I’ve been teaching online since 3rd February 2020 and will not see a classroom again until August. It feels very strange to reflect on the fact that I have taught half of the year from behind my computer and without any real interaction from pupils or colleagues. Has it been tough? Yes! Has it been surreal? At times, most definitely. Has this year been a write off? Emphatically no.
As I come to the end of this academic year, I have been reflecting a lot about my own approach to such a dramatic change in the way we teach, and I don’t want to see the year as a write off. Instead, I want to focus on what I can learn from this and how I can use this to continue to improve as an educator.
Whilst it has been unusual and has most definitely taken me out of my comfort zone, I feel that I have learned an awful lot that I will take with me into the future. Here is a summary of my reflections on this difficult, strange and challenging time in all of our careers.
What I’ve learned about teaching from online learning:
Pupils are resilient and more independent than I thought
In some cases, it has even become clear that certain pupils seem to like the independence. Don’t get me wrong, not all pupils have taken to online learning as well as others, but the majority have tackled it better than I thought. I have been able to relinquish a lot of control to my classes and they have actually been the ones in charge of their own learning. I find that pupils ask more questions to ensure they understand (the quiet ones do this by typing into the chat box – but they still ask which is great!), and they are more up front about admitting when the work is too much.
This has forced me to consider how I can encourage and foster this once we are back in the classroom and I think it definitely means less from me. I aim to relinquish some of the control and give pupils the time and the space to feel a sense of independence and learn from their mistakes. Resilience is something I am now going to actively consider, and I feel that a lot of the activities I plan in the future will have this at their core.
Pace is still so important
Pupils definitely like time to reflect and digest the content. Pace is a word that we often defer to when talking about the ingredients for a good lesson and is something we often use when conducting and feeding back on lesson observations. However, I feel like I have now really seen what pace can mean. When you are not in front of your classes it is difficult to assess how they feel about the work or how they’re engaging with it. Online, I find myself giving directed ‘thinking time’ and this has been working very well. I have used labels and timing much more and have ‘do now tasks’, ‘extension tasks’ (these have always been a firm favourite but have proven invaluable online), ‘do later tasks’ and ‘optional do later tasks’.
Paired with this, I have found that pupils like to control the pace themselves and this is done when work is set in advance and pupils have the week to work through it in their own time. I have been doing a mix of both synchronous and asynchronous teaching and have been happy with this combination as pupils have felt that they have more ownership over the way in which they approach the work. Even now, the firm favourite is the pre-recorded lessons that are uploaded on a Sunday with work due a week on Monday. I feel that this is something I would like to continue in some form in the future as not only has it wielded positive results in terms of output from pupils, but they have admitted they feel happier being able to see where the week is going.
Some pupils have thrived – why?
This has been a common observation from teachers and is a discussion I see a lot on twitter: the quieter pupils seem to be thriving. I have two pupils of my own in mind who were always so reluctant to speak in lesson and for 6 months had stagnated in terms of their grade. At this current point they are both now a grade higher than when I assessed their work in December AND the quality of work and understanding is much more sophisticated. Why? This could be down to the natural process of maturing as learners. However, I strongly believe that without the pressure of the classroom, they have felt freer in terms of just doing the work. Now, this is pure speculation on my part but after being their teacher since Y8 (they are now at the end of Y9), I feel that it has something to with the change in the way we they have been learning since February.
This poses more questions than answers however, and these are ones I will endeavour to address as I move back into the classroom. It may be that those pupils who are slightly shy or who feel intimidated in large groups are given a different outlet and it is this idea which I will investigate next year. I would like to look at different ways that pupils can offer contributions whilst in lesson and will definitely see how I can use technology more as a way of aiding this.
Teach the foundations and re-use these skills
I feel fortunate that when this lockdown happened, I had already built relationships with my classes and had laid many of the foundations that I have continued to rely on since. I think it will always be difficult to teach brand new skills remotely, however this experience has shown me that if the foundations are there, anything is possible.
For example, when we began online learning, I had taught a novel and selected short stories to all of my KS3 classes. We had just started a poetry unit in January, however my initial concerns about continuing this soon faded. Pupils had all of the tools they needed to succeed…and they actually remembered them. They remembered how to talk about themes. They remembered how to analyse quotations. They remembered how to write analytical paragraphs. I can admit that I was pleasantly surprised. The same thing is also true of my y11s however I had already planned to have finished the content by December, so this wasn’t as shocking!
What this has taught me is the value of embedding transferable skills as without these, I doubt my classes would have felt so successful on the various units we have covered since February.
Simplicity of ideas
I am definitely guilty of getting carried away! I can spend hours planning for one lesson and making elaborate resources, blowing these up onto A3, placing tasks around the room, collating different types of multimedia etc. You name it, I’ve tried it. But none of that is possible remotely. So instead, simplicity has been my go-to…and it’s worked! I am not saying I’ll never again book out the drama studio, hunt around for a wig, a gavel and a lectern in order to hold a mock trial (my go-to drama activity!), but I will stop spending time on activities that I don’t fully believe have educational merit.
Steps have also been extremely useful as this gives online learning the structure that can easily be lost. In the case of online lessons, I label steps clearly so pupils know how they are progressing and where they are in the overall plan. Steps also help pupils to see how each activity or skill is relevant to the next and how everything links together.
