Since March, teachers around the UK have had to adapt quickly to a variety of changes in education; from the closure of schools and remote learning, to teaching while following social distancing guidelines.
We spoke to four of our teachers, one teaching at primary level, one at secondary, one at a sixth form college and one working specifically with students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), to give us an insight into the ways they have been adapting and what lessons they have learnt that they believe should be held onto in the future.
All the teachers felt that a key part of teaching during lockdown had been to ensure their own well-being was looked after. Time outdoors, gardening, exercising or just taking in the quite of nature were popular ways to step away from work, as well as ensuring regular screen breaks and time spent not sitting down.
We asked the teachers:
What positives have you learnt during the past few months that you would like to keep doing in the future?
Sarah (Primary): I have loved Google Classrooms, I have been able to work with the whole school and design family friendly projects for science each week as well as an eco-challenge. My projects have been opened up and have an element of creativity in a way they hadn’t before. I have learnt a lot about some children that I would never have had the time to find out about in school, and some children have had the chance to shine. I would dearly love to keep an element of online contact going. I would also like to keep my optimism going as I know that the return to school could mean changes and an increase in maths and literacy that has the potential to squeeze science out.
Ian (Secondary): I've become a department lead on the use of SharePoint and Forms for remote learning, and this is something that we will be continuing to use in the near future as a school. I'm proud that we have created over 45Gb of remote learning resources, with over 170,000 resource views. We might even consider using SharePoint and Forms in years to come, but there are so many un-knowns at the moment I cannot say for sure. In addition, we have achieved up to a 78% return rate of pupil assessment tasks, and we would hope to continue with this and improve on it as time goes on.
Tanja (6th form): Since we swapped to online learning I was positively surprised by the ability and organisational skills of our students to cope with the associated independence. A lack of independent learning skills and resilience of young people is often commented on, but only a minority of our students have found this as challenging as I had anticipated, and often for valid reasons. I therefore believe that we need to try harder to emphasise the importance of these skills once ‘things are back to normal’ as it has become apparent during this pandemic just how essential these are. Online submissions and marking remain a challenge but we are starting to look at software packages that will hopefully facilitate this more and I am aware that many software developers are realising that a new market is emerging. The flexibility and proactive approach of our teaching teams to switch to online delivery has been amazing and I believe it will also be important to invest in upskilling of teachers in the future to enable and develop this further. I believe that the pandemic has also allowed some of the more introverted students to make contributions via chat, in some cases more than they would in a classroom environment. Personally, I have quite enjoyed some of the freedoms of working from home, i.e. less travelling and associated costs, less congestion, more time to exercise and more flexibility of how to organise my time, resulting in more time with my partner. However, despite staying in touch with my colleagues via online platforms I have missed the one-to-one interaction of ‘chats in the corridor’ and ‘popping into classrooms’. I don’t believe that this can be replaced completely by technology but hopefully we can implement a successful blended model. In general, I have been positively impressed by the resilience of both staff and our students in response to the sudden adjustments to all of our lives.
Kathryn (SEND): We have had limited success with engaging our pupils who have mental health issues. However, we will continue to try and use Google Classroom for setting work, and we have found that Teams has been very helpful with allowing catch ups with mental health professionals such as CAMHS [child and adolescent mental health services]. We have found that independent tasks have not worked well as our pupils need guidance and reassurance. Including live elements into lessons increases engagement and feedback and praise is key to maintaining motivation for the pupils, but this can lapse over time when teaching remotely. In the classroom, we praise constantly but it is harder to replicate this online. With this in mind, we have booked training with a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert on our first INSET day in September so we can explore and learn further all the functionality of Teams. We hope to be able to use what we have learned in recent months and to build on this so that, should a Covid-19 outbreak arise in the winter months that might require a local lockdown, we can prepare properly and calmly (gradually training up in Teams, getting the pupils confident in using computers, and building up their IT skills, for example). Communication between members of the teaching team is vital whether we are working face to face or remotely; it has been hard to replicate remotely the incidental, informal discussions in the corridor or staff room which generate so many ideas, but it has been important nevertheless to keep discussing aims and reporting back successes regularly. I am keen to reignite the joy of teaching and learning and I am looking forward to getting back to face-to-face teaching.
We recently had the opportunity to ask a few more of our teachers what positive learnings they were taking from teaching over recent months.
