Six months ago, at the end of a long, hot summer, the act of teaching underwent seismic change as we all went home to do it from there.
While in Melbourne we did have, briefly, a return to face to face lessons, the bulk of this year has meant teaching and learning through a small, 13 inch portal.
There has been much experimentation, rumination and reflection on how best to keep the learning moving. Much of this is driven by the desire to do it better, some forced by circumstance.
In trying to formulate a summary of this experience, the following words kept returning, albeit from an unlikely source.
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”Bruce Lee
While the methodology of teaching has changed, the philosophy underpinning it has not. Learning is learning, no matter how we do it, and by returning to our core purpose, the essential objective becomes obvious.
Keep the learning moving.
As a practitioner, this period has reconnected me with the thing that got me into this career in the first place. I love learning and I love teaching.
Having said that, sharing my practice and experience outside the bubble of school and faculty setting has never been a strong point. The reasons behind this are no doubt reproduced by teachers around the world – a combination of humility, introversion and fatigue.
When you put your heart and soul into your work already, who has time to jump on the web or social media and share?
Well, another thing this period has taught me is the need for connection and sharing. In this series, I plan to write about the experience of sustaining and maintaining the effort of teaching from home.
Firstly, let me contextualise the setting. I teach in a school where all students have their own devices and it is well resourced enough to make the transition to remote education a relatively smooth one. Yep, we are very fortunate. We had terrific support from leadership and IT services and lucky enough to have access to the critical elements required to make it work.
As all students and staff have devices and home internet connections, we were able to remain in the synchronous learning realm. As a school familiar with the Google Suite, the platform of Google Meet was a no brainer, and the practical elements for delivering our lessons was supported by out learning management system, Schoolbox, and also by Education Perfect, which is more subject specific.
Using these resources as a framework for delivery and interaction, like everyone else, we dived in.
Having only a couple of weeks to get our heads around how it might work, the entire staff jumped into intensive training and planning for the experience which, in March, we thought might last a few weeks or so, maybe a month.
After engaging in one particular day of training, where we conducted faculty meetings and planning sessions over Google Meet, despite being onsite, I remember thinking it might be the most impactful day of professional learning in my twenty year career.
That was because, for everyone, there was opting out. Indeed, the forced engagement and associated forced risk created an overwhelmingly positive feeling.
It is hard to recall exactly what was going through my head, but I did lean heavily on the words of Viktor Frankl, and still do.
When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.
While this might be viewed as an empty maxim, the challenge was great for many educators, familiar with the comfort of certainty. Our kind learning and working environment suddenly turned wicked.
And while there was some conjecture about over the decision to remain fully synchronous, the advantages were obvious. Primarily, the existing infrastructure of the school day, including pastoral elements, were a known known for the entire school community, removing any uncertainty over how the days and weeks would structure and function.
Synchronous learning offered the minimum of disruption in a deeply disrupted world.
Thus, after working to set up links and meets, with some practice sessions while still on site, our first day ever day of remote learning began in a climate of novelty and even, it must be said, excitement.
We conducted four days of teaching before the end of term, and if nothing else it taught us that trying to control the remote classroom as you would a live one, trying to keep students accountable each lesson would pose a real challenge.
On the first day, I asked students to submit class work to our LMS, meaning there were roughly 75 bits of data to process.
Then came the headaches and red eyes. Then came the creeping fatigue and achy shoulders.
The first thing I learned was, there is a lot of stuff to let go of if we hope to maintain the energy and limit the stress. This led to the first principle of remote education.
Control the controllables, let go of everything else
Letting go of control is hard. It is particularly hard for educators used to being the leaders of their domains, in particular, the classroom.
So much of the skill in teaching is creating and owning that space within a lesson. We rely on all sorts of visual and audible cues to monitor our students. We enforce accountability in real time, in person, all within a space we can manage with our eyes, our ears and our voices.
If a student is distracted, we can see. If they get off task, we can find out. If they talk outside the limits of what they are supposed to, we know. If they ask someone else for the answer, we know. If they get their phones out and take a video of us, we know.
