A survey of over one thousand primary teachers done by Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak found that teachers faced significant challenges in moving to remote learning. The majority of teachers were working longer hours, sometimes up to an extra day a week, and many were finding the steep learning curve around technology stressful. They also found that most teachers were concerned about the wellbeing of their students and families.
However, the survey also found that teachers reported a number of benefits of working remotely, not only for themselves but for students and parents also.
‘Teachers report that they were finding creative, new ways to teach traditional lessons and, for many, the transition is a boost in their digital literacy.
‘The COVID-19 changes also led to the rapid development of broader professional networks – sharing expertise and working collaboratively.
‘Many teachers report greater communication and, in some cases, stronger relationships with parents and carers during COVID-19. The time at home also gave parents a deeper insight into their child’s capabilities, learning challenges and the work of the teaching profession more broadly.’
We decided to talk to one teacher about her experience of teaching remotely during the lockdown.
Teacher, Sharon Hynes, shares her story.
Sharon works in a primary school in a suburb southwest of the CBD of Melbourne and specialises in supporting students with additional needs.
‘My initial experience was a feeling of uncertainty as my role involves supporting students with learning or social difficulties. I ensure they can access the curriculum.
‘I am not a regular classroom teacher. I was not sure how I could be of service while the students were learning within the home environment. This lack of clarity was quickly resolved when our school set up routines and structures so that I could continue my role remotely. I realised there were an abundance of opportunities for supporting students, families and fellow staff members.’
Sharon says that while she, personally, was finding the move to remote working challenging, she was aware that some of her colleagues and the families she was supporting were also juggling additional commitments.
‘My children are all young adults, one lives in the UK and the other three live in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Therefore, I did not have the double pressure that many parents faced with children learning from home. However, I missed them greatly.
‘Working from home was a bit of a personal roller coaster. Many of the usual stressors of work were significantly reduced, such as managing student task avoidance, reducing sensory overwhelm for students and teaching social skills to help them deal with conflict. These were no longer front-and-centre issues as the students were in their own homes without the social contact with their peers.
‘However, I was faced with a different set of challenges. The major challenges I faced were upgrading my technological knowledge (that had to be done fast), keeping myself disciplined, as home has many distractions, and separating work life from home life as switching off was not as easy.
‘During lockdown, I would begin my day by visiting a virtual classroom and being a presence, as I would during a normal school day. I could easily scan the group, check who had logged on and notice any students who looked to be struggling.
‘I would then check emails and prepare to call families to make sure that students had the technology they needed for their learning. I would also check that the students’ wellbeing was tracking ok, support students who were having trouble understanding their learning requirements and support parents who were having trouble supervising the remote learning of their children.
‘I would then meet digitally with other teaching and wellbeing staff to plan for future learning, troubleshoot and to support each other during the pandemic.
‘It became excruciatingly clear to me how difficult the social side of school is for some students. These students thrived learning from home. They were so relaxed and happy and enjoyed being self-directed in the learning process. They no longer had to navigate the social aspects of school life or deal with the stress that this normally placed on them.
‘Another small group of students did not do so well learning remotely. These students have learning difficulties and require many supports to access the curriculum. It was difficult for parents to supervise their learning remotely as they would refuse. This was highly stressful for parents.
‘The main benefits were flexibility with managing time, regular contact with families, easy access to student’s learning, reduced noise level and more time for professional learning.
‘When we eventually went back into the classroom, it was amazing! There was a buzz of excitement and appreciation for just being in the presence of others. Everyone just seemed to be grateful to be back at school again. The sense of connection and belonging was strong.’
Sharon said that several learnings that came out of working remotely.
‘I learned that change can happen extremely fast and being adaptable is crucial. Also, no matter what change we face, we have strengths that we can draw on to get us through. All of our staff and students know their strengths and this helped us all significantly in successfully navigating this historical change. Teamwork, where we combine a variety of strengths, added to the quality of our response.
‘We are now using some of our new learnings to set assignments for students so that they can work independently, when this is helpful for them. We have also started videoing teachers who are leaders in particular areas so that all of the students and their parents can benefit from the particular strategies that these teachers are expert in. These videos seem to be an efficient way of teaching at various times.
‘Finally, our students are now sharing their learning digitally with more staff members for additional feedback and support.
‘In this second wave of lockdowns, we are feeling more confident that we are able to successfully manage any challenges that arise. I am setting myself goals to maintain motivation, and endeavouring to keep a positive mindset so that I can support our school community during this difficult time.’
Sharon is the lead author of Tell A Trusted Adult, a resource for teachers, social workers, counsellors and psychologists, due for release later this year.