When they went into emergency lockdown two months ago, many thousands of teachers were forced to fall back on deeply unfamiliar practices: digital learning, lessons by Zoom and Teams, classes of remote, invisible pupils.
Now, ahead of a very gradual – and controversial – back-to-school operation starting Monday, an entire profession has received a glowing report card from parents full of admiration for the way teachers have taken to technology, creativity – and fancy dress – to keep their children keen.
Dozens of readers have nominated their teacher heroes in emails sent to the Guardian, expressing gratitude for those who have gone well beyond the call of duty with songs, videos, stunts and pranks.
“Languages can be so dry, so I just try to bring it to life,” said Richard Stephenson, a teacher at Spring Gardens primary school in North Shields, nominated for a new YouTube character he has created. “I thought the videos were the best way I could inspire them. I try to be a bit daft, which kids like, and put little games in, or activities they can do at home.”
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In character as Mr Steee, Stephenson started a YouTube channel to teach French while his school has been closed. He teaches children about the world around them during lockdown, including the words for household rooms, foods, and family.
“My daughter films them, and I get her to ask questions. The nextdoor neighbour was up doing some work on the roof, and I got him to join in as well. It’s about the idea that anyone can speak it, you’ve just got to give it a go,” he said.
His friend Andy Mason has been watching the videos on Facebook, and has shared them with his sister who uses them to teach her own children.
“I think its so effective because he appeals to the adults as well as the children. I look forward to them and totally appreciate the effort taken too,” Mason said. “I know that is a very genuine thing, he did it just because he was wanting to help people out.”
At Bessemer Grange primary school in London, Ned Symes has been teaching using the objects around him in lockdown in daily creative videos, which see him going out for a walk and finding numbers in the environment, making up songs, or learning to count using cuddly toys or pieces of fruit.
For parent Clare Hewitt, Symes’ videos have been invaluable in supporting her four-year-old son during lockdown.
“We were struggling a bit with my son being younger, wondering how we entertain him, so it was a real relief when the school started posting these videos every day,” she said. “My son is able to stop, start, rewind the videos, so each one gets about 10 viewings. After a while, he started asking for Mr Symes.”
Hewitt also praised Symes for the flexibility in his teaching. He is careful not to assume which resources parents might have available, and offers alternatives for each task to suit every family.
“Because of the children’s ages, it could have been difficult to teach virtually, but he’s done that really well and captured their imagination,” Hewitt said.
Steiner schools, independent institutions that offer flexible curriculums and encourage a creative education with much time spent outdoors, are less suited than most to digital learning.
Hamish Clark, a Steiner school teacher, has turned his kitchen into a TV set to make short videos of himself doing activities that his students can replicate at home. To keep a connection with the children, he is cycling about 100 miles each week to pay each of his students 30-minute physically distanced visits.
“It’s a reminder that I’m still in their lives,” he said. “With just video [interactions], you see people drift away. The kids much prefer to see me face to face, it means they can talk to me privately. A lot of them lose confidence when everyone is there.”
Clark believes that the pandemic has caused a shift in the role of teachers in the community – one that he hopes will stay.
“It makes you a bit more of a figure in the community, and you have more of a supportive role. I think it’s made teachers more caring. It shows people the importance of teachers, that we’re not just someone at school, we have a position which is really important for the child,” he said. “It’s also brought the parents closer to the school, they’re seeing how much the teacher cares for their child in a way that they couldn’t see before.”
It is not just professionals who have been going above and beyond for students during the school closures. At the University of the West of England, the senior lecturer Will Grant praised the students working towards their PGCE to become art teachers for their commitment to their students, despite their placements in schools being cut short.
After the cancellation of their placements, Grant began to receive emails from the secondary schools they had been working in telling him that the students had been volunteering to step in for colleagues who were shielding, and helping to produce resources for remote learning.
“I have been simply awestruck by the humble and dutiful actions of my current postgraduate student teachers,” said Grant. “This self-initiated response to a crisis in our educational establishment, after the student teachers had been told categorically that they were not duty-bound by their course to contribute to schools post-lockdown, made me proud to think of the calibre of character we have entering our schools in September 2020.”
“I know that given a few months this cohort will have started their careers with more resilience than perhaps any other newly qualified teacher of the last 50 years.”
With many parents forced to become home educators overnight, some have expressed their gratitude to family members who have stepped up to support to children’s learning.
Kalvi Nadarajah’s mother, 72, has become a “screen-sharing Zoom expert”, conducting daily online learning sessions with Nadarajah’s six-year-old daughter. This has helped Nadarajah work from home, and ensured her daughter has continued to progress with support as she works through the online resources provided by the school.
It has also brought the family closer together and kept lockdown isolation at bay. “It’s great for their relationship too as they are spending far more time together than pre-lockdown given the physical distance between us and keeping my mother who lives on her own occupied when she was really starting to feel the isolation,” Nadarajah said.
“My 20-year-old physics undergrad niece, Cara, is stuck at home in the Midlands – no mates, no boyfriend, no social life – and dedicates an hour a week to teach my reluctant eight-year-old maths,” said Mary Rawlinson. “He wasn’t especially interested when I suggested the idea, but when I mentioned it again, he agreed, and after his first session he came off absolutely buzzing.”
Rawlinson’s son has gained newfound enthusiasm for studying maths, and is now learning material set for children two years his senior.
“She has enthused him so much he was disappointed once when we forgot the lesson time and had to see if she could squeeze us in late,” Rawlinson said. “He came away from the lesson thrilled and smiling after adding and subtracting fractions with different denominators – I’m not sure many of us could do that.”
“Cara is without doubt a total genius and we are so grateful to her,” she added.