As we prepare to welcome back over 94% of the children to Banstead Prep School on Monday, Mrs Abbott, Subject Leader for Languages at Banstead Prep School reflects on working from home during lockdown.
“Baby shark, du du da dudadu, Baby shark du du da dudadu!”
I turn round to see my 10-year-old with a big smile on her face, singing inanely. Clearly, she’s finished her lesson and by the sound of it, she’s quite pleased with herself. Unfortunately, I am not in the same merry position. I started planning my lesson roughly 4 hours ago. Admittedly, I’ve had a staff briefing since then, which was followed by a necessary writing up of a few notes about pupils, but all the same – when has it ever taken 4 hours to plan a lesson? Why has it taken me so long? I’m not even halfway to finishing yet! Of course, there was my son’s French lesson first thing, where, being a French teacher, I couldn’t really ignore his pleas for help in navigating what was to him, a completely incomprehensible jumble of words. Then my daughter had bounded in eagerly, wanting to read her latest masterpiece, and how could I ignore her proud, smiling face?
At the change of lesson times, I went to check that my children had not succumbed to the lure of a more entertaining screen than the one telling them what to do in their next lesson. Satisfied, I return to my own screen, trying to create something sufficiently diverting to motivate children to want to learn, even though I am competing with modern-day games and devices that deliver excitement with graphics that I cannot begin to replicate.
The first couple of weeks were hard. Not only did we have to reinvent the delivery of our subject matter, but we had to grapple with unfamiliar learning platforms and new means of transmitting lively and possibly interactive lessons. When the Wi-Fi decided to flicker intermittently and then die in our house, I really thought the end was nigh for both my career and sanity. Everything was being learned in a black hole – there were people on the end of an email to help, but that’s never the same as having someone there in person to talk you through impossible intricacies. And I felt like I was in a vast chasm with the teaching as well. The children were responding, but I couldn’t see their faces; couldn’t see the glimmer of understanding or the dubious look that meant I needed to rethink my explanation. I couldn’t tell if it was completely their own work either, although I knew for sure that Mr Google was having a laugh with some of their translation efforts!
I watched with awe as my colleagues produced sophisticated Sways and YouTube videos. My efforts with French jokes of the week, performing soft toys and the occasional rap seemed immensely inferior, but they seemed to be catching the imagination of the children to a similar degree and as the weeks went on, a successful routine was emerging. Speaking to a camera began to feel more natural and the security of the home within a strange new world of turmoil felt reassuring.
There are some definite advantages to working online. Being a languages teacher, the potential for every child to record themselves speaking and having the time to listen to each one individually is a huge benefit. Seeking out other elaborate ways of getting children to report back has proved gratifying as well – audio presentations, videos, animations, taking photos of home-made creations were all much easier than in the classroom. Children could be creative and prove their knowledge and learning could be far more physical than within the restraints of the classroom. Getting Year 4 to erupt their own volcanoes in Humanities has been a definite highlight of my at-home teaching. We, as teachers, have, I think, proved that we are adaptable, resilient and highly innovative!
Then the announcement came that not all children in primary schools would be returning before the summer holidays. And that’s when the realisation dawned – not just that I’m not going to have enough suitable French jokes to last another 6 weeks – but that I’m desperate to get back into the classroom. I want things to be back to “normal” but actually I’ll take any kind of “new normal” for now, because this is not how teachers are meant to teach. Remote learning is exactly that – remote, distant, isolated, lonely. The reward of teaching is the excitement on the children’s faces as they respond to an activity you have created just for them – the activity you’ve cajoled into existence, tweaked, and thought about every loophole that could present itself before warily presenting it to the class, expecting disaster but being faced with cries of “More!” The reward of teaching is knowing that your words of praise can uplift their downcast faces and that you can show them how to succeed in a subject that they didn’t think they could do. Not an easy task in an online forum, where reality is distorted and messages get lost, literally in translation in my subject!
Teachers need their students to be there with them. However good we get at online teaching, nothing beats the physical presence, being in the same room, being able to interpret body movements and facial gestures, recognising and reacting to disappointment, anxiety and joy. I fear that some technological gurus out there might be preparing an online pedagogical future for us, which is something I don’t think should ever exist.
We’ve tried it; we’ve excelled ourselves; now let’s get back to proper teaching.