Wynberg Voices: Teaching Under Lockdown – Rantings of ‘An Old Bat’

Wednesday 27 May 2020: Head of English at WBHS, Ms Jocelyn de Mink, made contact with our Wynberg media team about publishing a selection of essays by the students on the topic Learning under Lockdown – the project initiated and promoted by Professor Jonathan Jansen of Stellenbosch University.

Ms de Mink continues in her own words: “My Grade 10s, 11s and 12s were tasked with writing a one-page, typed essay … Some of my students challenged me to do the same, so I did. This piece is aimed at the boys; there is no political mention, and no reference to the dreaded return dates. This task was given before we were unceremoniously informed that we must go back, as teachers, on 25 May, irrespective of our circumstances:” 

[This essay was first published to the Facebook Group, The Village, on Saturday 23 May – we take pleasure in reproducing it here, and look forward to publishing the first collection of student essays. – Ed]

“Good morning, Gents! Let’s get settled quickly and quietly, please. Today, we’ll be continuing with Piscine Patel and Richard Parker in their quest for survival! Turn to page…(Luke! Get your book out!)…page 97. When we last read, we discovered that Richard Parker was in fact…(Declan, you’re late! Tuck in your shirt and go and get a signature from Mr Hull!)…Uhm…what was I saying? Oh yes, Richard Parker was…(Chilwan! Is that a phone I see?)…Richard Parker was in fact under the tarpaulin. You have a question, Brooklyn? What? Richard Parker? That’s the tiger! What have you been doing these past few weeks, Brooklyn? How on earth can you not know, AT THIS STAGE, who Richard Parker is?” and on and on and suddenly…

…silence. The desks in my room are unoccupied, the corridors are quiet, the fields are empty. My “sweet” boys are all at home. Aaah…silence, at last! A much-needed break, I think, from the constant interruptions, incessant chatter, silly questions and general mayhem that sometimes fills my day. One quick English department meeting later, and we’re on our way home – into lockdown. The plan? It’s only 3 weeks, right, 2 of which are “holiday” weeks. So be creative in your lessons and let’s use the time to set all the June examination papers.

It’s now 2 months later, and here I sit – staring at the computer screen that has become my classroom, missing the mayhem, loathing the silence and longing for a silly question. Teaching from home cannot be called that – “teaching”. I have taught myself to use some technology that was previously foreign to me; I have taught myself to do some necessary chores in and around my home; I have taught myself to stick to a routine that does not involve up to 10 hours of “teaching” a day. Following up on 5 different classes and 5 different grades electronically will drive me insane, if I let it. And I cannot afford to go insane, as I have my own 2 children at home who need their mother to show some semblance of normalcy. True…they do spend most of the day cooped up in their rooms, sleeping or doing some form of online interaction. They roll their eyes at me when I suggest a walk, a board game or a “family” spring clean day. Who can blame them? I spend so much time glued to this computer screen, busy with lessons, follow-ups, Teams meetings, that I no longer have the energy to nag my children to do things with me. We are basically living past each other, as our routines are vastly different.

But back to “teaching”. It troubles me when I consider what my boys have actually learned during lockdown. I have no idea whether they understood the metaphor / euphemism / tone / mood of the poem / chapter / essay. Did they appreciate the beauty of the poem “An Ordinary Day”? Did they understand the relevance of “An African Thunderstorm”? Did my WhatsApp reading of my favourite poem in the whole world, “Prayer before Birth”, move them? The work is getting done. My inbox is flooded with emails from my students (the untidy, the rushed, the side-ways, the upside down, the blank)…it’s all coming in. My worry? Did they understand? How do I check that they did? How much time did they allot to their work? Did they merely get answers from a friend? Is their integrity intact? Is their sanity intact? Are they feeling, as I am, the anxiety of an academic year that is passing by with nothing but a screen for company? So many questions! So few answers…

For the past month, the insomnia has been bad too. Try as I might, I cannot fall asleep without some kind of medication. I feel as if a hundred tabs are open in my brain at the same time – follow up on boys, email the English department, water the plants, paint the window sills, Teams meeting at noon, make a pie for supper, respond to Ethan’s WhatsApp about his parts of speech worksheet that has gone missing, check the electricity units, buy toilet paper, answer Liam’s question about the hyperbole in question 5.2.1. All of this and more flows through my mind at 3 am, when I should be sound asleep, resting up for the next day’s lessons.

I am an eternal optimist – those who know me can vouch for this – especially with regards to my wards, and their capacity to produce the best they possibly can. However, my anxiety levels are at an all-time high. I did not sign up to teach from home. I worry constantly about whether my students are safe, fed, sane and genuinely working. The WhatsApp banter has whittled away to almost nothing – should I worry? Are they giving up? Or are they now starting to see my sometimes motivational / sometimes berating messages as a replacement for the nagging I usually do in class? Do they miss the cacophony of sounds that often accompanies a “normal” lesson? I certainly do. On some days I am angry, confused, consumed with irritation and have little patience for the late submission of work. On other days I send them the most beautiful and motivational messages for a piece of work that is “well done”. How can I be so inconsistent, when that is the last thing they need right now? I worry all the time!

Never, in a million years, did I think I would long for the sound of the school bell, the giggle of a boy just as I get to the crux of the lesson, the deliberate questions boys sometimes ask just to change the “direction” of the topic, the interruptions, the chatter, the “noise” that is life at school. The silence is deafening!

I have to end my essay now, as I have restricted the boys to one typed page (I see now why some of them struggle and complain about a word limit. I have so much more to say!).

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