Guest blog: Teaching on the front line

17 Feb 2021

Based on lengthy conversations, nine University of East London, School of Education and Communities teacher trainees share their experiences during Covid. Written by David Wells, Head of Initial Teacher Education, and Juanita Apostolis, Senior Communications Officer

This year, we are acutely aware how some of our most critical workers - our trainee teachers - are facing many challenges through Covid.

Trainee teachers work with our most vulnerable - our children - yet their hard work is perhaps overshadowed by other key worker celebrations in our media. But imagine yourself in the shoes of a trainee  in a school placement for the first time during the Coronavirus pandemic, dealing with your own  fears and emotions, while learning how to engage children through online learning.

We spoke to nine of our UEL Primary and Secondary phase trainees, inviting them to share their current experiences. The conversation was directed via several prompting focuses, including:

  • Covid Viewpoint;
  • The Challenges; 
  • From Strength to Strength;
  • Coping Emotionally;
  • Future Trainee Teachers;
  • The Silver Lining.

The general Covid Viewpoint from trainee discussions was perhaps as expected. Trainees were feeling overwhelmed at times and felt some trepidation with the expectations associated with training to teach in the current environment. However, they were also immensely proud to be supporting schools and their pupils.

Serrenna Crick, PGCE Social Science, described it as being a “really difficult time” yet “we all have a strong determination to push through these challenges and ultimately succeed at becoming the best teachers we can be”.

A consensus that trainees were developing invaluable resilience and skillsets as they move into their careers was also shared. Trainees were clear that the support received from their placement schools and university tutors was instrumental in maintaining confidence. The trainee teachers’ own peer support networks and communities of practice were also vital in enabling Covid related concerns to be shared and offloaded.

The Challenges were understandably widespread. Workload was seen as a challenge with many trainee teachers.

Joanne Hayhoe, PGCE Primary with Special Educational Needs, suggested, “workload has increased - we need extra support due to staff shortages, cover needed, children not having progressed due to the impact of the first lockdowns and having to constantly be prepared to move to remote teaching at a moment’s notice”.  

Other challenges included the difficulties of working from home, often in shared accommodation, making remote teaching quite an undertaking at times. The detachment of working in isolation was also raised along with the emotional challenges perhaps indicative of this.

Sara Zola, Level 6 BA Early Childhood with Education and QTS Degree, said, “being in front of the screen all day does not help. I also miss out on meeting friends and living on my own with no family here and I feel at times that this has really tested sanity as it feels like I never take a proper break from work”.

Despite the Challenges, trainees also offered Strength to Strength input. The advocation of ‘community’ was shared by many as an emerging strength that was vital in supporting current training. The skills gain was also a collective strength and indeed, empowerment.

Noshaba Anjum, PGCE Chemistry, advised that “remote teaching and learning have proved to be a unique experience. I have learnt how to keep my audience engaged, motivated and teach them at the same time. I believe that we are the luckiest generation of trainee teachers as we are learning to learn and teach both remotely and face-to-face. This versatile experience has improved my confidence, adaptability and organisational skills. I feel very empowered as this experience has given me the skills and practice needed”.

Although the Coping Emotionally focus was directed to the trainee teachers’ emotional handling, almost all positioned themselves from the perspective of their pupils. A selfless care and passion towards the wellbeing and mental health of their pupils was evident.

Morag Donald, PGCE Primary with Maths, said “my peers and I all agree that we are conscious of the additional emotional needs of pupils – this is not normal day-to-day school life”.

Harmony Hennessy, School Direct Salaried PE, suggested, “there is definitely a heightened anxiety amongst students with the virus”. Harmony also said that “I have been contacting pupils regularly to ensure they are managing with the workload and are okay. It is more important now than ever to remember that pupils are struggling just like the rest of us and maybe even more so”.

Amanda Roberts, Level 5 BA Primary Education with QTS concluded, “it is much harder to read how children are feeling and coping when you Zoom with the class twice a week. It is very difficult to be motivated as an adult in this situation never mind being a child”.

Overall, it was clear through the conversation that the emotional toll on pupils and the trainee teachers engaging through the lockdown period and Covid struggles, was potentially high.

Advice for Future Trainee Teachers and colleagues was discussed. Joanne Hayhoe said, “I would advise new trainees to be strong and resilient – take it one day at a time and keep on top of the work. Teachers are facing increasing challenges with remote learning, health and safety concerns and high levels of stress due to the unknown and workloads; I have seen this within my placement schools. Unfortunately, I do believe many may decide to leave the profession or take early retirement this year”.

There was agreement that current teachers may look to leave the profession and/ or take early retirement because of the pandemic.

Finally, the Silver Lining was presented detailing what the trainee teachers loved about the profession they were joining despite the current adversity.

Serrenna Crick said “the kids are amazing. They are trying to learn from home in a pandemic and they still show up motivated and ready to learn. It makes it easier trying to deliver a lesson or making something fun for them to do. They show their appreciation through progression”.

As a counter observation perhaps, Harmony Hennessey stated “the pandemic has not helped the profession with increasing anxiety levels or pressures placed upon teachers. But it is still a rewarding albeit challenging job”.

Presented here is a very brief snapshot of a 90-minute conversation with existing trainee teachers. We are proud of what they and all our trainee teachers are achieving. They have been a huge support for their schools on placement, are remaining positive in the face of adversity, and are appreciative of the new skills they are learning to enable remote and online teaching to take place. A true asset to the profession for many years to come.

David Wells, Head of Initial Teacher Education

Juanita Apostolis, Senior Communications Officer

Twitter: @UEL_EduandCmty