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Key workers: a day in the life of a virtual English teacher during lockdown

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Hannah Keegan
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Virtual Teacher

Jess Browning is an English teacher at The Norwood School. She lives in West Dulwich with her flatmate, Rachel

MY ALARM GOES OFF…

At 6am for the past couple of weeks, but I lie in bed until about 7am. I try to get to my computer for 7.30am, which is when I would normally arrive at work. There are two kinds of days right now: I either put on sweatpants and a hoodie, and end up staying in them for a few days, or I do my hair, make-up and get dressed properly, which actually makes a huge difference for productivity. I’m also enjoying the rebellious part of dressing at the moment – we’re not allowed to wear jeans to school, for example, so I’m in them quite a bit. Finally, I pour myself a big cup of black coffee.

I’M RESPONSIBLE FOR…

Planning and teaching lessons to years 7, 8, 9, 10 and 13, which at the moment is all happening virtually. Each of my classes log in at a designated time; the timetable is the same as it was before all this. Now, though, I also see myself as responsible for providing a sense of normality for them amid this madness; attending school, even if it’s virtual, gives a sense of structure and continuity to their day that has otherwise gone out the window. I find they’re more worried and anxious about deadlines than before. I get emails saying, “So so so sorry this is late!” But we’ve made allowances for the fact that the level of productivity just isn’t going to be the same. And I reassure them of that.

I GOT THE JOB…

By trying everything else out there. I’ve had a lot of jobs: a model agent, a teacher in Korea, then an English teacher in the UK, which I did for five years before taking a break to try something different. I was a PA in publishing for a while. But I got to the point where I just missed being in a classroom, so I came back, and here I am. 

MY TYPICAL DAY…

Begins at my kitchen table, where my flatmate is also working. At the moment, I’m using two programmes, Google Classroom and Show My Homework, and it’s been tricky getting to grips with them. My school made the decision not to do video calls for safeguarding reasons. On GoogleClassroom, though, you can see which students are logged on and when they’re working on a specific piece of work, which is handy. I’ve become a tech assistant as much as a teacher. I post work to Google Classroom and the students post their responses, questions and, eventually, completed work. The biggest challenge has been making it clear what’s expected – you realise how much body language and explanation goes into teaching. A lot of the students rely on that, so instead I’ve had to learn how to phrase things in a really clear way everyone can understand.

A big part of my job right now is about sure students are still engaged, which is tough behind a screen. In the morning, I’ll post something on my tutor group’s page, a meditation I’ve found helpful, for example, just to let them know I’m checking in. With lessons, I’ve had to make things interactive and also feel fun, which I would recommend as a strategy if you’re dealing with kids at home, too. It’s about making it feel a little less like work to stop them from getting bored. For example, a recent task for my Year 8 class was writing their own ghost stories or a diary entry. I’ll also post a story and ask them to comment on the different techniques used by the writer. They give me updates on the books they’re reading, too. Feedback is also more important than ever. They need to know when they’ve done something well, that there’s someone behind the screen. We’re reviewing what’s working and what’s not all the time. The other teachers and I also have a WhatsApp group where we keep each other updated and supported.

I stop for lunch at about 1pm. Right now, I’m conscious of food – and not running out of it – more than ever. I had some of the symptoms of coronavirus about two weeks ago, so have been in self isolation for a while. That means no popping out to the shops. A few weeks ago, my flatmate bought a ton of carrots and I have been making my way through them: roasted carrot, grated carrot, sliced carrot, carrot any which way. My final lesson finishes at 3pm, but I stay online doing prep work and marking until around 4.30pm. 

WHEN I’M TIRED OR STRESSED I…

Go and sit on my balcony and see what people are doing outside. Today I watched a man wash his car very thoroughly.

MY GO-TO SNACK AT WORK IS…

Chocolate, but I’m running out, which is unfortunate.

MY MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT…

Is probably seeing the students I was worried wouldn’t engage virtually put in so much effort. They’re doing the work, asking questions. They’ll comment on my posts or email me directly if something needs clarifying. Then, they go away and do it alone. In a sense, it feels like we’re going to have a generation of really independent learners come out of this.

MY WORST WORK HABIT IS…

Wanting to talk to my flatmate who is also trying to get work done. I’m usually surrounded by 30 or so kids all day, remember, so I miss being social.

MY EMAIL INBOX…

Is mostly fine. But then I am often bombarded from students all at once after they’ve been set or completed a task. I recently had to post a note to remind them of my working hours to Google Classroom because I was getting email notifications at all hours.

AFTER WORK…

I’ll put my laptop away and pour a glass of wine. There’s a sense of worry in the evening lately: Is my mum OK, does she have enough food? How is my dad doing? What is the world going to look like when this is over? I try to FaceTime people to alleviate that. I check in on friends who are alone. I’ll go to sleep around 10.30pm, after watching Race Across The World on BBC iPlayer.

My Plan B: Teach abroad

I think I’ve tried everything and I can honestly say teaching is for the job for me – it’s tough, but it makes me happy like no other role did. The only other way I’d like to do it is to travel around the world volunteering in schools. 

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