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The writer, who teaches at Hastings Academy, describes the challenges of remote teaching and learning under lockdown (photo: Russell Jacobs).

Teaching and learning during a pandemic

Contrary to criticism from some sections of the media and public, teachers have been working harder than ever over the last 15 months. Secondary school teacher Laura Chamberlain explains how she and her students adapted to the pressures of working from home while schools were closed to all but the most vulnerable of students and the children of key workers.

In January 2020, I recall talking to students in my tutor group and trying to reassure them that the headlines concerning Covid-19 were nothing to worry about.

“Of course it won’t affect us.” I told them. “I lived through swine flu, it will blow over.” This did not age well.

Schools were closed from 23 March 2020 and, as a teacher, my whole job was redefined. Students were isolated at home without the pastoral care and expert help and support they’d usually rely on. Much of the best practice teaching strategies, such as group activities, active learning and student-based learning were going to be, at best, impractical.

Adjusting lessons

I have spent years honing my skills as a teacher, interacting with my students and monitoring the classroom. This all changed when Covid-19 hit. The first lockdown was spent adjusting my lessons and teaching style to remote learning. I could no longer encourage students to share ideas immediately or use carousel activities for group work, it was back to basics, chalk and talk, death by PowerPoint, and I was concerned this would not suit them.

Hastings is an area of deprivation. It is 13th on the deprivation indices. I grew up here and live locally, I knew my students required interaction and connection in order to engage. So how could this be achieved remotely?

All schools chose a preferred teaching and learning platform and teachers had to very quickly learn and familiarise themselves with their establishment’s preferred provider. For me, as a technophobe, this in itself was a massive undertaking.

I had to upskill quickly. As a tutor, I also spent a great deal of time talking students and parents through the new systems. I went back through all my meticulously planned lessons and ruthlessly slashed any extraneous material.

First-day nerves

I don’t think I have ever felt as nervous teaching as I did for my first online live lesson. The nerves were unnecessary. My students were, in the majority, amazing. The attendance was way beyond what I expected and the interaction rivalled what I was used to in face-to-face classes.

This generation of students, of course, has grown up online. Generation Z, apparently, are completely able to transition from in-person discussion to online chat. They interacted and engaged amazingly. It was a truly inspiring experience to see students log on and make the effort to attend online lessons. I think this eagerness to continue learning is a momentum we need to maintain now schools are back full-time.

I quickly learnt to teach in a different medium, place online polls, share PowerPoints and videos, and set tests in chats.

The students further developed their skills and learnt how submit work remotely. My classes and I had some amazing conversations virtually and students who might not usually contribute in class shared their ideas and opinions.

On the other side, live lessons were only offered to exam students in core subjects such as Maths, English and Science.

This meant that students missed out on teacher interaction in other subjects and had to make do with PowerPoints and pre-recorded clips. This was a real shame, especially for year nine students about to choose their GCSE options.

Furthermore, locally there are families that don’t have the facilities to enable their children to access online learning. It is extremely tough to suddenly find a device for children to use six hours a day, particularly for families with multiple children accessing online learning.

Accessing laptops

We were lucky  that locally we were able to get access to the laptops and dongles promised by the government before supplies ran out, and distributed these to students in need.

A large portion of my students became de facto babysitters for younger siblings whilst schools were closed. Not all parents who worked throughout school closures qualified as key workers, so childcare was necessary and teenagers stepped up.

The pressure on these young people to try and stay on top of school work and look after small children must have been immense. I struggled as an adult, juggling working from home and trying to keep my own children engaged with home learning. These barriers to accessing online lessons have put enormous strain on our young people and this definitely needs to be recognised.

Back to school

The same nerves I felt when first teaching online were evident when we all returned to school in September, and again in March of this year following the closure of schools during the second wave of Covid. Had I forgotten how to teach? How would the students be after so much time away?

Additionally, so many colleagues had been seriously ill with Covid-19, so the ever present fear of infection when in school loomed whilst many of us awaited the vaccine. Likewise for some students a return to the stricter boundaries of the classroom took some readjusting to.

Ultimately, the last 15 months have been a testing time for both students and teachers, but one to which they have all done their best to adapt and this should not be forgotten.

Laura Chamberlain teaches History at The Hastings Academy, Rye Road, Hastings.

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Posted 15:01 Thursday, Jul 1, 2021 In: Education

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