Jan 31 2020
If you had told me that I would be coming back from my second maternity leave and teaching from a virtual classroom for the remainder of the summer term (to set the scene, it is my bedroom, with the subtle tones of a baby screaming and a toddler announcing every successful wee in the toilet at random intervals), I wouldn’t have believed you. Then again, there is probably a lot about this year that only now with the benefit of hindsight, I can even fathom to believe but here we are. This crazily unique situation we have found thrust upon us has been somewhat of a steep learning curve and being at Thornden School I feel privileged to have been able to leap headfirst into ‘live’ teaching (also known as synchronous teaching). Here I’ll share some reflections from the first few months.
For the purposes of understanding, it is important to set some context here. Our school is set in a relatively affluent area and our pupils have good access to technology. Most have made use of their own mobile phones or laptops to access synchronous lessons, or can at least access a device for some or most of the day. Those pupils who have struggled to access materials have been invited in to school to join our key worker children, numbers of which were relatively low. Pupils have then been able to access lessons in an I.T suite. Attendance to online lessons has been fairly good - and staff are making use of a shared online attendance document, with the relevant Head of Year chasing up any patterns of non-attendance to ensure safeguarding. We use Microsoft for Education and teachers have been offered the choice of teaching lessons via Teams or setting work via Show My Homework. I think it would be fair to say that most staff have used a combination of both - following a swift CPD session pre lockdown! I have taught the majority of my lessons using Microsoft Teams, with a class set up for each of my teaching groups.
I also fully appreciate that a lot of schools and teachers are not in a position to offer learning in this way at the moment. This blog isn’t a judgement on that in the slightest, nor a for or against either way.
If I’m being brutally honest, it has been hard work. I wasn’t expecting that transferring my lessons to a new, completely online model to be ‘easy’ as such, but I don’t think I anticipated the complete shift in dynamic when you move from classroom to online teaching. Notably, the pace slows dramatically. The feedback cues you rely on when your pupils are sat in front of you are completely essential, from the low level disruption (usually a strong indicator you’ve pitched your material too high!) to the buzz when everyone is on task and motivated. When you omit those, it becomes tricky to gauge if your pupils are even on task, never mind if they’ve understood the basics of subordinating conjunctions and correct grammar syntax (oh German, you cruel grammatical mistress!). The delay in responses too makes quick fire questioning impossible; you can’t ‘just’ check that pupils have understood. I have taken to asking for a quick ‘thumbs up’ emoji in the chat box, but even then some pupils won’t necessarily do that or hear you, so you have to just work in good faith that they are following along with you.
As a languages teacher, it has always been slightly more difficult to be the ‘guide on the side’ as opposed to ‘sage on the stage’ as pupils tend to rely heavily on you as the basis for their knowledge in class. However I have had to adapt, and loosely following metacognitive strategies by encouraging pupils to think more reflectively about their learning has been far more beneficial in the current circumstances. I’m planning in more time for the Activate stage - enabling pupils to warm up properly for a lesson, remembering key vocabulary and trying not to overwhelm with too much new content. I anticipate on our return to school and full time teaching there will be time to cover lost ground, but at the moment, I want to follow our schemes of work loosely and really embed skills and good learning behaviours. I have also tried to build resilience and independence by allowing pupils time in our live lessons to Practise, another metacognitive strategy recognised by the EEF. This was hard at first and I needed to take a step back - I felt the need to fill silences and talk more to get pupils thinking and what I thought was ‘working’, but I’ve had to really trust my pupils, let them go and give them tasks to complete that will challenge them and that I can’t necessarily help them with or answer in the manner they have come to expect. I have also come to realise that in actual fact, they enjoy this independence and prefer having some down time to complete activities independently. It is hard going for them too, being in front of a device for long periods of time.
My final point is praise. I’ll be honest in that I felt quite overwhelmed at first and so I didn’t really think to consider praising pupils and building the positive relationships I would usually work so hard on in those first few weeks. I’ll put that down to my unique start and return from maternity leave to a timetable of pupils I’d never met before and not being able to see their faces. But it quickly settled and as I did get used to the technology, I started to spot patterns in the behaviour and dedication of pupils. I don’t tend to do anything exciting or particularly inspiring in terms of praising my pupils, I’ll send them a quick certificate if they have performed well in one of our online quizzes for example (note that such quizzes are designed to encourage the Reflect strategy) , but I think at a time in their life when they are feeling particularly anxious and uneasy, it is always nice to reward pupils’ efforts and I hope stand us in good stead for when we eventually do go back to some form of normality.
MY FUTURE CLASSROOM?
So what impact will this experience have on my classroom teaching in the future? I think I have always considered myself a reflective practitioner and I strongly encourage others to reflect on their practice too as I believe we owe it to ourselves as professionals to strive for better every day. Realistically, I think there is going to be a real period of adjustment for our pupils and I intend to go with that for the time being. I will continue to use the technology we have had available to us as I am realising it was an incredibly underused resource at our fingertips, particularly Teams and Microsoft OneNote. I’m looking forward to fostering independence and responsibility in my Key Stage 4 classes for example by encouraging them to keep notes and speaking assessment materials in a OneNote document - removing the constant excuses for ‘lost’ work to mention just one advantage. I also intend to share handouts and reference materials in this way, hoping to create a culture in which pupils are encouraged to be more creative when writing in the foreign language with all the necessary tools at their disposal instead of being lazy and resorting to Google Translate.
But organisation aside, I think now more than ever it is important to help pupils develop their metacognitive strategies within every curriculum discipline. It is looking increasingly likely that we will enter a second lockdown at some point, but we hope to be better prepared for this one. We owe it to our pupils to encourage them to work smarter, not harder, and that comes from being reflective and evaluative, skills we can easily model ourselves as teaching staff.