Last Saturday, we marked one year since we closed our doors as the first lockdown began its grip on our lives. In the final assembly of spring term today, Mrs Bingham reflected on what the school community has been through over the past 12 months.
‘I remember Friday 20th March 2020 being a very emotional day. I remember images and feelings from the day almost as if they were yesterday. But to truly recapture the day I went back to my diary. The day started in the atrium – this entry was not in my diary as this was an impromptu event. Do you remember these scenes? Big Band, ably led by Mr Beecroft, playing set after set? I remember colleagues walking through the doors (no masks then) and smiling at this unexpected treat. I remember you all crowding around the staircase from above (no social distancing then) to watch. Some of you even danced. I could see it in your faces. You all knew that we were taking a huge leap into the unknown. But you smiled and were determined to enjoy your last day in school.
The first official entry in my diary was the Year 11 Breakfast – a hurriedly but lovingly put together affair as the pastoral team realised that, far from having any celebration even approaching a muck-up day, these students had not even had a ‘Good Luck for the Exams that are No Longer Happening’ Assembly. I remember coming down the stairs to the Exhibition Space, worried I would have missed you all because Big Band had played well past the start of morning registration (nobody minded) to find you all signing your shirts and exchanging fervent non-socially distanced embraces. A pen was thrust into my hand by one of you and there followed an awkward but enthusiastic signing of shirts by the Headmistress. So far, so emotional.
The next two diary entries were serious business. It was all very well signing shirts and dancing to Big Band, but there was the small business of online teaching (for ever more only to be referred to as Guided Home Learning) to attend to. Assembly for Year 7 to 9 (no bubbles then) focused on key messages: don’t forget to get dressed in the morning, don’t forget to take your textbooks home, don’t forget to check Teams every morning for the 137 notifications from us, don’t forget this, don’t forget that. Do any of you actually have any idea what’s going on, I thought. Are any of you going to read any of the zillions of messages we have lovingly crafted? Will your parents have read any of them or will they already be plunged into ‘new ways of working’ otherwise known as Zoom?
There was a nagging little voice at the back of my mind that punctuated my otherwise cheerful thoughts.
The nagging little voice said this: do you actually know how to use Teams? You have Year 7 Latin on Monday morning. In the spirit of quality controlling an actual Live Microsoft Teams lesson (but actually so I could learn which buttons did what), the next diary entry was to ‘Watch Mr Foster’s Maths lesson’ in the Waterlow Hall. I got my first taste of remote learning (sorry, Guided Home Learning) and it was eerie. The Year 10 Maths class in question were sat in a fifth floor classroom with headphones on, eyes glued to their iPads. Meanwhile, Mr Foster and two of the current Year 10 students sat in total silence in the Waterlow Hall and I watched on admiringly. I watched Mr Foster do something utterly revolutionary. He posted in the Teams channel. The post contained something radical – a link to a Maths activity. He posted again: Thumbs Up when you have finished the task.
The eerie silence was quite calming by this point and I started to think we had it all under control. It was going to be ok. Then the Video Call began. This was uncharted territory, a feat of technological wizardry that we thought only the Brave Teachers would try on Day 1. I wasn’t sure at this point that I was one of those teachers and just as I was starting to think that perhaps I wasn’t, Mr Foster decided to share his screen, at which point the decision was made. I would have to teach Year 7 Latin by emojis alone. By Monday at 4pm, after a traumatic first lesson with Year 7, I was on the SHHS Staff Microsoft Teams Clinic asking how I stopped my lessons becoming like a WhatsApp chat group. Another bruised colleague shared how a PUPIL had taken control of a PowerPoint presentation. We practised again and again how to share our screens without revealing the contents of our email inbox. We learnt that Chatting in lessons was now a very good thing if it was in the Chat Function. It was certainly an awfully lot faster and less painful than asking people to unmute. The Chatting was not so good when it was a case of the Year 7s having a WhatsApp phone call running at the same time as the Teams Video Call. We sent in the troops – Miss Knowles – and order was restored.
