For everyone Together, at a distance

Billanook Primary School teacher Kiah Wright says her leadership team prepared well for remote learning at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. With students edgy, they created social media stories in kid-friendly language, reassuring them that their teachers were there to support them.

“No matter how I was feeling about what was happening in the world, I needed to put my best foot forward and make sure I was a pillar of strength so my six and seven-year-olds could still be kids,” she says of those dizzying days in March.

Communication between colleagues and parents was clear, and AEU advice was really helpful, she says. Plenty of preparation went into designing an easy-to-use remote learning hub for parents, even before the official call to close. But when the day finally came, it was tough.

“I pride myself on being nurturing and caring, and on that last day, sending them home, I was very emotional,” Kiah recalls. “I was overwhelmed by the uncertainty around when I would see them again.”

Enthusiastically upbeat, Kiah maintained that when they came back, their connection “would be bigger and better and stronger than ever”. Initially apprehensive about how her students would adjust to twice-daily WebEx meetings and phone check-ins, she needn’t have been. “I was so blown away by their resilience. They were just so incredible, so optimistic, and I really fed off that. It helped me to thrive in what was such a tricky time, because seeing them every single morning gave me a lift, and a push to keep going.”

 

Grade 1 student Archie tunes in to a lesson with his “superhero”, Mrs Wright.

Kiah opened every meeting 10 minutes early, allowing the kids to chat amongst themselves. “That peer connection is super-important,” she says. “But when my smiling face popped up on their screen, they knew to finish up their conversations and keep their microphones muted for me to start the day.”

As with any day, the kids’ energy ebbed and flowed. “We would take ‘brain breaks’ to discuss wellbeing,” she says. “That kept the connection between students and school, and to me that was imperative to the success of remote learning.”

There were also extra-curricular dance classes set to the tune of Shakira’s Waka Waka. Plenty of parents joined in, with supporting them just as important, Kiah says. “It was about seeing what we could do to ease the pressure a little bit, because we understood that we’re professionals, confident in what we do. But that might not be the case with parents teaching the curriculum.”

Leadership helped maintain the link between Kiah and her colleagues. And there were challenges. Kiah lives in a small unit and her husband was stood down. “It was really tricky, because you want to set up a space that feels like a classroom, but also not take over your whole house so that work and home blur.”

In the end, she followed a friend’s advice and took over one end of the dining table for her laptop, setting up a whiteboard behind her. “When my day was done, I would close everything and leave my laptop there, removing any temptation to bring it to the couch or into the bedroom.”

If the highlight was seeing her kids’ faces every morning, the lowlight was not being able to hug them. “Having that distance between myself and the students, as well as my colleagues, was the biggest challenge.”

Her obvious affection and dedication to her class did not go unnoticed, with one mum telling us that: “Mrs Wright is a superhero, who has gone above and beyond to ensure every day of this really strange time has been nothing short of magical. While I have absolutely loved having my son home, I know that he gets to spend every day with an extraordinary teacher and a beautiful human.”

These words make Kiah teary. “You don’t do what we do for the praise, but when it does come your way, it’s an incredible feeling. I just feel so lucky I’ve been able to put myself to the test in a way that we never thought we’d ever face. I’m very, very grateful, and it makes me even more motivated to keep going and be the best teacher that I can be for my students.”

Teacher Kiah Wright has drawn on her student's optimism to keep going. Pic: Meredith O'Shea

AND ANOTHER THING… 10 QUESTIONS FOR KIAH WRIGHT

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… A smile. If you don’t have one, you are setting yourself up for a rough one. Go in with good energy and hopefully the rest will follow suit. And coffee.

The most important things to leave at home are… Your own problems and yesterday’s worries.

The best advice I ever received was… Embrace the chaos and ride the wave of it all.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… Cherish all of the little wins throughout the day, because they are the ones that mean the most.

My favourite teacher at school was… Miss Molloy. She’s the reason why I got into teaching. She was a graduate teacher, which I didn’t know at the time. She had this way of making everyone feel so special and so valued, and I just remember idolising her. 

The people I admire most are… My mum and my sister. They give me honesty and unwavering support.

The music or book that changed my life was… I am a huge Pink fan. Anything Pink gets me pumped up and ready to conquer anything in the world. 

In my other life, I am… A dog. I love getting doted on, I like sleeping and I love a good back rub.

If I met the education minister, I’d tell him… He and the Victorian government helped put the money towards redoing parts of our school, so I’d say thank you for making it more modern and more suitable for the kids. 

The most important thing the union does for its members is… Keeping us up to date with everything that’s happening education-wise, and the ability to access support and resources when we need to.

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While we can't celebrate all being together in the same room yet, the Term 3 edition of AEU News is full of stories about educators who have found ways to support each other and to build a crucial sense of community.

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