Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Lessons in the Time of Corona

So, back in lockdown again and this time I've been able to reflect more on the weird experience that is remote teaching. First time around there was no time to plan; back last March, with about a day's notice, it was all I could do to hastily throw whatever resources I could into a shopping bag and decant the classroom plants to the car, saving them from certain arid death. It was all a bit like a classroom trolley dash and once home I discovered that I had few of the things I really needed for virtual teaching survival and, also, a horrible realisation that I had left a half-eaten banana to ferment in my desk drawer. 

This time we were prepared (well, as much as we could be) - no matter how much the government would repeat the optimistic mantra of schools being 'Covid-secure' it was easy to see from inside education that, being in contact with potentially hundreds of households a day, schools would surely provide a conduit to transmission despite their best efforts otherwise. I'm very fortunate in that the school I work for provided every teacher with a more than decent laptop and I have room at home to set up my home classroom. We use MS Teams and Firefly to deliver live teaching and collaborate and I'm defnitely nearer to the top of that steep learning curve in learning how to use both than I was; as for the the myriad of add-ons, apps, tools etc. I'd say I'm still sliding about in the pit at the bottom!

What lessons have I learned then about, well, 'lessons' in the time of Corona? Here are four of my observations about online learning and teaching so far:

1. Teaching the void

(Image credit: New|York Times)
As a specialist teacher, I teach a variety of age groups. The younger pupils are all for the novelty of appearing on camera, often with their pets or younger siblings, whereas older pupils, particularly early teens, are for the most part more reluctant. This results in lessons where you feel you are very much teaching to the void - a silent, blank virtual space with live teenagers replaced by initials or bitmojis and avatars. This is very disconcerting. A good teacher works on 'reading the room', working to keep engagement high - how do you engage in a vacuum? 

It's not difficult to understand the reticence; I think anyone can remember how painfully important peer acceptance is at this age and so letting your entire class into your home and to be staring at each other face-to-face on screen for extended periods is uncomfortable - like sustained eye-contact. I've found some compromise so far to be to encourage interaction at the start with an unmuted video check in so I can at least ascertain who's there - a game, quiz, emoji rating for objectives - all go a long way to break the ice. I've also taken my cue from them - teens prefer the Chat bar on Teams and even the most wallflower student will use the 'raise hand' function. Zoom are, apparently, introducing the option of students only appearing on video to the teacher/presenter - a welcome development indeed. Of course, there will always be the exhibitionists, and future social influencers, who love to appear on screen and it's not gone unnoticed when there is a budding flirtation between teens going on either (cue endless hair-flicking) - just imagine how distracting it would have been to have your high school crush, in their bedroom, on your screen...for hours!

2. I'll show you mine, if you show me yours

The art of seamless screen-sharing during remote teaching is essential as well as learning how to incorporate various other apps and links. It should be simple, but to start with I found this difficult to get right, sometimes with amusing (possibly compromising) results such as sharing my Amazon basket with my class rather than the PowerPoint! At least I am not alone, as a quick poll from teacher friends and social media confirms this is a common issue as we grapple with screen multi-tasking: teachers being embarrassed by majorly cluttered desktops, private emails, cringe-worthy notifications coming up and, for one poor soul, the big reveal of their Harry Styles obsession with their screen background. And, for heaven's sake, remember to stop screen-sharing when you're done!

3. Video killed the teaching star

Teachers are often surprisingly introverted - I have colleagues who come into their own commanding a classroom full of rowdy pupils yet shudder at the thought of ringing a parent and feel physically sick giving a presentation to colleagues. I think this is even more the case in Higher Education where the sudden change to broadcaster and online presenter has been stratospherically out of the comfort zone. Almost overnight, teachers and lecturers have had to become both online course designers, video producer, editing specialist and live streaming star. Before all of this, the terms 'synchronous' and 'asynchronous' meant nothing to me whereas now I am 'in the mix' and able to at least consider how these might fit online pedagogy even if I haven't fully mastered breakout rooms, chat bars, online polls and collaborative spaces such as MURAL and Padlet! Personally, I'm of the opinion that less is more - too much technology and the lesson becomes an overwhelming multi-sensory circus. I've not forgotten the first live teaching experience where I played it safe and just focused on having a check-in with pupils and spending time talking over what they were finding difficult; one pupil at the end exclaimed genuinely, 'Oh Miss, it's just so nice to see you!' 

(Image credit:

4. Private versus public

Perhaps the biggest change with remote learning is the way the gap between public and private worlds has narrowed. Pupils perceive their teachers within the confines of the classroom; they are surprised to see you outside of that realm and realise that you don't pack yourself away in the classroom store cupboard at the end of the day. Bringing the classroom into your home, and for pupils to bring you vitually into theirs, obviously needs careful safeguarding. Teens do so much of their socialising online that, for many, virtual learning seems like an extension of this. It's easy for them to forget protocol and need direction about what is and isn't appropriate - this has mean a whole host of sentences I never thought I'd hear myself say in the context of teaching: 'Please wear actual clothes not pyjamas'; 'I can only see your feet, please can you sit the right way up'; 'Can you mute your microphone - the slurping of noodles is very distracting' - being just some. In now crowded lockdown homes, often with two parents trying to work and a whole host of other children, trying to find a quiet space to concentrate is as difficult for pupils as it is for their teachers and I feel nothing but admiration for the educators with young children. Improvisation is the name of the game and I've seen colleagues with ironing board desks set up in the hallway, or using a corner of the kitchen with the side of the fridge making an impromptu whiteboard and children sat cross-legged on the floor of a cupboard or round the table on their phone with the whole extended family, even grandma, on theirs.

That said, for all the distractions and interruptions that home learning brings, there has been something heart-warming too in rediscovering just what a privilege teaching is, and, that successful learning and teaching, however it might be delivered, is very much reliant on the quality of the relationship between teacher and learner. Pupils having insight into more than your teaching persona - hobbies, pets, interests and family - has not been the infringement on privacy that I thought it might be but instead a way to build common ground and increase the trust needed for the learner to tell you what's missing from their understanding. Finding out your teacher is a secret gamer, hence the headset, or that they support the same football team does much to increase that bond. In the same way, having parents be around, or even join in lessons does not seem like an observation or judgement but instead an opportunity to work in partnership to support learning. There is so much humour in the situation we find ourselves in too - my husband said just the other day that what surprised him the most about remote teaching was the amount of shared laughter that dominates the majority of lessons in lockdown. In the middle of such an uncertain and anxious time for our young people, school continues to be the stablising influence, all that has changed is its physical location.