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Covid-19 – Teaching at a time of emergency

Mark Wilson reflects on how Riddlesdown Collegiate first implemented, and then adjusted its approach to educating students amid the COVID-19 lockdown…

  • Covid-19 – Teaching at a time of emergency

‘Planning for an emergency situation’ is almost a contradiction in terms.

By their very nature, emergencies are characterised by uncertainty and unexpected change.

Perhaps more than most organisations, schools are highly sensitive to the risks posed by fire, power cuts, severe injuries, and indeed widespread illness – yet the sheer scale of the coronavirus crisis has tested all such plans to their very limits.

At Riddlesdown Collegiate, we’re fortunate to have been led by an extremely prudent leadership team. Around a week before the shutdown of schools was announced by the government, every member of the school’s teaching staff had been given a CPD session on remote teaching.

Clear expectations were communicated, along with examples of best practice, and support was provided on how to make effective use of Google Classroom.

Parents, staff and students were all subsequently given clear and consistent daily updates on the situation. These pre-emptive actions helped make teaching from home a much less stressful experience for us than might have been expected, given the circumstances.

A ‘normal school day’

The chief challenge for us hasn’t been asking staff to continue performing in their roles from a different location, but rather preventing students from becoming too used to being a different learning environment.

It’s only natural that most students will find it harder to learn at home, or find the motivation to jump out of bed when the usual time pressures simply aren’t there.

It was ultimately decided that staff should schedule all lessons in the manner of a normal school day, with period 1’s lesson going live at 9am, followed by period 2 at 9.50am and so on.

Lesson changeovers would trigger email alerts for students, coinciding with messages that parents and guardians received in relation to specific Google Classroom lessons, so that they could help with monitoring homework and ensure that our students were working to a set timetable.

The mental health benefits of establishing and following clear routines in this way are widely understood across a range of sectors and disciplines, from mental health professionals to astronauts.

However, we found it necessary to adapt this approach over time in response to parental and student feedback. We heard from some parents of how students would be part way through a lesson when they’d suddenly receive a separate task pop-up from another teacher.

At other times, the gaps between activities could be too large, with lengthy waits between tasks, making those myriad distractions available to many students at home all the more appealing.

Then there were the additional challenges being faced by parents, many of whom were themselves working from home and simultaneously caring for other children, and who struggled with cajoling our students into engaging with the work they’d been set.

Independent learning expectations

Whilst I still stand by the benefits of maintaining a set schedule, our approach after the Easter holidays underwent some changes. The day’s lessons were now all coordinated to launch at the same time of 9:00am.

The thinking behind this was that parents need only see what’s been set for their child once per day, and that our students could decide for themselves what tasks to complete first and in what order.

The opportunities and challenges that accompany this level of independent learning are considerable for some students – arguably those in wealthier households, who might have numerous devices to work on and a well-established academic drive.

I know of some students belonging to this group who were finishing up their work by 2pm, prompting their parents to ask us for more work to be set.

However, I also heard from other families who asked me privately to not set as much work – often because the students in question go ‘all in’ when it comes to written work and end up producing far more detail than what’s needed.

Then there’s our ever-present concern for those students less inclined to see the benefits of education altogether, or whose parents can’t be there to police them as teachers can.

Our response to the latter was to instruct all tutors to contact students and parents once a week, with senior tutors contacting looked after and Pupil Premium students.

Reaching out to families in this way and discussing their concerns with them helped us to tackle various immediate problems, and sometimes uncover hitherto unknown issues that existed before the shutdown.

Crucially, it also lets students hear a familiar voice. As their teachers, we’ve talked to them in order to allay their worries, discuss how their environment can be made more comfortable and productive for them, or to simply provide them with a sympathetic ear that’s ready to listen.

Talking to them in a mature and professional way has given them both that sense of regular routine, and important interactions with someone they associate with education.

Plan of action

In common with most schools, our cohort includes children of key workers who have been offered the chance to continue learning in school, with a core group of SLT and LSAs on hand to provide support and supervision, while students with limited or no online access have been issued with learning packs containing printed lesson materials.

As we’ve followed our organised plan of action, we’ve found the levels of teamwork demonstrated by staff across the school to be extremely useful in plugging holes in learning as they’ve appeared.

That said, I’ve personally found it challenging to handle the sheer number of work submissions.

The independent learning expectations we’ve set for our students have been well met by the vast majority, with the result that around 150 pieces of work are being submitted for me to review each day via Google Classroom or over email.

My approach has been to set out which tasks I’ll be marking from the lesson’s materials – often via a support video recorded the day before, to help guide students through and enable them to quickly check if they’ve got the right answers.

If I see that a student hasn’t submitted any work for three lessons then I’ll contact their tutor; similarly, I have colleagues who’ll contact me if a member of their tutor group hasn’t met their expectations.

New incentives

We’ve also found ourselves having to develop a new form of incentive for our students.

Our school’s points system was previously used for both positive and negative reinforcement, but without the prospect of detentions or potential rewards in the form of recognition at assemblies, certificates, and badges, a different approach is needed.

I’ve chosen to send out postcards with literary quotes on for those students demonstrating the best levels of engagement each week.

Throughout this whole experience, our goal has always been to make it feel as close to normalcy as possible. A handwritten note received by a student from their tutor isn’t exactly high-tech, but it’s an example of the personal interactions that many students will have been missing deeply.

Yes, it’s possible to devise timetables and plan content for lessons that replicates what students would have experienced in the classroom. But what’s unavoidably abnormal is that lack of personal interaction between students and teachers.

The approaches we’ve ended up adopting – calling home, talking to students – may well be the most important decisions we’ve made, in terms of enabling students to develop their independence and resilience in these difficult and extraordinary times.

Mark Wilson is an English teacher and Y7 form tutor at Riddlesdown Collegiate.

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