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What we learnt about students during the pandemic – interview with PSHE lead at Oakham School

Lockdown learning personal routine, created by 6th former, Lauren (not from Oakham School)

I am sure all those of us who don’t work on a daily basis in schools know that the last 18 months have been ‘challenging’, let’s say. But what has it really been like? Ups and downs, details, things to learn? How have students and staff come through it? And how are students behaving and feeling now, at the start of a new school year they hope will be different but which they can’t predict?

Recently, I was having an email conversation with Viv Lamb, Head of PSHE at Oakham School, an independent boarding and day school in Rutland, and I was struck by something she said: “I think we are only just starting to comprehend how tough it was. The change in behaviour of the students for the better is interesting.  They are so chatty as we move around the campus, keen to engage you in conversation.”

I was intrigued by that, so I asked to do a mini-interview. And I am so glad I did as it’s even more fascinating, revealing and optimistic than I’d been expecting!

Interview with Head of PSHE at Oakham School

That’s so interesting that you’ve noticed positive differences as the students have returned to school. Can you say a bit more about that?

We’ve found students genuinely pleased to see you – not that we were underappreciated before; we are a very strong community here at Oakham.  There is certainly an increase in students popping in to say ‘Hi’ because they have seen my car. Oakhamians have always been happy to say Hello or Good Morning as they move around the campus, but there has undoubtedly been an increase in this – not helpful that my glasses tend to be on the top of my head, so I can’t always see who it is!

Oakhamians are genuinely excited to be back. Older pupils are particularly keen to engage in conversation about their courses; fill you in on what’s been going on since you last saw them, and ask how you are within very respectful boundaries. I’m finding my time just disappearing by ‘stopping for a chat’ as I move around, but when someone is genuinely pleased to see you, how can you not! The sense of wellbeing it gives you can’t be bought.

I wonder if the media – and society in general – have been too quick to assume that students would overall do badly in terms of resilience and mental health? Have too many adults been too pessimistic, whereas, in fact, many students have really come through this with extra strength and skills? How impressed and even surprised have you been?

Like all we do in PSHE, there is always a danger of over-generalisation and wanting a ‘common’ response. I think even as adults, it wasn’t a cut and dried situation. There were things we all benefited from – and some things we missed. The same has to be true for our students. I am sure that some found it difficult, and some indeed had a lot on their plate.

We delivered online lessons, and some students logged in early and stayed on at the end to chat in the same way they do in class – but more students were doing it. So the need for contact was undoubtedly there. But equally, I suspect that due to what they heard in the media, some pupils probably felt guilty about just enjoying being at home, being able to sit and stroke the dog and engage with the lesson.  No teenager wants to feel different, so we had to explain it was fine if you were happy and making good progress.

School can be a challenging experience for those in exam years. Cutting out the travel and the teenage constant ‘chat’ perhaps created an easier environment for some to ‘just be yourself ‘. I found that some engaged better online than they did in class. I wonder if they felt less judged? Or just needed to talk even if it was to answer a question or offer an opinion, and I hope those students have gained new confidence. The reverse wasn’t true – those who always have something to say still did.

Personally, during the good weather, I found a backdrop of birdsong, as the students sat in their gardens, an interesting element to deal with!

What do you think were the hardest or most detrimental aspects of online and fractured schooling during the last school year? How did the students cope overall? Were there any groups that found it harder than others?

The process of switching back and forth from face to face to online was very challenging for everyone, and that hasn’t really been given a lot of attention in the media. The lack of certainty about the immediate future was also very difficult for everyone. Schools thrive on routine, and it unnerves everyone when that is constantly adapting and changing.

People tend to see it all being about academic lessons, but the bit that was lost was the camaraderie from sport, doing different types of art or some drama together face to face. Music lessons continued but playing in an orchestra, groups and singing were all lost, and these are an essential part of life for many teenagers, and it’s how they express themselves.

I think the younger students found it all very discombobulating. They didn’t have the same motivation to focus online as exam students – for those who enjoy gaming or messaging, there were real temptations to fight.

Adjusting to a quieter existence was tough, yes, but suddenly being excessively stimulated by so much when we came back was really tiring and, on occasion, just overwhelming – something we are experiencing at the moment. It’s the noisier environments like the dining hall that are challenging. For those new to the school – students and staff – it must be particularly so.

Students are aware of the impact it has had on wider friendships outside their ‘best friends’. They don’t feel they know their year group well.  I would say the same applies to staff too. We have two intakes to get to know better, and the ‘loss’ of those who have left in the last two years is being felt much more keenly now we are back operating as a common room rather than isolated departments.

As a Head of Department, I have been trying to pop round and see all the classes in my remit, and it’s interesting with the Yr7 and 8 particularly how engaged they are. You usually have a couple of quiet students in each class, but that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment.

At the same time, there is clear evidence of a lack of ‘normal maturity’. Our Housemasters and Housemistresses suggest this is as much as 6-months behind normal emotional maturity. In the older students, I think there is a real possibility of them taking more risks around alcohol, relationships etc., as they plunge into socialising how they believe a ’17-18 year old should socialise’ rather than steadily building up to it, making small mistakes and learning from them.

I’m finding already that some of the early teenage ‘issues’ are not yet ‘issues’. I have just been doing body confidence with Yr 8s, and they have been very open and far less self-conscious, especially amongst the boys who were a bit bemused by it all.

The physical contact you see amongst younger students, friends linking arms, childrens’ rough and tumble has certainly been inhibited, and I wonder what impact that will have on them in terms of emotional development.

Although the pandemic is not over, I know we are all hoping for a more normal experience for the students this academic year. But if we do get more lockdowns and disruption, are there some things you’ll do differently/better with the benefit of the experience you’ve been through?

Despite being much more practically prepared for working from home and we can switch in a matter of minutes to an online school, we are all now aware that the online school is a ‘shadow’ of the reality. I think we will find another lockdown hard mentally as we are much more aware of the ‘cost’ to us personally. Another lockdown is a fear both staff and students are carrying around with them.

I think part of the positive energy we see at the moment comes from us all wanting to return to a form of normal we can manage – starting with being together but also a wider variety of classroom techniques and group work. So lessons are back to greater variety and pacing and the students appreciate that. Sport, drama, clubs of every sort and nature are all back on. To lose it all again would be tough.

Can you say any things you’ve learnt throughout this – about young people, about schools, about resilience, about yourself, even!?

Schools have had to become remarkably flexible and responsive places, not just academically but with technology, the space we have etc., and I think it has surprised us all just what we can do when we need to. The level of emotional investment so many people have in ‘the school’ goes well beyond staff and students. Even the staff in Tesco’s see the Tuesday and Thursday scrum for ‘treats’ as a welcome return to ‘normal’. We spend a lot of time as teachers looking at what makes a ‘good lesson’, but the relationship with students is the bedrock, and everything flows from that.

Personally, Oakhamians are why I have stayed at Oakham so long, but the pandemic has really reminded me why I like them so much. They are caring and make me laugh, and I value that even more.

Thank you so much, Viv! I’m in awe of how schools have coped and teachers have so quickly learnt the necessary new skills and yet found time for compassion for their students.

A few days later, I did an actual, live, in-person parent talk at Oakham School and it felt just like the old days, being able to see the audience’s smiling faces instead of talking at myself staring back from a computer screen.

We will quickly go back to much of the old normal but let’s bring what we’ve learnt and make our lives and learning even better than they were.

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