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What I’ve learned from teaching through the Covid-19 pandemic

What I've learned from teaching through the Covid-19 pandemic

I’ve taught the entire way through the pandemic and what I’ve learned has shaped my pedagogy forever. Teaching at a state composite school inside of the Auckland boundary has meant that my students and I have been in lockdowns more than others around the country. What started out as a novelty soon became tiresome, but in the process, I have learned so many important lessons.

Student wellbeing

Teaching in a pandemic highlighted how vital it is to make student wellbeing the driver of teaching practice. 

Students were required to abruptly adapt to learning from home – a challenging feat for all, regardless of individual circumstances, but certainly exacerbated by the foresaid, should that be less than desirable. Students had to suddenly be autonomous and self-motivated; they had to keep up to date with school work and communications, and do it all with less help than they would have at school. 

Some students were expected to work with young siblings around, making it difficult to concentrate, and some of them were expected to share a device with siblings, making it challenging to complete all the expected work. Still, some didn’t even have access to reliable internet or devices, so had to accept inconsistent engagement or resort to hard packs, with no teacher engagement whatsoever. 

The subsequent effect of all of this was feelings of isolation and anxiety. Anxiety around their academic progress, and how prolonged lockdowns could affect their ability to earn the right amount of credits to pass the respective NCEA level. According to the ERO report Learning in a Covid-19 World: The Impact of Covid-19 on Schools, nearly a third of secondary students surveyed said they did not feel optimistic about their academic year. 

In response to this wellbeing concern, I did check-ins and made a conscious effort to build relationships. 

As a staff we were required to take an inventory of which students were engaging online. The students who weren’t were recorded and their families were contacted to see if there was any way that the school could help. I found some of these conversations with families really fruitful. For instance, one family needed some guidance on the use of Google Classroom, our school’s learning management system, as well as how to create a routine in the home. This taught me the importance of whaanau and community connections in improving the wellbeing and engagement of learners. 

With my own students, I also adopted the strategy of asking them via email or Google Classroom’s private comment feature whether there was anything I could do to help. As teachers, we are always telling the students to reach out if they need help, but I found that many didn’t do this unless they were first contacted. Students replied to my messages with questions or comments that made it so much easier to help them, such as giving further instructions for a task, or referring them to the school counselor. 

At the start of the pandemic especially, teachers thought of online learning as a place solely for school work, without remembering that education is always in the context of relationships. At school, we have so many interactions with students each day that contribute to a relationship: When we greet them in the corridor, when we share a funny moment in class, when we discuss our thoughts in a learning conversation. Students need relationships for an optimal learning environment, and that is why I took the time to reach out and relate to them on a personal level.

Student engagement

According to the aforementioned ERO report, student engagement took a hit from the Covid-19 lockdowns as well. Students weren’t attending their online meetings and they weren’t enjoying their learning. This was especially true for secondary students, who were reported as having one of the lowest levels of enjoyment across the education sector (in the 30th percentile compared to the 60th and 70th percentile in primary school aged children). 

Post lockdown, there also continued to be less engagement: Attendance rates were reported as low, especially in low decile schools, where 59% of staff expressed concerns about attendance, compared to only 33% in high decile schools. The pattern shown here is that disengagement breeds more disengagement, especially in disadvantaged communities.

In response to these issues, I decided to be creative and use the time in lockdown to experiment with innovative applications.

  1. Digital Avatars

Digital avatars are digital versions of a person. They are a neat way to personalise learning online and appeal to our younger generation, who see life through symbols, humour and media. 

I used the Bitmoji application to create my avatar and was then given access to a gallery of stickers. They can be added to emails and G Suite applications, such as Google Slides and Google Docs. 

One way I liked to use them was in class agendas. At the start of the week, I would send out a list of the tasks and meetings, complete with hyperlinks, on a blackboard. I would include my avatar to make it appear like a real classroom, where I was instructing my students what to do. 

Students told me how much they liked these agendas, because it consolidated the learning all in one place, making it easy to see, at a glance, what they needed to do. 

  1. Interactive applications

We were expected to ‘Zoom’ with our students multiple times a week, but in the beginning, I found these meetings unhelpful to students. Students didn’t feel comfortable to talk or even have their videos on, and many found them too instructional, i.e. repetitive in explaining what needed to be done for the week. 

This is when I found Pear Deck, Google Q & A and Quizlet Live. All of these applications/tools allow for interactive and anonymous learning that make students feel safe and engaged in their Zoom sessions. 

With Pear Deck, Students can show their understanding through drawing, writing and dragging, and learning is staggered, so that different parts of the Bloom’s taxonomy are targeted.

Instead of being the sage on the stage, I became the guide on the side. Students were engaged and working, and I was facilitating that learning with guided questioning. The instant change was inspirational! 

Pear Deck is an incredible resource for teachers too, because it provides templates for distinct parts of the lesson, as well as specific subject areas. This means that you don’t have to create from scratch, and you are much more intentional about why you are using certain approaches. 

Google Q & A is similar to Pear Deck in that it offers interaction and anonymity; however, answers are strictly reserved to written responses, which limits the learning styles that can be accessed. 

With Quizlet live, students compete to correctly connect up to 12 terms and definitions consecutively. Before the game starts, students are given flashcards to prepare for the game. This gives the students optimism about their chances of achieving, and reinforces that success comes through effort, not intelligence, something I love as a growth mindset advocate. 

Along with a sense of fun and excitement, it teaches students to be resilient, as the prospect of getting them all right in a consecutive fashion is a challenge. Many students have to go back to the start, but what encourages them is knowing that it is equally challenging for their peers, many of whom also find themselves having to restart. 

  1. Innovative and effective use of G Suite applications

G Suite for Education is a prevalent learning management system with 70 millions users worldwide; however, there is room for it to be used more innovatively and to its fullest capacity. 

Google Forms for instance, is a very versatile tool that can be used in varied ways, such as to survey, quiz and obtain information. The varied response options, such as paragraph, checkboxes, linear scales and more can really give you scope, and the addition of media accommodates multiple learning styles and uses.

Two of the ways I like to use Google Forms are for Impossible to Fail Quizzes and reading comprehension tasks. 

Impossible to Fail Quizzes test students on their knowledge by way of questions, but should a student get a question wrong, they are then taken to an instructional video of me teaching them the content. The idea is that the students review the content before going back and correcting their answer, so that by the end of it, students have mastered the content. The focus is learning, rather than just performance, which again, as a growth mindset advocate, I love!

Reading comprehension tasks are typically given in PDF or Google Docs format, but they can be created in Google Forms too! The benefit is that it’s easier to mark, because not only are there multi-choice question options which self-mark, the students’ responses can also be collated in a Google Sheet, where you can see all the data at the same time. If that’s too overwhelming for you, you can also view it individually and there is a feedback option to give students guidance on their next steps.

Summary

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the education system, but in the process, I’ve learned invaluable lessons, such as how student wellbeing should be the main driver of teaching, and how the engaging use of technology can elicit more student enjoyment. It’s opened my eyes to the possibility that awaits, when we allow unpredictable events to challenge us to think outside the box and be perpetual learners.

Sources

https://ero.govt.nz/our-research/learning-in-a-covid-19-world-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-schools

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