Distance weakens our ability to control. It is an odd feature of human nature which has been brought home to me this week. Visibility is a prerequisite to compliance. Without visibility, consequences cannot be incurred; power cannot be exercised.
Contained within a classroom, students are visible to the teacher: ‘Sit up, Johnny’; ‘Can you get on with some work please, Kate?’
And the teacher is visible to those who seek to hold them to account: ‘Try to make your explanations clearer’; ‘Please make sure your lesson starts promptly.’
Remove the physical proximity and it is tempting to reach for virtual visibility: how can we monitor from afar? We re-imagine ways to check that students are working, that teachers are setting suitable work, that ‘progress’ is being made.
There is nothing wrong with visibility. It helps us keep children safe and ensure they are receiving an education. But the fact is that we cannot recreate every control mechanism, which means we have to revisit our beliefs about what is really worth checking on.
Every one of us must make our own decisions about what visibility we pursue. For me, there are higher priorities than whether students complete work, complete it well, or learn something. Of course I want them to, but not at the expense of their mental and physical health. The work we set is as much about providing children with a feeling of normality, keeping in contact, making them feel they still belong to something beyond their family unit. If it is flagged that a student isn’t doing the work set, should my first thought be for their well-being or their learning? My instinct is the former.
We must accept that we cannot control most things. To get a sense of this, ask yourself why we aren’t still requiring students to wear school uniform? Try asking a student to tuck their shirt before they start doing the work you have set. This would be ludicrous. But what else do we need to let go of during these strange times? Should we be running virtual detentions on Zoom? Are we telling students they must not listen to music whilst working? I hope not: there are more important things. Remove proximity and the social norms we take for granted crumble.
In the absence of visibility, all we are left with is trust. Trust in our students to do what we ask of them. Trust in their parents to help them set good routines and sensible expectations. Trust in teachers to do the best by their students. Trust is the glue that will keep the concept of school alive.
When I have checked in with teachers at my school (note checked in, not checked on), I have been lifted by their positivity, resilience and professionalism. Every one of them is making decisions based on what will be best for our students. I can have trust because I know that there is a shared moral purpose. Trust and moral purpose are two sides of the same coin.
What I hope will come out of this period is a revival of trust at all levels. Starting at the top, we should trust that schools know what they are doing and act at all times in the best interests of students. That will help school leaders move more towards checking in with teachers, rather than checking on what they do. This is not some naive argument for removing accountability – that would be foolish. Rather a call to build our checks and balances on the assumption of willingness and integrity.
If students don’t manage to meet our expectations regarding work, this should cause us to question why. Is this just all too much for them? Do they understand the purpose and value of what we are asking them to do? Are we setting them work which is achievable and meaningful? Have we built the relational trust required to carry them through this? Blame need not be cast in either direction. Instead we should seek to understand what we can do (once we are all back in the same building) to minimise the need for coercion so that the important things happen even when no-one is watching.
We are discovering what is left of school when you remove the ability to control. Perhaps we should value what remains more when we return.