For everyone COVID life: principals and graduates on a year like no other

Working at school in a pandemic has been difficult for all educators, but no more so than for those running the show or learning the ropes.

To say this has been a difficult year would be to master the art of the understatement. Schools have closed across Victoria not once but twice (some more often), while educators have had to deal with unprecedented changes to teaching models and rolling uncertainty. The effect of this disruption has been felt by all school staff, but perhaps most acutely at either end of the spectrum – the graduates in their first year out and the principals responsible for managing the response. 

Principals: complex arrangements 

Hume Valley School principal Diane Bassett says one of the great challenges has been maintaining duty of care for staff and students in ever-changing circumstances.

“We have 353 students, aged five to 18, all with an intellectual disability. The first time around, we had about an hour’s notification once it was official schools were going to close before the students were to go home. We had to organise transport, contact parents, settle the students down, move them off-site, and tell staff what the arrangements would be.”

Diane’s principal class team spent a lot of time corresponding with staff, determining who would be fit or willing to work on-site, while clarifying with families which students would attend. At Broadmeadows, there was a particular challenge in helping parents gain access to technology and providing worksheets to those uncomfortable with computers.

 

“I think we did something in three weeks that would usually take 18 months. The staff were amazing. I’m not saying there weren’t hiccups, but the kids adapted really quickly. I was keen to keep the focus on everyone’s health and wellbeing.”

For many schools, the main challenge was deciding what remote learning might look like and rolling it out in an extraordinarily short timeframe.

Felix Patten, principal at Koo Wee Rup Secondary College, says he was conscious of making sure staff felt fully supported as they adjusted to the new normal.

“I think we did something in three weeks that would usually take 18 months. The staff were amazing. I’m not saying there weren’t hiccups, but the kids adapted really quickly. I was keen to keep the focus on everyone’s health and wellbeing.”

Wellbeing was also a key focus at Broadmeadows as staff, students and families adjusted to remote learning.

“We tried to address all the needs of our students that would usually be addressed on-site, but in a different learning environment,” Diane says. “Our therapy staff ran sensory programs, and wellbeing and relaxation videos. Our wellbeing team did a lot of work in having almost daily contact with families to see if there were any concerns. We had staff deliver care packages to families that were in need, because we get food from Second Bite and so on. It was a complex arrangement, but the enthusiasm and innovation by the staff was amazing.”

Felix says managing staff remotely wasn’t a particular challenge – although many found the increased screen time exhausting – but one key issue was the fact that many teachers were now working from home while attempting to also ‘homeschool’ their own children.

“I was one of them,” Felix says. “Early on, we had a few red flags coming up from some staff members with little kids. What we said to them was tone it down a little bit, focus on your family. Our philosophy here, from day dot, has been family first and the rest will take care of itself.”

Graduates: a feat of endurance

For graduate teachers, who often struggle with a work-life balance as they find their feet in the classroom, the collapsing of the school-home boundary made what is always a challenging first year into a true feat of endurance. New teacher Nicole Hoey says what was to be an exciting year of fresh starts in her household quickly became a recurring nightmare.

“My daughter started in foundation this year and it’s my first year teaching as well,” Nicole says. “That first holiday wasn’t any sort of a holiday. My anxiety, stress, was through the roof. I spent the first week going through the plan my daughter’s teacher had set her and I was in tears, my daughter was in tears – it was so stressful because I was trying to do so many things at once.”

Even for graduate teachers without small children, the early disruption to the start of a brilliant career was disorienting. Music teacher Daniel Lacey says he was just coming to terms with some of the crucial business of teaching practice when the kids were shifted off-site.

“The hardest part for me when I started teaching was catering for the differentiation between students,” Daniel says. “When you have 20-plus individuals in the room, hitting them with enough to engage them and keep them interested was lost in the initial scramble of getting into the classroom.”

 

“I could imagine a lot younger graduate would find it really difficult, because you’re having to speak to parents over the phone a lot, over email. At our school, we haven’t even had parent teacher interviews.”

He says that he had just started to find his feet when his school switched to remote learning. The gap between engaged and struggling kids widened dramatically – many simply disappeared because they felt overwhelmed.

“That was a challenge across our community. Even the leading teachers found it hard to engage or re-engage kids they had lost for a couple of weeks. There was scrambling to send messages home and get them back online.”

Intensive dealings with parents can prove difficult for experienced teachers, but this year’s graduates have had to build it into their practice from the start.

“I’m lucky I’m older, as I have a bit more life experience,” Nicole says. “I’m a parent myself. But I could imagine a lot younger graduate would find it really difficult, because you’re having to speak to parents over the phone a lot, over email. At our school, we haven’t even had parent teacher interviews.”

Daniel says he learned quickly which strategies were most likely to engage reluctant parents.

“Some parents would reach out to me, hoping that music might be a way to engage their child in remote learning. But with others I was having to send my third unanswered email, asking them to help their child submit an assignment set before remote learning. The majority were happy to engage when I tailored or personalised emails instead of mass emails.”

“One positive to come from this is I feel our working relationships are going to be strengthened because we’ve all been through such a hard time!”

The extreme nature of the year hasn’t stopped these grads from feeling supported, however. Indeed, the need for constant communication at a distance has fostered a sense of connection and community between staff, key learning areas, and graduates and mentors.

“The teachers, especially in the English faculty, are so supportive and open to sharing ideas,” Nicole says. “My mentor has been incredible. We’d have catch ups once a fortnight just to see how I was going. One positive to come from this is I feel our working relationships are going to be strengthened because we’ve all been through such a hard time!”

While this year’s trials have been piled upon all the usual demands of a first year teacher – including the dreaded VIT registration – both Nicole and Daniel say they have no doubts they’ve made the right choice in taking up teaching. If anything, learning to teach in a pandemic has allayed any doubts.

“This is going to be the hardest year of teaching,” Nicole says. “If we can get through this with a smile on our faces…”

Staying sane, sticking together

Smiles were in short supply as July rolled around and schools found themselves hammered with a raft of new restrictions and regulations – and the renewed threat of closure. By August, most schools in the state had returned to remote learning. At the top of the school, the principal class tried to keep their own wellbeing and mental health in mind.

“We have a bit of black humour in our principal class,” Diane says. “We’ve really tried to support each other and been very good at delegating tasks and making sure it’s not all falling on one person.

“The regional staff are always checking in on how we were doing, providing updates, addressing any concerns and just having conversations about how people were handling the situation.

“The education community has been really strong in their support.”

“This has been such a reminder that teaching and education isn’t just about knowledge. It’s also about care and our community.”

Felix agrees. “One of the other positives I’ve seen is the togetherness that it’s brought. The staff are being strong and supporting each other. You’ve always got to look for positives.”

He also highlights a number of necessary changes to the way schools run as having a real benefit, post-COVID.

“Certainly, innovative ways of teaching, using different tools to help with teaching and learning, that’s been a positive. New ways of communicating, so you don’t always have to be in the same meeting room can save a bit of driving.”

Diane says her school will be continuing to use the remote learning platform her school built into the future, when students might have extended absences or prove difficult to engage in the classroom. Surveys sent out to families in the wake of remote learning proved very positive and, she says, there seemed to be a greater appreciation from families for the work educators do.

Indeed, both principals and graduates agree that one of the most enduring and powerful positives to emerge from this traumatic time might be a fresh perspective on the value of education.

“This has been such a reminder that teaching and education isn’t just about knowledge,” Daniel says.

“It’s also about care and our community. Being back on-site reminded everyone that the classroom is a place of community and care. I think people are finally recognising teachers don’t just play a role in learning, they are also looking after student needs.”

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