Learning lessons from teaching remotely during lockdown

Secondary school teacher KEN TOWL on how he and his pupils have managed to master the technology and the etiquette of staff meetings during the coronavirus quarantine

Some pupils have settled into remote lessons better than others

With just 10 minutes of the lesson to go, instead of the expected paragraph evaluating the achievements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of my Year 8 history pupils – let’s call him Andy to protect his identity – sends me a message via Microsoft Teams.

“Sorry sir, I don’t understand what we have to do.”

Andy has been struggling with remote learning since it began on Monday, March 23. He is isolated and unhappy and worried about his grandparents. He knows, as well, that asking for help so late in the lesson will probably not go down too well with his teacher. It is possible that this concern is at least part of the reason for his follow up message: “Here’s a picture of my new ducklings. There are three of them.”

The accompanying photo confirms his numerical accuracy. If it is a ruse, I fall for it: “They are lovely,” I say, “When did you get them?” Andy had, as it were, got his ducklings in a row.

I am teaching a full timetable, exactly the same timetable I have followed since September. The difference is that I am doing it remotely, from home. Well, if truth be told, from a bolt hole on the south coast where I found myself on the weekend of March 21-22, just as the lockdown kicked in and we were told to “Stay at home”.

The point is I can’t be at school so all dealings with pupils, colleagues and parents are remote. Last week I received an email from a worried mum. It says that “Daisy” (not her real name) was distraught after her lesson on the Spanish Flu on Tuesday (a comparison between precautions taken to reduce the spread of the virus a hundred years ago and those taken now) and could she be excused from the homework?

“We have been affected deeply by this in the family and I have been ill for a number of weeks and we would be grateful for your understanding.” I rushed off an abject apology excusing Daisy, of course, from any activity that she might find distressing and wishing her all the best.

Of course, Daisy is not the only pupil to be personally affected by the coronavirus. I have been informed that both “Ruth” and “Wayne” in my Year 8 class have lost grandparents to covid-19, in now familiar emails that go out to all staff asking us to be understanding and not chase up these students for attendance or outstanding work.

Meanwhile, among my sixth form pupils, “Bashir” has disappeared. He was very apologetic and promised to catch up by reading the typed conversations that take up much of our A-level law lessons, but he was needed in the family restaurant which had launched a takeaway service in a desperate attempt to generate some income against mounting debts.

Do not adjust your set: Ken Towl’s pupils have had to cope with their teacher’s troublesome camera

Our school has decided against inviting Year 12 pupils in for lessons. We would have to do this on rotation and, given our full remote timetable, this would actually disrupt the delivery of lessons rather than enhance it. Meanwhile, the school management is looking at the imposition of one-way systems around the buildings for September.

Our experience of the technology varies, too. While there are always pupils who claim that they “can’t see the questions” or “can’t make the video work”, I have discovered a budding IT consultant in “Milo”. As soon as any pupil says they can’t see or do something, Milo provides it in another format or, as he did last week, asks analytical questions like “@Andrea, are you using a Mac?”

I can’t blame my pupils. I have technical problems of my own. Most of the meetings I set up via Teams take ages to connect to all participants, and more often than not my camera doesn’t work. On one day this week I managed to display an image of the table, sideways, then a sideways image of me, then nothing again.

Pupils’ images were initially disabled but have now been allowed in order to reduce feelings of isolation. We are constantly advised (due, I suspect, to constant infractions) not to leave meetings at the end of lessons with pupils still in them, since they can then have an unregulated chat of their own. I don’t think I have done this yet.

Most teachers make themselves visible to their pupils in lessons. The last time I managed to, in a Year 12 law lesson, “Edik” said to me, “You’ve shaved off your beard. All the other male teachers have beards now.”

It has occurred to some of my colleagues that we are trying to adapt software designed for business to the classroom. It has occurred to me that I need some new razors.

Staff meetings have changed. Mercifully, they are much quicker. Friday’s meeting was typical, just 10 minutes. My only mishap was, after becoming resigned to a non-functioning camera, suddenly to appear on screen, hair longer than ever, sporting an old T-shirt, unaware of my visibility for a few seconds.

The convention that has arisen over the past three months is that only the senior management team appear on camera in meetings, so my appearance, inadvertent as it was in reality, may have been taken as presumption or vaulting ambition. I know this was the fate of one of my colleagues who had recently taken to appearing on screen alongside more senior members of staff, his chosen background a vibrant swirl of colour, nodding very visibly at every mite of wisdom uttered by his betters.

Not all meetings are dreadful, though. We have pupils working on their EPQs – Extended Project Qualifications. These are designed to enable pupils to demonstrate that they are capable of independent learning. They have to choose a topic that interests them, formulate a question and then, via research, produce a piece of work, usually a long essay, and present their findings, typically with a slide show, to a live audience.

Circumstances dictated this year that the live part would be completed remotely, so a dozen or so pupils were divided into two Microsoft Teams chatrooms so that they could present their work in 10-minute blocks with questions after each one. It was a revelation.

What had in previous years been little more than another task (albeit a fairly pleasant one), an extension to the working day, had taken on the guise of a Talking Heads style entertainment, a night “out”, and a chance to celebrate independent learning.

The audience learnt too, about subjects as diverse as the relationship between art and mental health, Plato’s influence on Hollywood films and an insider’s view of the Israel- Gaza conflict. It was as if we were rehearsing a potential future for education in which a capacity for independent learning and possession of technology are rewarded.

We should be mindful, however, of the gap between haves and have-nots which, if left unaddressed, will become even starker in our “new normal”.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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