Lessons of remote learning

It’s been a very interesting Term 2. We’ve settled into remote learning (as much as we can) and have built some routines around it. The exhaustion hasn’t shifted and the hours required to keep up with everything haven’t shortened however there is a light at the end of the tunnel – mere days left until we have all of our children back at school.

With this period of remote learning coming to a close, I wanted to reflect on what I’ve learnt & would like to keep as well as the bits I’m heartily glad to see the back of.

What I want to keep:

  • the fresh spark it’s brought to my teaching. I’m not a teacher who allows myself to get stale anyway but remote teaching has certainly forced me to try out new things, explore different tools and reflect on the success or pitfalls of elements of my practice.
  • the regular, structured feedback to students. I’ve always loved Google Classroom but have never managed to use it as consistently as we’ve done during this time. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to keep using this and other methods to keep up that personalised feedback (although, somehow, without the loooong days that went along with it).
  • embracing the variety of communication methods. I have seen a whole new side to many of my students and, when I thought about why, I think the varied communication methods open to them helped. I have received numerous articulate emails from students, asking clearly for help with different things, telling me what they’ve tried and exactly which part they’re stuck on. That might not sound unusual but these are students who find it hard to find their voice in the day to day noise of a classroom. For others, our small group Webex meetings have been an area of success as the comfort of a screen has helped them find their voice.
  • clarity of instruction. Having students try to follow instructions on our Google Classroom has brought into sharp focus the need for us to really think through what we expect and how those words and sentences might be interpreted by students. We’ve had quite a unique snapshot of how our students see things and, without us there to answer immediate questions, we’ve been given an insight into their problem solving strategies and processes.
  • giving students more choice in how they structure their day. Not sure what this might look like in the classroom but I have really seen the value in allowing students the space to manage their learning and want to continue to give them as much room to do this as possible.

What I’m happy to let go:

  • the ridiculously long days. Like other teachers, I always work longer than the 7.6 hours a day that I’m paid for but I’ve been facing days nearly twice that virtually every day for the last 7 weeks. I couldn’t find a way around it at the time but am happy to go back to ‘merely’ 10 hour days of ‘normal’ schooling.
  • having an exceptionally open classroom. I don’t mind being observed and am happy to have discussions about ups and downs of my lessons however having parents and other adults potentially listening to my virtual lessons has added an extra layer of stress that I won’t be sorry to leave behind. When another teacher or member of leadership observes my practice, they bring to it their educational background with clear expectations and boundaries. When parents hear a snapshot of a lesson as they walk past in their kitchen, it’s not only without an understanding of the pedagogical decisions behind it, it’s also out of context and could easily be interpreted in multiple ways.

Part of this post is also about ensuring I have a record of this time and one of the overwhelming feelings I want to remember is pride. I am immensely proud of myself and my colleagues, within and beyond my school, in how we managed to pull together a term of remote learning that managed to cater for the broad spectrum of students, families and situations we work with while managing our own personal issues.

This last point has been a big one for me that I think has so often been overlooked, particularly in the (very small) number of complaints I’ve had from parents about our offerings not being good enough – teachers are also humans who are experiencing this challenging time in their own ways. Many are also educating their own children at home, have partners who have lost their jobs, are dealing with illness or family difficulties and coping with the general limitations that this pandemic has put on all of us. In short, while pulling off a quite incredible and all encompassing change to our work, we have been there for our students while also managing our own challenging circumstances. So bravo educators – across all year levels and in all sectors, teachers and support staff. Bravo.

‘For the greater good’

I had strong intentions this year of being more active on my teacher blog. Having just ticked over into my 15th year of teaching, I have as much enthusiasm and passion for this career as I did when I first stepped into the classroom and so many new ideas, big and small that I had on my list for this year. I love having this forum to share them beyond my classrom and, while I haven’t used it much, this year I was coming into it with renewed fervour.

Then the bushfires came. They didn’t directly affect my school….this time. But indirectly they affected all of us and they definitely affected my students, even if none were there at the time. I pushed on with all the things I set out to achieve with my beautiful and energetic grade but found myself working, if at all possible, just a bit harder to ensure their mental health was catered for in challenging times. Children can’t learn if they don’t feel safe and loved and, for many, the bushfires shaved some of their sense of safety with the ‘what if’ questions floating into their heads at random times. In small ways that I didn’t notice at the time, my job was a little harder. It’s always been about more than curriculum planning and assessment but the balance towards wellbeing tipped a little further and put new pressures on me. I was ok with that.

And now the world has got the coughs and sneezes. If I thought my students were troubled before, this has shown me that I didn’t even understand what troubled meant. Sometimes it’s showing itself in obvious ways – students who can’t stop talking about coronavirus or washing their hands compulsively or constantly asking questions. For most others, it’s the less obvious but just as powerful signs that I notice because I see these humans every day – anger that flares when it never used to, inability to remain focused on things that used to bring them joy, friendship bubbles where they’ve never had them before. The effort it’s currently taking to make my classroom that safe space where our shared purpose in growing minds happens is getting harder and the balance has tipped so much further to the wellbeing side.

I don’t want this to be a debate about whether or not to keep schools open – I don’t feel either qualified or experienced in that area to be able to comment. As a Government employee, I’ll do what I’m told – if schools stay open, I’ll keep working as I am and helping my students be their best selves. If schools close, I’ll do what I can to help support learning beyond our classroom walls. I just wanted to let those outside of teaching in to see what our days look like right now.

This week is one of the longest I’ve experienced in my education career with each day of uncertainty and change feeling like a week. We are trying to keep things normal and our routines stable in an education system where everything is changing – excursions and camps going ahead one day then cancelled the next, sports days and assemblies cancelled, all the things our students were looking forward to taken away. Our students run around at playtime looking like life ticks on normally but teachers and ES staff are working hard behind the scenes to smooth over the cracks, support and encourage students who are feeling anxious, reassure those who have absorbed incorrect messages from the media and try to inject some fun, even when we’re not feeling much like it ourselves. I have colleagues who worry about their own health and that of their loved ones, unable to go into lockdown ourselves as we’re needed to care for our students who may, as time goes on, unknowingly pass the virus on to their teachers and school staff. Social distancing in a primary school may as well be something in one of the fantasy stories they write – it can’t happen. And as for hand washing? We try, we really do but children of all ages have a complete inability to keep their hands out of…well, anywhere and anything.

None of us want a big deal made and most are willing to do whatever is deemed necessary to get through this as painlessly as we can. ‘For the greater good’ and all that. No one would argue that health care workers aren’t putting in long hours in demanding conditions and at great risk to their own health as part of their contribution to containment efforts. While not in the front line in a medical sense, school staff are under pressure in different ways, trying to provide learning for those at school as well as those who’ve opted to stay home, managing the mental health of our students (and helping our colleagues) while also dealing with our own stress and anxiety like that which every other adult is feeling. A little acknowledgement, particularly from leaders who are talking about whether or not to close schools, that children aren’t alone in those buildings and aren’t those most at risk in this scenario would go a long way towards making us feel like the significant contribution and risk we’re taking is being seen and appreciated.