s nothing else to do but to open your books, listen to the teacher, look at the board. And if you’re not focused enough, if you, say, chat too much or play with your pens, the teacher will see it and make you stop.

It’s difficult to find the same kind of “learning atmosphere” at home.

And of course, for some pupils it’s OK to be focused no matter what, but for many of them it’s not, especially the younger ones. Especially the ones who already have trouble focusing at school, so that means especially the ones who have difficulties studying.

And you’re not there to help them. You ask “is everything OK for everybody? Did everybody understand?” and then it’s either total silence or a resounding “yes”, when you know that this girl or this boy are probably completely lost but won’t say it. And you can’t move to their table saying, “well X, are you sure you understood?” and they will shake their head, and you’ll be able to explain differently…

Being a teacher is not about being a book with a voice; it’s about helping others understand, it’s about repeating things slightly differently until they get it, it’s about being there for the pupils who need it most. You can imagine how frustrating all this remote teaching is from that point of view.

And finally, there are the pupils who are usually so lively when they’re in front of you, because not everybody can hear what they say or look at them, but they’re happy talking to you. And then they won’t say a word during the video sessions because the whole class is listening. I miss this kind of relationship, and it makes me really sad. I wonder if they’re sad, too?

What are your school’s current plans for reopening? How do you feel about going back?

We’re actually bound to what the government has decided / will decide, of course, but we also have our own management.

Some of the pupils I teach may be able to go back to school mid-June, but then it will be 2 weeks before the school closes for the holidays. Due to the complex sanitary procedures that will take place, only half of the classes may come back the first week, the other one the second week. Which means we would put everything in place for only a week of teaching, and in such conditions, it wouldn’t really be teaching.

We wouldn’t even be sure all parents would allow their kids to go.

We must also think about the transport issue: some of the pupils and staff have to travel for more than an hour in busy buses or by Tube. This might be even longer now, certainly much more difficult. So, it feels like “much ado about nothing” …

At the same time, I miss my pupils, and I would be so happy to really SEE them again, to BE with them again, even if just to bid them goodbye before the holidays. I don’t know, I feel blue about that to be honest. To think we will end the year when I switch Google Meet off for the last time? How gloomy...

I know you’ve been sick, how has that affected your attitude towards the pandemic and how it’s being handled?

Well, it wasn’t a pleasurable moment, but it was not awful. I was lucky enough to have what felt like an odd cold. Chest pain, headache, sore throat, but above all an awfully long tiredness.

The most troubling thing was the thought I may have infected somebody else, someone in bad health, or that anyone in contact with me could infect someone with bad health and so on. Once I knew everyone around me was OK, I felt better of course.

I wouldn’t say I have OCD, but I’m definitely a “neat freak”, and I know most people are not. It certainly didn’t prevent me from getting sick, so how can I not think about all the ones that don’t have my cleaning habits?

Then, well, I’m a biologist. I’m not a specialist but I know a few things about epidemics and infections…

And I have friends in countries that were badly hit before the UK, in Italy and France.

Like many people, I knew what we were heading to, and I was quite surprised the lockdown wasn’t put in place much sooner and stricter, to avoid what was going on in these two countries.

I felt anxious that people were allowed to come and go as they wanted. Nothing to check how long and why they had been out.

I witnessed behaviours that got me angry: friends queuing together to buy dozens of beers and crisps packs, probably to throw a party, when some people were alone trying to buy “real” food.

Neighbours gathering in the communal garden so that the kids could play together, talking to other neighbours on the other side of the fence, 30 cm away, people sitting on the benches or lying on the grass in a park sunbathing for hours… And no one, no police staff to make them go away, no penalty, nothing. Then we read about people rushing to the beaches when we’re supposed to still be in lockdown.

I feel furious about these behaviours, I really think the vast majority of the people is silly, and I think the authorities haven’t done enough to check that stupidity. To put it shortly: I’m even more of a misanthropist now than before the pandemic. Maybe not teaching and helping my pupils growing up didn’t help me see an optimistic future…?

*When this interview was done, there was still hope that the school would reopen before the Summer. Unfortunately for Cécile, only the primary children were allowed back, and she did not get to say goodbye to her students, which is particularly sad for her as she had some that have now graduated. She wishes them good luck and hope they’ll come back sometime in the future to say “hi” once the school is back up and running properly.