The children behind the screens
"It feels like I'm in prison".
These were the words of an 11-year-old boy from the Somerset school where I teach. He had joined our lesson for the very first time in February after his parents had refused online learning for over a month. At our school we have a policy of no student cameras, so all I could hear was his voice. He sounded defeated.
"There are probably a lot of children who feel similarly to you right now," I said.
"That doesn't really help at all," was his response. I could hardly fault his earnestness.
His case is comparable to that of many of my students. It seemed that almost every day last term I received an email update about a parent rejecting their school laptop or questioning the remote learning in some shape or form.
I came to my current school because it caters to a highly impoverished area in the South West. I felt I could use my experiences living abroad and my Oxford education to give children the cultural capital to raise them out of poverty. The Teach First promise to "unlock the potential in all our children" was so enticing.
But with school closures, the evidence suggests that the education gap has been even further widened by COVID.
Data from my lesson attendance would support this trend. Pupil Premium students have been absent and failing to complete work at a vastly higher rate than their peers across all year groups.
I tried to combat this issue by setting up Year 7 catch-up sessions for those falling behind. So far, these have been attended at best by only four students. The gap between the top students and those who are struggling widens every week. Those who are already equipped with independent learning skills are thriving, whereas low attainers are not getting the help they need.
There have been many moments when I have doubted my career choice. Most of these moments are born from a feeling of utter helplessness, of desperation at being unable to do more for these children behind the screens. I spend so many of my teaching hours blinking in dumbstruck silence as I am made to realise yet another privilege that separates my life experience from theirs. A year ago I would never have thought that teaching English vocabulary and grammatical terminology would become a fundamental part of my French lessons. Sometimes I believe I had more in common with my Japanese students than my U.K. ones.
But these moments of dissonance are the very reason that teachers must keep fighting the good fight. It is so easy to peg these children as 'unwilling' or 'lacking in work ethic' when in fact the problem is for the most part systemic. So many of them are grateful for an education - more so than we give them credit.
As a key illustration, I'll finish this post with some uplifting quotes from students responding to the question "How has learning French changed the way you think about the world around you?":
"French is only one of lots of languages, it makes me think how big the world is." (Year 9)
"By making me realise that there is more to languages than we think" (Year 7)
"[I] realise that when other kids learn English, they struggle to the way we do when we learn French." (Year 7)
"I'm more open minded" (Year 11)
"That most other languages learn English and we are lazy and expect then to speak to us in English." (Year 8)
"Not every one is the same" (Year 7)
"Because if I keep doing French class I will be able to speak another language which I've always wanted to be able to do" (Year 7)
"Learning French has made me realise how different countries really are different from our own" (Year 8)
"It has made me see that it is quite difficult for others from different countries to learn other languages so we have to respect that they may not always say the correct things." (Year 7)
"It's given me insight into French culture that I would not otherwise be exposed to - it's also interesting to know how many countries use French as their primary language." (Year 8)
"Since I like travelling, learning French has made me able to want to visit french speaking countries, and the more I learn and improve my fluency, the better my experiences abroad will be." (Year 11)
"It lets me understand different types of culture" (Year 9)
"Ever since starting French I have realized they have their own festivals." (Year 8)
"I feel more free to talk to someone new that is French and doesn't know much English" (Year 8)