I am writing this at the start of stage three restrictions, and I have three hopeful predictions of what will have happened by the time it is published. First, of course, is that COVID-19, while not defeated, will be on the retreat and our return to the real world will be well underway. My second prediction is that this ‘real world’ we want to return to will value community and personal interaction much more than the one we left behind. And this will partly be due to my third prediction, which is that the remote learning model will have highlighted all that is important and precious about classroom teaching.
Don’t get me wrong – teachers have never been more important. But the most valuable work we do happens face-to-face not screen-to-screen. One of the first victims of the virus was NAPLAN – and yet, even so, my inbox is filling up with well-meaning plans about how to ‘stay productive’ and shift coursework online so that we maintain our curriculum continuity.
Worse are the advertisements from digital teaching companies and multinational textbook publishers who see this crisis as an opportunity to further embed their tools in our practice. Capitalising on the anxiety of teachers, parents and government, these programs, apps, ebooks, video tutorials and tailored tests promise consistency and rigour.
They are all artefacts of an education model whose highest virtue was individual progress. If this model recognised community at all, it was as a statistic in a Gutman chart. We must seize this opportunity to show our students what really matters.
As the lockdown has revealed, there are people in society – doctors, nurses, retail staff and transportation workers – without whom our society would grind to a halt. The role of teachers has been reconsidered too, but our value is not so easy to define. We don’t save lives, at least not in the literal sense; we don’t produce goods, unless you consider a ready-to-work teenager a product; and, if we provide a service, what exactly is it?
The only way through this pandemic is by working together. It is our job to show students we care more about their community connection than their curriculum progression.
Teachers are the professionals responsible for building communities. We do this not only by communicating ideas but also by developing the critical minds needed to create them. We do this not only by giving feedback but also connecting students to each other, so that problems are made and solved collaboratively.
We develop the creativity, critical thinking and empathy needed for society to work – and we need all five senses to do this. As anyone who has tried to run a virtual class can tell you, you can’t make eye-contact with a camera.
Working from home, it has been tempting for many of us to fall into the efficiency trap and toil frantically to keep up standards, maintain strict schedules, develop more differentiated tasks to deliver rigorous individualised learning. But if COVID-19 has already taught us anything, it is that a society made of selfish individuals can quickly descend into chaos.
Despite the toilet paper scramble at the beginning of the crisis, it quickly became clear that the only way through this pandemic was by working together. It is our job to show students we care more about their community connection than their curriculum progression. My own plan going into remote teaching was simple. It started with talking openly with my students, over the choppy stream of congested internet video, discussing as best we could what was happening and how we might respond.
What I have not done is make learning intentions or success criteria for every session, nor marked them late for an 8.45am class or penalised them for anything not submitted by the due date.
Of course, if there is anything in the mapped curriculum that is relevant, then so much the better. But if all my students’ really need is to connect with their friends and laugh and play in one of the few spaces left to congregate in, then that has been OK too. Sometimes, I’ve just read to them, if that is what they want – though nothing dystopic. More than ever, we need stories of hope.
And I will keep doing this until I see them in person again. Then, the real work of rebuilding will begin. But if we have focused on what really matters, then they might choose to put their screens down and help make our world a better one.