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The Learning Institute

Reflecting: a student diary

During the lockdown of COVID-19, we’ve been keeping in touch with our students. Here are Nicolle's thoughts on studying in these unprecedented times.

Nicolle is in her first year of the FdA Learning and Education, and is one of The Learning Institute's Student Ambassadors.

14th April 2020

As we are now past the Easter bank holiday weekend and are entering our fourth week of “lockdown” in response to the Covid-19 outbreak I thought now was a good time to reflect on what I have done over these past few weeks. As I am embarking on the first year of my degree, a four-year path to becoming a teacher, I have found myself receiving an unexpected promotion. I am now not only ‘mum’ and not only a ‘student’. I am now in addition ‘home-school teacher’ and have found myself also having to take on a sort of pastoral role. I have often found myself pondering ‘what is normal?’ and ‘will things be that version of normal again?’

At first, I thought this was brilliant. There can be no better way to prepare for the future than to have to actually be the teacher- not only supporting learning but having to plan and mark it too! Well, firstly teaching your own kids is ten times more difficult than anything I’ve encountered in an actual classroom. What at first was an exciting adventure preparing a mini wall-display, a visual timetable and cross-curricular lesson plans descended into chaos (although it meant I could justify buying the laminator I had wanted for a while...). As I am sure any parent, regardless of any external factors can attest to, teaching your own children is hard. Now, consider the fact one is of reception age (4) where learning through play is the way and that the other was preparing for their Key Stage 1 SATs (7) but just wants to play their games console. Their teachers are definitely being showered in gifts when this is all over!

Nicolle's mini wall and timetable display
Nicolle’s mini wall and timetable display

I decided to take a relatively laid back approach to their home learning in the end, they do what amounts to approximately 2-3 hours per day (Mon, Tue, Thurs, Fri) of core subject learning, with an additional 10 minutes each 1:1 reading each day. Then we shake things up a bit and try do something that is fun but educational. Things like baking cakes (the weight loss plan will have to wait until next year!), colouring, board games (turns out 7-year-olds love chess?!) and then my personal nemesis Arts and Crafts. I won’t lie when we successfully made a butterfly to hang at the window using a toilet roll tube, coloured paper and some paint pens I felt like a genius!

Nicolle's and children's butterfly
Nicolle’s and children’s butterfly

I think the thing a lot of people are forgetting is we parents are not their teachers- even those of us studying to be one are not there yet and actually children’s learning does not have to be worksheet after worksheet (although they certainly help to keep them quiet for 5 minutes when required!!). Play a game of 21 with a deck of cards, paint half a butterfly and fold it in half, let them write a comic strip. If they have an interest use it, it’s still learning, and they don’t even realise it! 

Then there’s the mental health element, now I would love to say my Level 2 qualification in children’s mental health was helping me with this one, but… no! How do you explain for the tenth time to a heart-broken 4-year-old that her first ever birthday party that she’s been planning since mid-last-year probably won’t be happening? How do you explain to a 7-year-old that it’s not your fault his friends/their parents are not replying to his messages? My bright idea to set him up an email address so he can ‘pen pal’ his classmates through this suddenly seems a bit foolish! Oh, and then a personal favourite “The Easter Bunny is over 70, shouldn’t he be isolating? What if he dies?”, cue hysterical floods of tears... I am public enemy number one 90% of the time but I am all they’ve got. With their dad being a ‘key-worker’ it’s down to me. I’ve resorted to just trying to make this as fun as possible for them and answering the questions as and when they arise.

Then there’s the looming double-assignment deadline to factor in. Living in a small flat with two children, a husband and a puppy does not bode well (when this is over I’m moving somewhere with a garden!). I have lost count of the amount of times I have sat down to reply to an email or read a journal article only for a Frozen II sing-along to erupt behind me or an outburst of “BUT I WANT TO GO ON THE XBOX”.

Then there’s the chaotic work-space. What was a meticulously organised space is now layer upon layer of children’s worksheets, then the printouts for the upcoming module and then the journal articles for this current one- all mixed together in a heap on ‘my desk’. It doesn’t feel like my desk anymore. I would like to say it’s organised chaos, but it really isn’t! Imagine my amazement when I hit the word-count on these latest assignments and submitted a week early.

Then there’s the fact, I am actually looking forward to beginning this new module (tomorrow!!) and having something for ‘me’ to focus on again. It’s only been a week since I submitted that last one and I have missed that stolen time where I felt myself ‘growing’. I was doing something for myself. I guess what I am trying to say to my fellow students here is you’ve got this!

