The question of How I’m teaching seems much more pertinent than What I’m teaching right now. With 23 years’ experience under my belt, it’s a long time since I’ve had to learn so much so quickly in order to do my job.
Parts of the media and government would have everyone believe that the only real learning taking place during the lockdown is happening via ‘live lessons’, and that independent schools are leading the way with this, leaving state school students far behind.
The reality, of course, is far more complex. Live lessons – lessons taught via Zoom/Google Meet etc, in which the teacher and students interact in real time – do play a part in my repertoire of online teaching strategies, and I’ve learned a great deal about how to conduct them successfully over the last few weeks. I’ve been team-teaching a sequence of lessons on First World War poetry with a colleague. We send the link to the lesson out to the whole of Year 9, and typically about 70 students ‘attend’, with the lesson also being recorded and sent round later so that others can watch it if they were unable to attend live.
There’s so much that feels odd about doing this. For starters, we’re each in our own homes, so we have to think carefully about what can be seen behind us. Students’ cameras and microphones are switched off, so all we can see is their names on the screen, which can make it feel a bit like teaching into a void. Teachers check instinctively all the time to see how well students are understanding and engaging with what they’re saying. How do you do this when you can’t see or hear your students? But we make extensive use of the ‘Chat’ function in order to keep the lessons as interactive as possible, and that has proved really useful. It’s lovely to ask a question and for responses to stream in on the chat. One of us is responsible for reading them out, whilst the other responds to the comments. It’s interesting to see who contributes in this format, and that it’s not always the same students who would be first to put their hands up in class. Students have also developed the confidence to let us know through the chat if they’ve not understood something, or if they need to ask a question about the task they’re doing. When we’re in full flow engaging with students’ comments and questions in the chat, it begins to feel like ‘real teaching’ – or at least the closest I’ve got to it over the last few months.
How helpful it is, too, to have both a recording of the lesson and a record of the chat to send round afterwards. Normally, there’s no written record of a class discussion, and no opportunity to play the lesson back afterwards, so these are both bonuses of online live teaching.
There are, however, really good reasons why most state schools are not offering as many live lessons as independent ones. At the start of the lockdown, a significant number of our students didn’t have devices at home on which they could have engaged with a live lesson, and/or internet access with which to connect. Even now, the government’s promised computers have not arrived at our school. A concerted whole-school effort of fundraising and logistics has now helped to ensure that the vast majority of our students are equipped with what they need to engage with online learning, but it’s taken a huge amount of work, and there are still some students who need work posted or delivered to them on paper.
And also, I challenge the assumption that live lessons are necessarily always better than the other sorts of learning we deliver remotely. Sure, the live interaction between teachers and students is hugely valuable. But we have other tools in our repertoire, and the most important thing of all, I think, is to give students a varied diet. This means sometimes setting work that doesn’t require a screen at all; giving students time and space to be creative through extended writing and drawing projects; providing powerpoints with audio commentaries that they can move through at their own pace; offering a choice of tasks. Above all, it means giving students regular feedback on what they’re doing so that they know that we still care about them, we value what they do, and we want to help them to make progress.
Overall, I’m probably just as busy as I would be at school. It’s just that my time is spent in very different ways: a lot more time at my desk responding to emails from students, as well as leaving comments on their work online; lesson preparation time that also now involves intensive learning about all the various settings on Zoom that we need to have in place for safeguarding; liaison with parents and carers about all the many disparate reasons why their children might be struggling; and lots and lots of planning and thinking about just how things might be when we finally return to school in September.