We are all dealing with unforeseen implications of this pandemic every day. One administrative complication in schools this year is the impact the crisis has had on teacher absenteeism.

There can be a number of reasons why a teacher may be absent; it may be a simple cold that still necessitates waiting for a COVID test result, or indeed the seasonal flu, which means they are not in a state to teach their class in school or online.

However, the students still need teaching and supervision. Increasingly, our staff have to step up, losing their own preparation periods or a free period normally used just to take a breather in a full day.

To help out, I recently led a class of 14-year-old students studying English poetry. The poem of the day was Caged bird by Maya Angelou; the lesson was their first introduction to the poem. So in line with our philosophy of learning through enquiry, before reading the poem I asked them to brainstorm the idea of being caged versus being in an open cage and having their freedom.

An interesting explosion of ideas evolved as they offered adjectives or phrases connected with being caged versus being let out. But before we knew it, we moved to an alternative discussion about what it felt like being stuck at home during the March to June shutdown. Indeed, some of the students had also experienced a two-week quarantine process and so had all the emotions of that to offer.

We need to maintain and nurture our connections

These teenagers were sharing their feelings of being socially confined, caught up in something they have no control over and are forced to adapt to. Some felt caged, staying mostly inside, and began to view the outside world as fearful and strange. Words such as anxiety and irritability cropped up, along with boredom and loneliness.

We then moved into sharing what it feels like when you are let out, and the tension in the room shifted towards positive adjectives of freedom, independence and ownership of choice – all essential cravings for an adolescent. Those familiar with this poem will know that Angelou was using the metaphor of the two birds – one caged and one free in nature – as a symbol for the oppression of African Americans. But the poem is also about survival and the need for resilience and singing with hope, which sadly our teenagers could really relate to.

We are all – whether students, staff, parents, relatives or acquaintances – going through an exceptional paradigm change that requires huge resilience. I believe that, as a school, we have a responsibility to give the space for this to happen.

Interestingly, the class I looked after for a week ended up being part of our first cluster that had a positive case. That year-group cluster moved to online synchronous learning overnight, which we were prepared for; nevertheless, it was a shift, and once again, everyone had to adapt.

Our school theme this year may be ‘adaptive change’, but it does not make it any easier. We must work with our students on building their toolkit of resilience. Acknowledging that ‘stuff happens’ will help us all cope better, whether children, adolescents or indeed us adults.

We can only react to the ‘stuff’ that is within our control – we can wear our masks, sanitise, socially distance and continue to access our education. Above all, we need to maintain and nurture our connections to each other, finding a way through together.

Angelou’s caged bird may have been trapped but it was singing for a better day.


Totty Aris, head, Verdala International School, Pembroke

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