21st April 2020

Some highlights from this past week- well I finally acquired some paint (not sure if I’m excited or full of fear- my nemesis, Arts and Crafts is now unavoidably on the agenda), I did A LOT of online shopping (not sure if this was a productive act or an act of escapism?) and I have started work on my latest assignment. Home-schooling highlights this week included making Pizza from scratch, making puppets for a puppet show and my 7-year-old has mastered his three times-table! Our next challenge, making a video to send to school of their best work (maybe technology is my adversary more so than crafts?).

As mentioned in my previous blog in the past week some level of normality, in the form of lectures, has resumed! It was definitely different from what I had experienced previously in online sessions. A session that had been intended to be delivered face-to-face had been adapted for online. Furthermore, Team Poole would be working in collaboration with Team Southwark! Usually online sessions would be delivered to groups from the same setting or the same degree but these sessions are definitely working wonders for my confidence- either that or my thirst for adult conversation has driven me to need to verbally contribute a lot more than usual!

It was great to get stuck into our new module ‘The Enabling Environment’. It has got me thinking as a student, a parent, and a practitioner what steps are currently being taken to enable learners? These are unprecedented times and schools, parents and learning providers have had to really adapt and adjust to what is going on in the world! As detailed probably long-windedly in my last post, home-schooling is taking over my life, so I took the opportunity this week to email my children’s teachers some of the work they had done and what really struck me is their responses. Words of comfort and encouragement to the children and an acknowledgement that they too were balancing home-schooling their own children with working from home- they understood the struggle! It begs the question, when this is all over, will the ‘accountability culture’ that has been allowed to develop, in recent years, between parent and practitioner still exist? Or will Corona have inadvertently smashed down this barrier?

28th April 2020

 This week marked my family’s seventh week in lockdown (except the husband). I am still not sure if I envy his stints outside of what is turning into a very chaotic home or feel despair on consideration of the risks he could be taking?! On a more positive note Boris Johnson delivered the news we are past the peak and of course this week will mark Captain Tom Moore’s 100th birthday! I think it is hard not to feel inspired or optimistic for the future.

I also have found myself really inspired by my latest online lecture- as a post session task we have been asked to consider our ideal school of the future. Considering the current situation school could be very different for some time. In recent weeks those of us positioned in schools or with children have been seriously contemplating some of the different possible outcomes- if some children cannot go back soon will they need to repeat a year/be ability streamed? Will the attainment goals be altered to reflect what could be half a year of missed education? Will the impact on children’s mental health become more of a focus than it has previously been within school? So many questions and very few answers but it’s got me thinking about the sort of teacher I would like to be and the sort of classroom I would like to have. I’ve definitely altered my practice as home-school teacher this week, lots more time for discussions and a lot more opportunities to creatively express ourselves. I have also taken some time for ‘me’ this week- well... not exactly but I have brought myself a few treats to relax with when life slows down a bit. Am I alone in wondering how being stuck in is saving so much money? Aside from the minimal fuel use it’s definitely made me question how much we were wasting before!

This past week has been, to repeat myself, chaotic. I have begun to see my latest assignment come together, yet much like with the lockdown measures being eased, I’m not quite there yet! The kids have begun to express their frustrations at not seeing their friends a bit more loudly and the pup is teething- queue the nipping and subsequent tears! We also saw the second of our lockdown Skype quizzes for TLI Team Poole (and our partners- can’t leave them out!) and I’m definitely fairing okay with those. I was slightly astounded to hear some of my fellow students are not familiar with Star Wars or The Hobbit, so that’s something to remedy when this is all over (even if you’re not a fan you have to see them at least once right?).

5th May 2020

In an almost ironic twist since my last post it has finally happened. Having expressed my concerns about my husband’s stints outside the house for work, he was sent home at the weekend having developed a cough. He walked through the door five hours early and announced he needed to book a Coronavirus test! It took the best part of four days to secure a slot locally, but he finally has his test booked for tomorrow. I wont lie bizarrely him being at home, despite the reason why, has really allowed me an opportunity to not worry so much- it is amazing how the human mind works!

On to the more positive aspects of the week. This week we received a long-awaited delivery, followed rather ironically by a donation, of craft items. We made our own clocks and next week apparently, at the request of my four-year-old, I get to make a princess crown for my male dog. The excitement is palpable as I am sure everyone can imagine! The kid’s primary school also managed to set up online video lessons and my eldest got to experience his first today. He loved getting to do “what mummy does on a Wednesday” but there were a lot of tears afterwards! I also became ‘hairdresser’ but the less said about that the better.

In course related news, we spent some time in session this week talking about transitions, I thought this was especially relevant and I am sure I am not alone in waiting with bated breath for the Prime Ministers announcement on Sunday! How will our lives be changed next?

