“I’d spend 9:00 am – 3:00 pm working with the children. And after they left, doing other things, thinking about the children and their work. Being with the children used to heal. Not meeting children was like less oxygen. It was a little like that,” a teacher and founder at a learning centre muses as he recollects the routine of his days pre-pandemic. Real-time engagement with children wouldn’t be the only thing taken away from teachers over the course of a continuing pandemic. Over the now two years of a pandemic world, teachers would find themselves grappling with conflicting time schedules, personal boundaries, emotional exhaustion, technological and pedagogical challenges, digital fatigue and a sense of alienation from a job that was otherwise second-nature. And even so, as is the human tendency, find ways to cope, re-define and re-skill themselves to show up for themselves as teachers and individuals and for their students as a trusted window of familiarity and stability amidst all else that seemed fragile and uncertain.
Experience of energy
Teaching in classrooms called for all one’s senses to be present to the moment of teaching and learning. One was able to allow for organic conversations, varying paces of discovery, visual feedback in expression and body language. When the classroom moved digital, it came with the cutting off of visual cues and confinement of a class experience within a strictly prescribed time schedule. S, a Montessori teacher shares how the Montessori method of peer-learning, self-paced learning and experiential introduction to concepts became a huge challenge and she eventually had to alter her teaching methods to be guided by textbooks in a grade-based grouping of children. Even schools that already had extensive use of technology in their classrooms found the distance learning through a solely digital medium a challenge, as shared by K, an international school teacher. She recalls attempting to continue the same method of teaching online as was offline, given technology itself wasn’t a new medium for her classes, but quickly found that online classes meant new strategies to hold the attention of the children and to make it more engaging and interactive. And then there was V, a government school teacher who was faced with a situation where her children had no access to good-speed internet or smart phones through the day as their parents were at work. She’d resort to sending images of worksheets and short video clips via WhatsApp and speaking to the children individually over a phone call in the late evenings when they’d have access to phones.
In the space of a shared common classroom, teachers felt more equipped to make the lessons interactive and driven by the children. Online, the tendency was for lessons to become instruction-based and monologic on several occasions. “I was talking so much during online class, back-to-back on most days. It was tiring and at the end of the day, I didn’t want to talk even to my own family,” shared S, while reflecting on the last two years of digital teaching.
In addition to delivering classes, teachers found themselves at the screen for several hours after either on meeting and planning calls with colleagues, research for lessons, creating worksheets/presentations/recording themselves to create video lessons and more. “Every small task which could have been a conversation in offline school became a worksheet or a recording, which meant a huge amount of time in creating these resources and documenting,” shared A, an IB school teacher. What used to be a more organic process of adapting lessons and engagements to children’s energy, interests and attention, began to become a more mechanical process causing a distinct sense of disconnect and dissatisfaction from the experience of teaching. A high-school teacher in a mainstream school held that very little real learning was successfully transacted on the digital medium and it was simply a helpless attempt at addressing the syllabus and supporting the child to be exam-ready.
“We miss seeing each other (teachers), not just children. There was a staffroom culture of conversations, laughter, reminding one another of deadlines, etc. Now we meet online for specific discussion and want to sign-out because we are tired of looking at the screen,” shared V, a mid-path school teacher. For teachers, where the experience of contentment primarily came from shared enthusiasm and excitement for learning with the children, the pandemic induced digital workspace brought about emotional exhaustion and digital fatigue, even pushing several to an acute sense of burnout. For those who had the option of giving up the job, it became a difficult but necessary decision to make and several chose to put down their papers at the end of the current academic year in favour of personal wellbeing and rest.
Experience of time
Work from home for most jobs, came with considerable flexibility and opportunities to save time – be it from lack of commute and traffic delays, morning routines of getting ready or scheduling domestic chores around being home. For teachers, the experience was as varied as it could be, depending primarily on the school management and systems. While one shared that teaching online came with a lot of flexibility in everyday schedule and time, with opportunities to rest and take power naps between classes, another shared not being able to plan breakfasts for lack of time to make or eat either due to late sleep hours from catching up on work or prepping for class in the morning hours. Most teachers shared the experience that even though actual ‘teaching hours’ were lesser than in offline school, time spent working seemed to spill throughout the day, primarily with planning lessons and team meetings to discuss curriculum adaptations, technology trainings and parent communications. “We felt like we had to be available all the time, for either meetings or talking to parents or even children sometimes who would call with personal doubts. It was not expected, but we did it,” shares I, a Montessori school teacher. While there was an understanding of work hours and no compulsion to be available beyond these work hours, most teachers felt the need to respond to queries from parents late into the evenings and night and definitely work (documentation and planning) spilled beyond these work hours into the rest of the day and weekends too. “Some teachers were choosing to be available through the day for parent communications or for meetings, and that became an expectation from everyone and soon became the norm. We began to actively plan for extended work hours eventually,” shared A, an international school teacher. She also said that she made it a point to make time for an hour’s yoga every evening, no matter what, even if that meant working an hour further into the night to complete her work. P, another international school teacher pointed out how, largely speaking, teaching is a female-dominant profession and they were hit different than their male-counterparts owing to imbalance within most families in sharing of domestic duties and caring for their own children.
