The shape of school goes fluid

There's no doubt Covid-19 lockdowns took a toll on the nation's teenagers. But they also took a toll on the teachers who were there to guide and inspire them. Here, an art, design and photography teacher shares their experience of crumbling connections.

The shape of school goes fluid
Photograph by Dr Derek Ventling.

"Upon the announcement of lockdown, our school transitions unceremoniously to online learning. The move is practised, and almost simple, so that it hides the quiet rupturing."

"Even though classes continue to exist, they are locked within a new hypnotic daydream, and lived out in the confines of a bedroom. The daily ritual that saw a uniformed tide flow between departments and buildings has stopped, but for the movement of hands on the clock, and a repetitive parade of faces across a screen.

"It’s not until the envelope of physicality is removed that I realise again what an abstract construct education is to these young people.

"The ideology of “School” is a convention that follows the principles of Logos; an exploration of data and thinking within a structured system… the competitive, collective development of potential. It is a persuasive force, conditioning students to worship achievement, as it physically propels them along its daily cycle."

When school is reduced to a two-dimensional figment on a rectangular laptop screen, what remains?
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Creativity captures individuals' moods and experiences during Covid-19 lockdowns. 'Another Lockdown weekend' by Dr Derek Ventling

"My students know they should learn, but the magnetic ritual loses its pull, and the goals that seemed within reach start to fade. I insist that - in my creative arts subjects - fresh opportunities blossom from the cracks of this unstructuring.

"I become impatient, even irritable, with the students’ lethargic pace. But achievement and assessment are largely academic devices, and I really have no argument to convince them of this currency."

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Looking for meaning and reassurance in the world around us. Christchurch Art Gallery. Photograph by Dr Derek Ventling.

"Still, within this broken system, the freedom of a new perspective arises, a prompt to re-evaluate some principles. After a while I abandon the class lecturing – a screen filled with blank rectangles and names is no more exciting as an empty classroom with its chairs idling upon the desks. I now only schedule individual conversations, and things improve. We slowly speak differently across screens; more tender, digressive, sincere. I think a lot about Eros, the flip side of Logos, seeking connections, support, harmony, and drawing nourishment from this centre.

"A caring relationship can be the tether that binds students to their studies. But it remains fragile, and I find it challenging to sustain the required energy across the net. After many weeks, some students remain effusive, even humourous, and I am proud to see them prevail over the unsubsiding uncertainty. With some students, however, the conversations grow colourless. Instead of digital backgrounds, the webcam shows messy rooms, dishevelled hair and clothes, the disarray of forgotten intent.

"Perhaps I have given hope to a few, focused on their futures, applauded their grit. Others I have lost, as they become weary and tune out. Their sense of self worth hinges on a physical collective I can’t offer. Recognition is derived from social interplay, and much less from work now completed in isolation. Is discipline bestowed – or can it be trained? I am still no closer to an answer."

Derek Ventling is a visual arts and photography teacher at Kings College in Auckland.