To finish last week, I said “yet much like with the lockdown measures being eased I’m not quite there yet!”, well this week I can announce with a great deal of pride I am there. Assessment seven of eight complete! Who can believe that this time last year the concept of starting university was terrifying to me and yet here I am almost finished for the year! It is surreal. For any of my cohort beginning to feel overwhelmed by the current situation I would honestly recommend taking an opportunity to reflect, not just on the past 9 months but on the months prior to beginning the course. It is amazing how far we have come and gave me a genuine boost!

17th May 2020

So, on May 6th I said my husband had potentially conducted Corona Virus, I thought I should probably start this blog post by sharing the news his test results came back as negative. I was relieved but even more so I was amused… he spent 10 days off work for displaying Hayfever symptoms. Now, whilst many will say “there’s nothing amusing about taking precautions”, what was actually funny about this particular instance is I have been trying to tell him for the past three years he had hay fever. Every April/May without fail he would develop a cough and the symptoms of a cold and would tell me how rubbish he felt, adamant it was a bug that just happened to last for weeks. Then every year, as a victim of hay fever myself, I would tell him he was wrong. Anyway, he’s finally accepted I was right and scuttled back to work leaving me with the troublesome two.

This week I caught the bug, the DIY bug. I got a tin of paint and began to paint a feature wall in my lounge (and apparently my dog, who now has a very flattering purple patch above his left eye). I got feedback for my last assignment mid-week too, I did pretty well and consequently decided to give myself a bit more credit and submit my presentation. I then begun to write the latest essay. The irony, this week comes in that schools MAY return the first week of June, the week my assignment is due. So, on goes the battle... trying to write a compelling introduction whilst the kids throw stuff at each other and scream “MUM” every five seconds! Is it still writer’s block when you have no idea what to write but can attribute it to a specific distraction? I feel like Johnny Depp in the beginning of the film ‘Secret Window’. Just without the disassociated identity disorder and murders.

We’ve had a pretty interesting week in terms of home learning this week, we’ve made posters, had Zoom calls with their teachers and learnt about noun phrases. I have had chats with both children’s teachers over the phone and have found myself really agonising over the potential school returns. The announcement by the Prime Minister has left me with more questions than answers. I know I am not alone in this. For somebody who is quite interested in politics to not be able to firmly sit on either side of this debate is unusual and unsettling. I am typically that annoying individual that says the controversial statements and then digs my heels in whilst others try to change my mind. But this time I just do not know! I know that when my daughter’s reception teachers asked me would I be sending her back, my reply was “provisionally yes” pending further information. I also know I emailed my setting and said if they needed, I was happy to return. However, I also know I am not entirely comfortable sending my anxiety prone daughter back to a ‘different school’ to the one she knows when it is in fact her older brother craving that return but not being able. I do wonder whether the government and unions will come to a compromise?

30th May 2020

Well here we are, the weekend before schools re-opening. To all my fellow students returning to their work or volunteer placements on Monday I wish you all the best. I unfortunately have not been called back, in a one-form entry school there just isn’t the space for anyone not on the payroll, and even of those that are most aren’t going back as before.

So, I have one child returning on Monday and honestly nothing could have prepared me for the internal struggle she’s been going through this past couple of days.
“Mum I can’t wait to see my friends and my teacher and play on the bikes!”
“Mum but I don’t want to go back on my own. I’m not going without my brother!”
“Mum I am going to be in school on my birthday, they will all sing to me!! Can I take sweets?”
“But Mum, I was allowed to take my cowgirl Jessie in before?”
This has been an endless cycle for the past several days. Her thumb-sucking has returned, and I just know Monday is going to be horrific! HORRIFIC!

Then there’s my son, absolutely adamant he wants to go back to school, but only if his friends and his teacher will be too. “They will not be there” I explain, he accepts and goes to his room to sulk. In response to his sister returning to school I’ve granted him complete autonomy over what topic we cover for his home learning- he’s picked the second world war- so in an attempt to keep his spirits up we have planned our first ‘home-school school trip’ to a local village that was abandoned during the war and still is.

I do wonder how much grey exists under the infinite amount of hair dye on my head after these past few weeks?!

This week has also been eventful for other reasons, I got a very exciting email on Wednesday which read “YOU’RE FAMOUS!” and so I was. This week my interview about The Learning Institute with Devon Live went… well… live. This took me back to when I was interviewed for the BBC Politics Show… maybe 14 years ago? This was much more successful; I still remember being shoved in front of a camera in a shrunken t-shirt my mum had shrunk in the wash and being mortified. No such cringey-ness surrounding this interview thankfully.

