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What are we learning about teaching as the pandemic continues and schools remain closed or only partially open? The most obvious is that the relationship that the child or student has with their teacher is of the utmost importance. The teacher is the one who works with their pupil to provide the personal contact, the response to questions, the feedback following assessment. It is the teacher who has a connection with the child, who knows them as an individual and who values their learning.
Over the last number of weeks, I have joined international meetings of educators from across the world. They are all united, probably for the first time, around the genuine common problem of how to educate remotely. On one call I heard from a teacher in South Korea, where 97% of homes have connectivity and where lessons from a full state curriculum are expected to be studied online. They describe how ‘lead lessons’ are provided by expert teachers to thousands of children online, but that learning really comes to life when teachers engage with their students; by asking questions about the lesson, enabling their students to react and respond and then engaging in follow-on activities that help to consolidate the learning. The combination of high-quality direct instruction supported by the teacher in a personal way has potential as we think about how to blend approaches. It is clear, however, that it is the quality of support that the teacher provides for their pupils that makes the difference.
On another call, a teacher from China spoke about the difficulty that they were experiencing in motivating their students. In China, as in many other areas of the world, exams have been delayed or cancelled and with this learning and study behaviours in some young people have declined dramatically. Misbehaviour has become evident amongst some students now that they no longer physically attend school, where they may be managed through constant testing and ranking in preparation for examinations. Removing the test seems to have removed the purpose of study.
In parts of Africa, the only means of remote teaching is via local radio. In New Zealand on the other hand, schools have fully re-opened and attendance is compulsory for all. The lack of equity across the world and in our society appears starker than ever.
Relationships with the school and the teacher matter both from the child’s perspective but also from the parent’s perspective. Where these relationships were already mutually respectful and strong it would seem that a move to remote learning has been easier. It is clear that when the role of the school and the teacher is highly valued in the community, offers to support learning are welcomed. Trust is very powerful. One secondary girls’ school in London that serves many families in high rise tower blocks has allocated teachers to each family so that they can deliver and collect homework but can also provide advice, food vouchers and suggest support. The connections these teachers are making are crucial for families, especially where English is an additional language.
Connection is easier of course when families have good internet with available devices in quiet spaces. However, as has been widely reported, many young people in England do not have access to online learning and in some families, there may only be one mobile phone amongst everyone in the household. Schools serving these youngsters are doing their best to provide books and resources for home study and it is very helpful that the television can be used to support learning at home. I heard yesterday of teachers who had been visiting homes with phonic charts as giant flashcards for children to chant as their teacher danced in the street and led singing. It is this creativity and desire to connect that helps to explain why so many teachers are loved.
The onset of COVID19 has revealed the shocking reality of a society in England divided into the privileged and the all-to easily labelled ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘vulnerable’. In the context of school closures, widespread poverty is seen for what it is. The difficulties faced by some within our school communities go way beyond areas that teachers can support. Poverty impacts housing, nutrition, health, wellbeing and ultimately the capacity to engage with learning.
Our teaching profession has stepped forward and has been the second public service provider behind the NHS from the very beginning of this crisis. When everyone was told to stay at home, teachers came into school to support the children of key workers. When lessons needed to be provided remotely, teachers used their creativity to provide a huge range of learning opportunities. As schools began to open more fully, teachers demonstrated calm leadership as they struggled to make sense of and implement government guidance.
What is becoming clearer by the day is that teachers matter in society. Families respect and listen to teachers. The connection between teachers and their students is crucial. Where learning has faltered this is not because young people or teachers are lazy at home but because the school building offers a safe physical space where individuals know they matter and where they can think. Closure of schools affects life chances. Although there are plenty who are ready to criticise our profession, COVID-19 shows us that when the connection with teachers is lost it is this that impacts most on the individual. As governments begin to fret about ‘catch-up’ the most important way we can help our young people is to re-connect them with their teachers as soon as it is safe to do so. We must recognise that fault does not lie with families or schools; where learning is lost it is likely to be the consequence of the cruel reality of poverty in an unequal society.
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