Pupils seem to have enjoyed my fairly simple and basic lessons (they keep turning up each week!), and they continue to engage and complete the tasks. And I can assure you, I have not done anything fancy or elaborate. I have just sat down and thought about what I want them to achieve each week and the best way to support that.
Dialogue and connections are valuable & collaboration can happen anywhere
Teaching is extremely social, and it is this which I feel we have all missed out on. Just like everyone else, I am eager to get back into the classroom and once again engage with pupils face to face. This period has undoubtedly shown me just how important it is to maintain connections even when it seems impossible.
I found that whilst pupils were still able to connect with me, they were losing the connections with their peers. As a way around this I set work that required them to connect with each other and engage with tasks they were familiar with from our usual lessons. I asked pupils to read out their work in live lessons and asked others to feedback, I used OneNote and Padlet as a way of pupils peer assessing and I also asked pupils to record themselves delivering presentations. Whilst this does not replace face to face interaction, it has given me a range of other ways in which pupil can collaborate and interact both inside and outside of the classroom.
Technology is a valuable tool
I am definitely guilty of not using technology enough and this has always been a professional target of mine. However, this year I feel I have utilised a range of platforms and have been successful in doing so. All of these I will continue to use in my future teaching!
1. Padlet – I absolutely love this! My year 11s really enjoyed using this and it is so easily to set up. I used it to set homework and revision tasks as well as post lessons I had taught so they could access them at any time. I also asked pupils to upload their work here and used it as a peer assessment platform.
2. OneNote – I used this in a similar way to Padlet however I found OneNote much more comprehensive and the storage of documents more organised. I used this for Y12 as I could have a folder for each pupil as well as my own folder. Once again, pupils used this to submit work to be teacher marked or peer assessed. I also used it to set work and store course documents and resources.
3. Video tutorials – this has been my absolute favourite way of teaching and one that I will continue next year. I have even started uploading these lessons to my website and now have a Student Zone that is constantly growing. I have had positive feedback from parents, pupils and other teachers with regards to this and feel it is something the pupils have definitely benefitted from. In the future, I will use video tutorials as a way of revising or approaching assessments. It is not something that any teacher has time for alongside everyday teaching, so is something I will create at specific points in the year and only for certain topics. I also plan to use this a tool for flipped learning!
4. Pupils recording audio of themselves – I used this with my Y12s who were preparing for an oral assessment. They recorded themselves, emailed the audio and I then sent feedback. This was so easy and meant that learning did not have to be put on hold.
I have decided to use this tool more often, even when pupils are not specifically preparing for oral assessments. I think that oral homework tasks would be an interesting way of adding variety to homeworks. They also come with the added bonus of pupils practising their speaking skills as well as their writing skills.
This has been something that I struggled with at first. By removing exercise books and ability to walk around a room and check work, it became increasingly difficult not to just mark EVERYTHING. I eventually realised that marking everything a pupil did each week wasn’t sustainable…or necessary. Instead I used a lot of checklists so pupils could self or peer assess, these also made it quicker and easier for me to quickly mark work based on criteria.
I also decided to start marking verbally and recording myself. This changed everything! Not only is this quicker and less stressful, but pupils loved it. Without realising it, they started to engage with their feedback more and would listen to my commentary and then tell me what their targets were! I will most definitely continue this in the future. As an English teacher, it works especially well with longer essays that require detailed and focused feedback.
New ways of encouraging pupils to interact with each other
This has already been covered in other sections however it is too important not to discuss separately.
Interaction and collaboration is key in any subject but is a foundation of English teaching: everything we do is centred around talking, sharing and discussing. However, I feel that I now have more options as a teacher. I will definitely use technology as a way of enabling different types of collaboration and am now more open to discussion that is not instantaneous. I would like to use technology as a way of creating discussion threads that can be added to as pupils continue to learn. I also want to try and ensure collaboration can happen at any time, not just in the classroom and technology can definitely facilitate that.
I am an enthusiastic fan of Rosenshine, and as such use modelling all of the time. However online teaching forced me to consider how I use this asynchronously. As already mentioned, creating video tutorials is one thing I will continue to do in the future and a major part of this will be based around modelling. I found that all of my exam classes responded extremely well to recordings of myself modelling how to approach a task and talking through my own though process. These have now become the foundation of my Student Zone.
It worked so well that I also incorporated it into my KS3 lessons. I found that pupils have grown in confidence in terms of completing specific tasks as they have a model to refer back to throughout their own learning and thinking process.
Switching off is important!
Being on a computer all day really showed me how much I was working, and I just couldn’t stop. I had to fight with myself to stick to a schedule and it was becoming so easy to check emails whilst watching TV or login to Teams just to ‘check’ if any work had been submitted. Work-life balance is important and whether I am in a physical or virtual classroom, there has to be a cut off.
This experience has shown me how easy it is to ‘work’ even if you didn’t set out to. Therefore, closing the computer and leaving it closed is something which I now schedule in.
Summary of what will I continue to use once I am back in a physical classroom:
· Video tutorials
· Giving pupils a space to access resources at any time
· Online peer collaboration
· Verbal homework
· Verbal marking
· Simplicity of tasks and activities
· Steps & success criteria
· Modelling that they can refer to whenever they need it & talking through my own examples
Overall, this process has taught me that not all learning/feedback/interaction has to be traditional. It should instead be geared towards what works best for the different kinds of learners in front of us.