Then I submitted both my assignments last night, the last of the year. I cannot quite believe that’s my submissions for the year done. I treated myself to a much over-due celebratory beverage but if I am totally honest, I am now not quite sure what to do with myself? It’s going to be a long summer…

First year reflection

Rewind 12 months, I sit in my living room, I have sent off my UCAS application to study a Foundation Degree in Learning and Education. “Am I really doing the right thing?” I ask my husband. “You won’t know until you’ve tried” he responds somewhat exhausted by having that same conversation yet again. Three months later, I stand outside the middle school my course is being ran out of, the weight of the bulging pencil case and array of notepads and folders in my bag reassure me I am nothing if not prepared. I enter determined but full of anxiety. This anxiety I soon discovered was unnecessary as was probably half of the stationary I insisted upon taking.  

I entered a large well-lit room with sweets laid out upon the tables. My new tutor introduced herself as did the settings administrator who I had fortunately met before. Others arrived and I remember thinking they all looked young and that this was going to go one way or another…

Here I stand today, my first year of study completed. This, due to my future ambitions, is the first of four years. It has flown by. Almost like a blink and you’ll miss it experience. How is it possible that in the past 10 months I have attended 29 lectures, 2 student conferences and submitted 8 assignments. HOW? If this is reflective of the pace of the next three years, I am almost saddened. It has been amazing and far too quick!

I remember wondering how it would be possible to teach up to four degrees at the same time in the same centre. Yet I can honestly say this is my favourite aspect of these degrees. I remember the first handful of times I heard the term “community of inquiry” and thinking this sounds like an excuse for some to work harder than others and yet everyone to reap the benefits. I was sceptical to say the least. Fortunately, this reluctance was again ill-founded, with everyone benefiting from each other’s experiences.  I have made some fantastic friends, some of which are studying a different course to myself. We discuss a topic, such as inclusion, and are not limited to the one setting (such as a school) or shared experience and instead explore it from a multitude of angles, gaining an insight that had this not been the format would have been impossible.

The modules covered have been diverse and relevant. I was probably not as familiar with the style of work expected, amazed when given the autonomy to be critical of the statutory curriculum with no expectation to conform or ‘blow smoke’ where I didn’t think it was deserved. I cannot lie and say some modules have not been more challenging than others, but with the benefit of hindsight more often than not that’s because I have over-complicated them. I have probably immersed myself too deeply in all of my modules having acquired my own mini library, despite having access to hundreds of sources online but this only acts as testament to how interesting it has all been.

Then there’s the student conferences, a chance for my local group to get away on a weekend together, we can go off into our different degree specific groups and then come together for meals, drinks or to chat- like a mini-break with friends. Better still however, the tutors join in and this provides further insight into all manner of discussion topics and not just those related to our studies. It really does feel like a community with no hierarchy or barriers and they even had a make your own cheesecake at one of them!

 All in all having looked back over this past 12 months I can truly say this has been one of the best of my life. I have felt myself grow academically, in confidence, in ambition and develop my skills in relation to my work placement. I have made some great friends, who have all supported one and other through the current lockdown situation and not just in relation to our studies. I have had opportunities for CPD present themselves separate from my course and I have nothing but gratitude for all the students and tutors I have worked with. I cannot wait to embark on Level 5!

A different type of Summer and a new term

As my extended summer break ends, I have been asked to reflect on the last couple of months and how I’m preparing to return to the new semblance of normal.

Firstly, my summer has not been much to write about. Certainly, last year I could boast trips to theme parks, museums and days at the beach. This year’s highlights consist of that one trip to Aldi and one socially distanced play date. I did however get the opportunity to meet with some of my fellow students at a local pub for a catchup a handful of weeks ago, to say I felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic utopia would be an understatement but we certainly had a laugh!

I have been sent some pre-module work to get through before returning to lectures in just over 3 weeks. I won’t lie that’s a task for next week when my two are back in school and I have a day off. However, I have started to prepare for my return to sessions. I thought I would be clever and decant all last year’s work and journals from five ring binders and five wallets into one extra-large lever-arch file. This was a space saving mission. Well I misjudged that! Two lever-arch files and a lot of squashing and restructuring later and I have saved absolutely no space! 

I return to my work placement in the local primary school on Friday, I think I am excited but equally nervous. I recall in my last module before the summer writing about the conflict faced in schools, between meeting the needs of the individual child and the standard’s agenda. As school staff wrestle with the mammoth task of helping to reintegrate pupils back into formal education and supporting their mental health needs, they will also be expected to test or assess these children so as to ensure they are caught up on learning missed effectively. On the one hand there is a duty of care for the wellbeing of pupils but there is equally an obligation to deliver the national curriculum at a now increased pace. I think of the now late Ken Robinson who said the role of education is to “enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them”. I wonder what he would say to these children being tested in core-subject areas whilst all the creative learning they may have done at home gets discarded. As a parent I am angry but in my professional context I have nothing but gratitude and empathy for those walking this tight rope.