A day in lockdown as an academic mentor
After two decades away from the classroom, Lucy became an academic mentor - helping pupils bounce back from COVID-19. Now, she reflects on her experience.
Looking down at the schoolyard, from my fifth-floor classroom in an imposing Victorian secondary school, there’s hardly a sound - no planes in the sky, no offices filling up and no traffic on the road. I’m a few paces from London’s Square Mile and it should be rush-hour.
But down in the yard, overlooked by a former Tabernacle Chapel and County Court building, there is stirring; signs of life in an otherwise desolate city. The students are donning face masks, applying hand-sanitiser and having their COVID-19 test statuses checked at the gates - by staff with clipboards for the start of the school day.
Going into school during lockdown
Then, as students step from street to school, something happens. The younger ones accelerate, sprinting or skipping. The older students stride purposefully, looking for familiar faces and greeting the teachers on duty. They gather in their bubbles (assigned groups that don’t mix with others to prevent the transmission of COVID-19), where they kick a ball or play catch with a screwed-up piece of paper. This strangely uplifting scene depicts our onsite school for key workers’ children and other students who can’t work from home.
At the time of writing, most students (and we have over a thousand at this inner-London comprehensive) were being taught remotely. This was done via a blended learning system, combining live online lessons and paper-copy workbooks. It's well thought out, yet in order to use these webinar systems and range of accompanying gadgets, I had to adapt quickly - as all teaching staff have.
Prior to becoming an academic mentor, I worked for a decade as a history teacher (also running the school's public exams). I then spent another almost two decades in media, publishing and educational technology (Edtech). Jumping back into the classroom during the pandemic and learning all these new systems was eye-opening. Despite this, my colleagues and I now share knowledge of the latest Edtech apps, as well as pedagogical approaches for making the most of them.
What does an academic mentor do?
As an academic mentor, I was recruited as part of the government’s support scheme for schools. Part of this role involves daily virtual meetings with individual students or small groups, covering a range of subjects: from literacy fundamentals, to an A-level history class. Having taught much larger classes for a decade at the start of my career, I hadn’t anticipated what a rewarding experience it would be to teach more personally.
Teach First and the superbly-led Central Foundation Boys' School (where I mentor), liaise to optimise and tailor my workload. The Academic Mentoring Programme is predicated on really carefully matching mentors to schools, so that mentors’ strengths can be played to. Both the participating schools and mentors are guided by Teach First’s skilled and seasoned educationalists.
Mentoring like this is new to me, so I'm grateful for the structures put in place that have allowed me to respond nimbly to students’ questions and the work. The research sessions are also brilliant, in that they are tailored precisely to individual needs.
The virtues of the visualiser
A trusted gadget for these online lessons is my visualiser: a camera pointing down on my desk linked to the computer. It's kind of a modern take on the classroom staple of the 1980s and 90s the overhead projector, where I can sketch maps, write answers or plot a graph on a mini whiteboard which the students see live at home on their screens.
I tell the students this reminds me of the 1970s childrens' TV show Fingerbobs, where the presenter told stories entirely through finger puppets. I think of dressing up my hands in the costumes of the characters we are studying - Aristotle, Churchill or Gandhi. The students laugh (mentoring is a perfect opportunity for humour) and I tell them to take a look at an episode of the show on YouTube.
I know that sharing computer screens, presenting slides and watching videos are a more modern way to teach, but there’s something great about the fleeting nature of this whiteboard and visualiser combo, where only my hands are seen and my voice is heard. I can react, rub-out and re-work spontaneously. It’s where analogue meets digital; a snapshot of teaching in person once more.
Empowering the post-Covid generation
Under this level of scrutiny, my steadily ageing hands remind me of the passing of time. What a privilege it has been to return to the classroom after nearly two decades away and speak with a new generation, who, as they skip into our schoolyard, have the joie de vivre that will propel us past this grim pandemic year.