Building a culture of care

One of the things we’ve learned over the past few months is how important the right kind of community is in enabling learning. The physical classroom, with all its discomforts and rough edges, gives children a sense of being together in one place, a sociality that goes beyond fun (not to underestimate that). When you ask them to do classwork, they look around and see others bent over their books, and even many of the distracted ones are encouraged to similarly look at their notebooks and try to focus. Nudges from benchmates can get them to answer a question, and sidelong glances can be a way of sharing understanding. It’s the same with us teachers. The complaining and laughter over lunch and tea in the staffroom goes a long way in making the most tedious day bearable.

This community now has to be sustained over distance, mediated by screens, and there’s no looking across the aisle or over shoulders to catch the eye of a friend. For us teachers, the mundane companionship of the staffroom is replaced by trips between the kitchen and laptop (or smartphone) for a quick cup of tea or to check on lunch preparations.

Even for children who are by nature loners and introverts, there is often an energy to be gained from communion with peers. For those who are naturally social, these times can be particularly hard. I often hear from my students (who are all young adults) that they find it hard to concentrate away from the boundaries of the classroom. For some, it’s more than distraction – they find themselves depressed and anxious, unable to identify exactly why.

In other words, studies are beginning to show, an important collateral casualty of the pandemic has been our mental wellbeing.

Teachers have always had the additional role of carers. In visible and invisible ways, they often have to do more than simply impart education. They enable as well as teach – not just intellectually but also emotionally and psychologically. And when we’re doing our job through screens this can be a challenge. We need to project care in our voices and in our words, by allowing for pauses in our delivery and bringing in humour and lightness when we can. We need to carefully direct questions at individual students that encourage sharing, from the mundane to the more messy. We need to watch out for silences and hesitations that speak about more than not understanding the content.

It makes a tough job even harder. So as you log into your classroom today – take time to take care of yourself too!

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