The majority of primary teachers we spoke to found streaming a few lessons each day throughout the week worked well and found lots of alternative online resources to help stimulate conversation and to get the students thinking, for example museum archives and sketching tools. The sharing of work between students and using incentives, such as competitions, worked well to keep the students motivated and teachers commented on the importance of praise in these challenging times.
Some primary teachers had noted that students who are often quiet in a classroom setting were seen to be more confident and engaged with work online, alongside which there was an absence of noticeable peer pressure. Encouraging students to undertake ‘home investigations’ and giving them the freedom to work at their own speed was successful for many.
Primary teachers also commented that providing printed packs of lesson and activity material worked well for those that did not have internet access, although it was recognised as being harder to monitor progress regularly for those unable to join in online. Encouraging parental engagement in the teaching and the sharing of the work being done at home proved to work well in several schools, with pictures being posted securely via the schools’ parental portals.
Secondary teachers found that working to a set plan for each year group and sharing out responsibility for developing the new format lessons made the change in workload manageable, with the resources then available as a bank for future years. Some teachers benefited from having a video demonstration to help improve their confidence in filming themselves, and some found that working with small groups of students one-to-one led to a better submission rate for homework.
Some secondary schools had been able to send art packs, workbooks and revision books to students to ensure they had the resources at home to use. Some are expecting to continue to use the online resources in the new academic year for those students unable to be back in school or to support those catching up on work missed.
Teachers at both levels found it useful to reach out and speak with teachers from other schools in their area to share tips and ideas about how they were approaching the planning and development of support for their students, and there was a general interest in continuing this in the future.
What are your concerns around teaching and COVID-19, immediately and for the future?
Sarah (Primary): I worry about not knowing. There were very few children in lessons before the summer holidays, most schools had worked tirelessly to put measures in to prevent the spread, but the infection rate is going up in my area. What will happen with 30 children in a classroom? I am also very concerned that science will be squeezed out, and practical science will suffer and be limited as resources can't be shared. There will also be more literacy and numeracy and intervention groups, so it is likely that children will be taken from their two hour a week science (if they are lucky) to 'catch up' on literacy and numeracy. I am also worried that, for a lot of teachers over the summer and into the new school year, they will be exhausted with trying to 'catch up' the children and the pressure of teaching.
Ian (Secondary): I don't have any real concerns. What is at the forefront of my mind is ensuring there are no knee jerk reactions in school plans for 20-21. For example, we have no idea how qualifications will be assessed next year. We also have no idea when there will be any changes to social distancing, and how this will impact on schools in the longer term.
Tanja (6th form): I recently went on a site visit to my sixth form centre for the first time since lockdown and to look at the health & safety precautions that had been put in place for our return in September, such as one-way systems, screens and reduced number of desks in classrooms at 2m distance. In an ideal world I would like to have a least half a class in front of me after the summer holidays, simply to have enough time to get through the curriculum and still allow delivery of practical work alongside online learning. With our current building set up, many rooms will only allow a third of the students to be present to stick to the regulations. This represents a huge challenge to plan the curriculum and still allow delivery of sessions that by their nature must be conducted on site. The hope is that either restrictions are eased (even to allow a 50% on-site to off-site delivery) or that exam boards realise that adjustments to practicals and assessments are required to not disadvantage this next cohort of students. Another concern is the mental wellbeing of these young people, due to lockdown, but also potentially adjusting to this new world of far fewer social interactions. The biggest issue in general is all the uncertainty and lack of control associated with the pandemic.
Kathryn (SEND): Our pupils have missed one full term and two weeks of teaching as they have not engaged with remote learning. I am very worried about September (attendance for pupils who have existing mental health issues will be, I suspect, much worse). How do we make up the teaching time? I am very keen to have info from Ofqual (delayed exam season, modifications to exams, etc) as soon as possible. I am aware that consultations are under way and there is pressure to get this information to teachers. Teachers are used to planning, and planning well in advance, and so the uncertainty that has come about through Covid-19 has been a challenge.
About our contributors:
Sarah Eames is a teacher as well as science and eco lead at Sandfield Close Primary School in the East Midlands.
Ian McDaid is a teaching and learning lead in science at Horizon Community College in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Dr Tanja Hofmann is Director of Curriculum (STEM subjects) and teacher of A-level biology at One Sixth Form in Suffolk. She is also currently a member of the Partnership Grants Allocating Panel.
Kathryn McLaughlin is a Group Support Teacher – Maths and Science at GAP, Education Health Needs at Durham County Council.