I had just mastered the photocopier, the timetable and the layout of the school when we moved to online learning back in February. This was my first year of teaching and I was building a rapport with my students, enjoying my new role and being called ‘Ms de Clifford’. Like every teacher, I had worked hard to get here.
Before this, I had been heading for an academic career in a university. Through Honours, Masters and a Doctorate, I held tight to my goal of a lectureship. Yet, in the final throes of my PhD, I started tutoring Year 12 students and realised that this was the cohort I most wanted to work with – a way to make a meaningful contribution.
With the patient support of my family, I finished my PhD whilst starting a Masters of Teaching. Although this was ambitious and often hectic, every school placement only reinforced my decision.
A job at Daylesford College – my first preference – felt like the reward for an odyssey that had spanned decades. As every writer knows, the desk is a luxurious place, but it is also a slog. Being at a school was like coming into the sun, away from the shadow of solitary labour and endless re-writes. I relish the bustle of hallways and the theatre of the classroom.
Whilst the return to my home desk holds a certain comfort, there is much to be missed – the humour of teenagers, the witty English office and friendly banter at morning tea. Although I do not miss the student’s laments about seating plans – a task that can be likened to organising history’s most fraught dinner party – I do miss the sense of purpose as I enter a classroom.
It was a relief to finally see my students during parent–teacher interviews and remember that they are embodied beings and so much more than an emoji.
Online, students are rarely seen nor heard. They’re reluctant to turn on their cameras or even speak. In the last month I have only seen two of them – one wanting to show us her new puppy and the other his Laker’s cap. As I eagerly read my Year 10s Emily Dickinson, I am all too aware many are scrolling through TikTok.
This is a slippery platform: a place where students can be marked as present who are undeniably absent; where wry, generous and messy adolescents are reduced to an emoji in a chat thread. It was a relief, therefore, to finally see my students during parent–teacher interviews and remember that they are embodied beings and so much more than an emoji.
With every stint of remote learning, I become more conscious of sight and sound. I find myself asking at the start of every lesson: “Can you see me? Can you hear me?” I encourage a student, if only one, to call out for just a moment.
In The New Yorker, Alec MacGillis argues that disadvantaged students have “become invisible – safe from COVID-19, perhaps, but adrift and alone in dark rooms”. Whilst a pandemic calls for unprecedented measures, this article prompts me to reflect on the relationship between online learning and equity. As teachers, we know students from middle-class homes will be nagged and cajoled into attending class. Others less fortunate will disappear. These are the students we were barely holding in the actual classroom. Between classes, I try to phone these students. They don’t always answer, so I send a light hello and an emoji of a dancing penguin. I reconcile that I will gather these wanderers when we return.
During the latest lockdown, our school makes the plucky decision to pause the conventional curriculum for Year 7 to Year 10. As hoped, this enhances attendance and participation. In English and Humanities, we pool our resources and run ‘one-off’ lessons in making memes and ‘painless poetry’. This flexible approach allows the already engaged to thrive and catches some students who were on the way out. Away from the flurry of the classroom, I can offer uninterrupted help, more considered feedback and send some merit points. In parent–teacher interviews, I reassure my students that I see them and recognise their efforts.
Dr Amanda de Clifford is an English, Humanities and Literature teacher at Daylesford College.