Schools The learning curve

Confined to the house over the Autumn holidays, Josh Sankey, a teacher of English, Philosophy and Positive Education at Albert Park College, decided to put away all the ‘fun’ stuff in his bungalow, a space usually devoted to playing music. He launched into an ‘uncharacteristic… forensic level of cleaning’, screwed a whiteboard onto the wall and pre-recorded some welcome videos. 

Teachers, school leaders and education support staff were thrown into an extraordinary social and educational experiment in response to COVID-19. With schools closed to most students, work and personal lives have been crashing into each other in new ways and teaching practices pushed into uncharted territory. 

Tasha Brown has a human alarm clock, in the form of twin nine-year-olds. Senior French teacher, curriculum co-ordinator and learning specialist, she spent the ‘break’ setting her children up for their bilingual school emergency learning, negotiating care arrangements with their father, adapting online materials for her Year 9, 11 and 12 students, and preparing to support her colleagues in the language and careers-counselling departments. 

She explained to her sons that at certain times, for example when assessing a SAC, “no emergency would be great enough” to justify interruptions. For those occasions, she set them up with 90 minutes’ worth of tasks, snacks and drinks, and negotiated an argument-free zone. Video chats with her classes were conducted from her bedroom. The rest of the time she shared one big table in the living room with her boys.

 

Managing boisterous junior classes on Webex, Zoom or Meets is no mean feat.

While teachers rearranged their home-life and made survival deals with family members and housemates, principal teams faced different challenges. Assistant principal Emmanuel Skoutas had to brainstorm new remote learning protocols for staff, students and parents, seek feedback, and refine and release policies within a very tight deadline.

Emmanuel said many teachers at his school were feeling overwhelmed. With contradictory advice from federal and state governments, the leadership team was “guessing a little bit”. As for VCE plans, staff were “working blind” while waiting on guidance from the VCAA, which made everyone anxious.

IT teams spent their ‘holidays’ preparing dummies’ guides to software for teachers and writing programs to solve thorny problems specific to their schools. On day one of the new term, many teachers plunged in with little or no practice in facilitating mass video classes and chat feeds.

Managing boisterous junior classes on Webex, Zoom or Meets is no mean feat. There is great “potential for mess”, as Josh puts it. Sharing the wrong screen, embarrassing background incidents, random muting and unmuting… The possibilities are endless, and comedy clips abound (‘Quarantine Maths Class Disaster’, anyone?).

Even in schools where a shared curriculum was already online, there was the serious question of how to deliver information from afar. What is the best way to provide differentiated guidance to students who have difficulty reading, understanding and following instructions?

The COVID experience has brought home all the small things that schools staff do – actions they may hardly be aware of – that demonstrate care for students.

Educators were having to make many subtle adjustments to teach online. Also, find ways to reach students without a device and reliable internet access. What happens to those who cannot log in, receive or send emails, engage in a classroom discussion or submit work electronically? Tasha says there was a lot of concern for these vulnerable students: “The sensitive work we do is radically compromised.”

Emmanuel agreed that remote learning “is a complete nightmare” for vulnerable students, who need to be held close by schools. Senior maths and physics teacher Rachael Gore praised her school’s IT team for helping to support crucial student wellbeing programs. Tech teams have been sharing strategies for monitoring student engagement; some finding ways through educational software to identify students who have not logged on or who have not attempted any activities and might need extra support from wellbeing staff.

Cybersafety protocols, while clearly essential, limit teachers’ ability to have one-on-one conversations with students: those short, quiet check-ins, perhaps in the hallway between lessons or in the yard at lunchtime. It is these unplanned interactions that occur during a normal teaching day that are invaluable for gauging a student’s academic and emotional wellbeing, and for establishing positive relationships. The COVID experience has brought home all the small things that schools staff do – actions they may hardly be aware of – that demonstrate care for students.

For Grade 6 teacher Chantal’s rural primary school, video chats were ruled out, mainly due to privacy concerns. Teachers pre-recorded instructional videos, and communication occurred through chat feeds and email, leading to overflowing inboxes.

Chantal was concerned for her colleagues teaching younger grades whose students can often neither read nor type. Parents trying to support their kids’ home learning led to an extraordinary volume of emails to teachers asking questions, expressing concern or wanting to share their children’s work.

Sarah Ferris, Grade 3/4 teacher at Belvedere Park Primary School, says it was a “steep learning curve” for everyone involved. How should teachers respond when some parents suggested they were “not doing enough” while others were saying “we have no time… send less work”?

Josh hopes the public discourse will begin to acknowledge the “reality of the work that teachers do”.

Everyone was feeling the loss of old-fashioned classroom interactions. Tasha found that “generating energy is just not possible over Google Meet”. Rachael longed to be standing up and moving around: “I didn’t go into teaching for a desk job”. Josh realised that the subtle gestures that can redirect a discussion or encourage a shy student to speak up don’t necessarily work in online lessons. Sarah missed “watching the learning happen in front of my eyes.” When Chantal shared her first pre-recorded morning greeting, one student messaged her to say the video “nearly made me cry”.

There have been some positives. Tasha noticed that it was harder for students to avoid answering a question; as a result, “different kids are shining”. Josh enjoyed seeing headset-wearing gamers in his Year 7 class correct others on their microphone technique. Some students were truly flourishing in the online context and the social playing field had been levelled: “No-one’s not being invited to parties.”

The downsides have included the realisation that “everything takes longer at home”, Rachael says. “I’ve been working later, multiple nights, to provide feedback, clearly outline lesson instructions and adapt activities for an online environment.”

Felicity, a VCE History teacher with a young baby, says: ‘It feels like you are writing extras for an absence and teaching on the same day… incredibly time-consuming and frustrating. And it is harder to delineate the start and end of the day.”

Collegiality and collaboration have been essential. For Emmanuel, it’s been more crucial than ever for teachers to “make space” to talk to colleagues, share stories, have a laugh. “Teachers can draw strength from each other and re-assess this amazing job,” he said.

Josh has seen an opportunity for AEU members to “shift the conversation from grievances at school to addressing education as a whole”. He also hopes the public discourse, which currently “rides roughshod over nuance”, will begin to acknowledge the “reality of the work that teachers do”.

Rachael sees this moment as “the great opportunity to ask ourselves what is the meaning of a holistic education. What really matters?” If nothing else, crisis teaching forces us all to have a serious go at answering this question.

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