Additionally, teaching a lesson is largely a private activity, albeit one where privacy extends only between yourself and the 25 or more students in the class. Outside of formally arranged times, or perhaps unexpected interruptions, no one really sees what we do.
All of these things take on a different dimension in the virtual space, even a synchronous classroom where in theory, you should always be able to see what a student is doing.
This became a really topical issue in the early days of remote teaching, both in anticipation and practice. How do we know the students are paying attention? How do we know they are listening? How do we know they are doing the work?
Moreover, how do we know they won’t take photos or videos of us on their phones? How do we know their parents aren’t watching or listening? How do we know they aren’t cheating?
Well, in reality, we don’t really have a way of guaranteeing this. In fact, the task of ensuring these things are happening is Herculean at best, Sysiphean at worst.
This leads to asking two simple questions – what can we control? What can we not control?
Well, what we can control are the actions we take. We can plan and organise lessons, provide materials and resources, frame the learning objectives and provide the space and environment, to a degree, for the learning to take place.
We can ensure we learn the skills to manage an online class. We can notice things – we can check in with students and say what we see. We can ask students to stay back after for a chat. We can use email and other online tools to do what we would normally do. We can collect student work and assess it and return it.
These are the things we can control. We can control expectations and the learning activities we provide,
But… there are many things we cannot control.
We cannot control much about the student’s environment at home. Who can hear or see them, what their internet connection is like, or if they are on a separate house party chat while playing Fortnite or Minecraft. We cannot control if they take video or photo of us and then distribute that to their friends or turn us into memes.
These are things beyond our control.
In considering these questions, what became clear was that any attempt to control these things would likely be frustrating, exhausting and ultimately, futile.
Which is not to say we should accept them. No, we should not raise the white flag and let them happen, but we should recognise they will and do happen.
In letting go some of this control, we conserve energy for finding workable solutions and processes that limit the impact of these behaviours for students.
By interrogating some of these concerns, we also have the ability to recognise flawed scripts in our own thinking.
You are worried about parents seeing or hearing you teach? Why? What is it you are doing that you don’t want them to see?
You are worried that students will get help, or that the work is not theirs and you may get a flawed impression of their understanding and achievement? How do you know they do their own homework when you set it? Is getting help still learning?
You are worried that they will make memes of you, or video your lessons and share them? That they are not paying attention? Or playing games when they should be doing something else?
Well, they might do these things, in fact, we know many students are doing other things during our lessons.
What would you do if you caught them doing this in a live environment?
By asking such questions of ourselves, we found solace in leaning on the existing infrastructure of school policies and procedures.
If they take photos or video of you and you find out, follow the normal procedures of your school. Inform their pastoral carers and inform the parents.
How can we make sure they keep their cameras on? Well, we can’t – not really. We can only ask for proof of life and make our expectations clear. If our expectations are not met, we can respond as we normally would.
The key thing is, when dealing with all these situations, let go of the feeling that you can control these things. You can’t.
I have experienced success in many of these areas by creating a clear set of expectations and most importantly, following through.
At the beginning of a class, when we mark the roll and connect, all students must have their cameras on. I also ask they have them on during periods of direct instruction or when answering questions. I also ask they switch them on when they return after a period of offline work small group work.
Students understand that if they are not responsive or their cameras aren’t on when I ask, then they are marked absent and I email year level managers and, if necessary, their parents.
Now, it is not a perfect system, but it focusses on controlling the process, not the outcome. It takes a lot of stress out of teaching classes because I am only working on that which is in my control. I’m leaning on existing school policies and infrastructure for support when needed and above all, I’m not pushing the boulder up the slope, or tilting at windmills, or being drawn into the student bad behaviour dance .
Philosophy without action is of limited use for teachers in this environment. My hope is that by sharing some practical experiences during this time, there may be value for teachers tackling the hard fun that is teaching and learning from home.
Letting go of habits formed over a long period are not easy, but fighting every day to impose impossible standards on both you and your students is a waste of energy and time.
Be more Bruce Lee.