The next diary entry says WRITE EMAIL. 45 minutes was blocked for this task which involved writing the covering letter for our bumper pack of mail for SchoolPost: ICT Acceptable Use Policy; SHHS Useful Contacts List; How to sign up for Key Worker provision, a scheme the Government gave us precisely 24 hours to set up; Lesson timetables… and other lovingly written but potentially ultimately unread documents.
Lunchtime has a rather lovely entry. The 365 Club – my little club of Eco Warriors. We met in one of the Art Rooms with paint and two members of the Class of 2020, now respectively studying Art Foundation at Central St Martin’s and Architecture at Cambridge University, helped the younger members of 365 Club design their Don’t Idle your Engines Banner which we wanted to put up outside the school in Maresfield Gardens. I was trying to remember what the slogan was that they eventually landed on – Don’t be a Petrol Head maybe? But it was probably something slightly more polite. Little did we know that within days the streets would be almost deserted of traffic.
The afternoon saw more emotion – this time we had to say goodbye to the Class of 2020. They sat in the Waterlow Hall right next to each other (no leaving a gap then) and they sobbed. They sobbed because their rites of passage – the Ball, their Retrospective, their animal-themed week of fancy dress, their Leavers’ Lunch, their Leavers’ Dinner, even their exams – had been cancelled in the space of just 48 hours. They put on a brave face as did their tutors and we went through the usual traditions. Videos that went on just a bit too long with the soundtrack of Friends in the background. Year 7 photos that were impossibly cute and impossibly numerous. Words of wisdom from the Head and Director of Sixth Form. Tears. And more tears. The valedictory overran by 20 minutes because they had so many photos to take, but eventually the final entry in my diary for 20th March 2020: Staff briefing. On a Friday evening. Rock n’ Roll.
The drinks trolley was loaded (there was even wine) but nobody terribly felt like celebrating. We had just bid farewell to all our pupils as they traipsed through the atrium unsure when they would return. We were exhausted and we were uncertain. I was not alone in feeling that despite many years in the classroom, we had all been sent back to teacher training college. It didn’t matter how brilliantly you could chair discussions, how razor-sharp your questions, how erudite your resources. All that mattered was whether you knew which button to press to Share Screen. It was no surprise really that after another barrage of information from a Senior Leadership Team (who really didn’t want to be barraging anyone with information but had no choice) that we all downed a glass of orange juice (rude not to) and sloped off home, armed with hard copies of a document which may as well have been called How to Entirely Change your Teaching in One Short Weekend.
I then crawled back to my office, fretfully flicked through a few emails (mostly lovely ones from your parents) and went home to plan my lesson for Monday morning: Stage 7 Cambridge Latin Course In emojis. I wrote out the most detailed step-by-step lesson plan I had written in years. Every single instruction was written out on a Word document ready to copy and paste into Teams when needed. The result turned out to be borderline farcical (what I would describe as #EpicFail) but at least we had Lift Off. More Apollo 6 than 11 but it was a start.
As a community we have been through so much since then. Some of you have tragically lost loved ones. Some of you have suffered mental ill health. Some of you have had the virus. All of us have at different points been lonely, bored, overwhelmed or exhausted. Or frustrated by the sheer uncertainty of the pandemic. Year 11 and 13, we know. We have all, however, also shown strength, resilience and courage in our different ways. By smiling in some cases when we didn’t feel like it, by working harder than we have ever worked before, in many cases, or simply by coming to school when times were tough.
We have all, however, also shown strength, resilience and courage in our different ways.
As we look forward fervently and hopefully to the completion of our incredible vaccine programme and the lifting of restrictions, I hope that you will all find a renewed sense of purpose. A renewed sense of joy in your lives. A renewed resolve to give your school, your family and your friends the best version of yourselves. A version which is measured not in grades or in externally validated achievements but in kindness, in courage and in hope. I hope, and hope is what we must do, for a Summer of Joy, a summer in which we can all reconnect with what it truly means to be human. In the words of the Metaphysical poet, John Donne:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
I wish you all relaxation and renewal over the next two and a half weeks and a wonderful holiday. Mehr Licht to you all.’