“Even when I was free sometimes, I’d suddenly panic and check multiple times if I have completed all my work, if I am up to date with everything, if I have done things correctly because it is the first time I am depending so much on softwares and technology for my work,” shared V. Being a local-language teacher, she had an especially difficult time creating worksheets, finding ready-resources and correcting children’s work on softwares which were mostly foreign developed, not always accounting for local language keys. This meant spending a lot more time on tasks that would otherwise take half the time. There was an often unsaid pressure to prove that work was being done, sometimes to the management, sometimes to the parents. “Parents were beginning to question paying full fees when children are not attending school full-time. We felt like we had to prove to them that teachers were still working as much and even more in reality,” shared R, a mainstream school teacher. Several began to rest their self-worth on the tangible work that was being done and push themselves beyond regular work hours and offer their time and energy for conversations, clarifications and discussions while multi-tasking, preparing and consuming meals, among other ‘non-work’ activities. Time, all of it, was suddenly shared with an extended community of teachers, parents, children and family, making personal time an intentional act of self-care.
Experience of space
Teaching, even pre-pandemic has been one of those jobs that carried on beyond the space of work – sometimes in actual work that is carried back home (correction, paper-setting, lesson-planning) and sometimes in the mind (being inspired, learning, worrying about a child). Work from home practically collided the two worlds for the teacher like no other time before. Teachers and classrooms suddenly had an extended audience of parents or grandparents. I, a Montessori teacher, spoke of there being a constant awareness of being watched as the parents were always around during online class, unlike in offline school. Getting used to that took time and there was some nervousness and performance anxiety at the start; even more so as teachers were also vulnerable and adapting to a new way of teaching. R, a mainstream school teacher, too spoke of her lesser experienced colleagues feeling under-confident and anxious to teach while being watched by so many different parents at the same time, sometimes even being interrupted during class, “It was difficult to set boundaries and communicate to the parents to not interrupt classes because it was already difficult to keep children’s attention, especially since the children were finding it hard to be serious and less playful when they are in the space of extreme familiarity and comfort of their own homes or rooms.”
The space of home, while familiar and comforting for the adults as much as the children, also meant that there was no distinction of mental bandwidth for work for domestic duties and professional duties. A teacher shared, “Before the pandemic, if someone fell sick at home, we could take leave and be at home to take care of that person. And that was that, someone would cover for you at school. Now, everybody is stretched thin and if a family member is sick, we are sometimes asked to take an hour or two’s class since we are anyway home.” The sense of boundaries between personal commitment and professional commitment have blurred significantly. Another teacher, R, who works part-time at a mainstream school shared how prior to the pandemic, she would commit three days a week to school and that’d be it, she had the rest of the days to her own self. Now, online classes are spread across the week, even if she is working the same number of hours as before, which means that she doesn’t have any day completely to herself.
For work, that by nature isn’t already confined by the physical infrastructure of the school space, online school made it ever more hard to disconnect from work. “And once the boundaries of personal space have been intruded upon, liberties continue to be taken even as we struggle to reset our work-routines with intentional boundaries to nurture our emotional and physical health, while doing the best we can as teachers,” shared another Montessori teacher.
Moving as we are, with the ebb and flow of the pandemic-world, towards a hybrid model of schooling – part online, part offline, only time will tell what that holds for everyone – children, parents, non-teaching staff, school management and teachers. In the meantime, we all cope – even amidst resistance, uncertainty and exhaustion, relying on family, colleagues and a supportive school community of parents, children and management – all on the same side. “Going to the centre is like leisure, the pandemic took that away. Online teaching became work, and I was not enjoying work,” simply spoken by A, a teacher at a learning centre and a widely shared sentiment among teachers, regardless of the type of school they seemed to be working in. May the time ahead take us back to schooling, one that has been enhanced by a curriculum of value, compassion and curiosity – the things that matter and one that has teachers and children crouched together over moments of wonder and discovery.
Note: The article is written drawing from the experiences of nine teachers belonging to varied school spaces – learning centre, government school, mainstream school, mid-path school, alternative school and Montessori school.
The author is an educator and nature enthusiast. She enjoys working with children on nature and art based explorations, spending time in the natural environment, observing and documenting small happenings in nature. She has been working as an educator for over seven years now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.