As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, schools in England have radically shifted form. After temporarily closing for the majority of children, they have remained open for some. The sector is in the midst of planning how to bring more children on site safely. Alongside this, extraordinary attempts have been made to sustain relationships with pupils who are not present in school. But what are schools like for teachers working with those children still attending? As an academic working in teacher education, I am interested in how teachers navigate this new territory that is familiar yet has become so strange.
Recently I opened up an e-mail from a past student who is now a newly qualified teacher. A radically changed classroom is described, characterised by openness to more child-initiated approaches yet closely bound to children’s emotions. As children’s wellbeing is tuned into, what seems to be paramount is the significance of listening to children. He offers one particular observation; a 6-year-old boy is drawing and talks about his sadness and worry about his mum who works as a hospital doctor. The boy describes her long working hours, his fears that she might catch the virus and the consequences for him of less time for normal things such as playing together in their local park.
This little fragment of a listening encounter illuminates the complex emotional labour that constitutes teacher’s relationships with children. Hargreaves (2001, 2005) describes such relationships as emotional geographies. I have used this theory in some recent research (Albin-Clark, 2020) and found that teachers use their emotions to activate changes in their pedagogical practice. In this example, we see the role that listening plays in enabling a space and time for the creative expression of complex feelings. Here the boy makes sense of his mum’s increased absence, his fear in relation to health, and how much he misses playing.
How teachers learn from these kinds of emotional encounters will not get lost as schools grapple with the practical changes that physical distancing will bring. It is a timely reminder that the relationships that teachers and their children build is strongly driven by listening. Teachers know that children will be profoundly affected by this pandemic. As we take small steps out of lockdown, it reminds us that schools have always been so much more than places for education. Listening to children is a skill that will be vital as we navigate future classrooms, and the good news is that this is something that teachers already do exceptionally well.
Dr Jo Albin-Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Early Years Education at Edge Hill University.
Albin-Clark J (2020) ‘I felt uncomfortable because I know what it can be’: The emotional geographies and implicit activisms of reflexive practices for early childhood teachers. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 21(1), pp. 20-32.
Hargreaves A (2001) Emotional geographies of teaching. Teachers College Record 103(6): 1056–1080.
Hargreaves A (2005) Educational change takes ages: Life, career and generational factors in teachers’ emotional responses to educational change. Teaching and Teacher Education 21(8): 967–983.