This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in April 2020. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
Teachers are getting used to remote working – supporting pupils and families with education during the coronavirus lockdown. Andy McHugh offers some dos and don’ts for teaching staff
Everything has changed. Only last month, we were going about our normal business, walking down jam-packed corridors, peering over students’ exercise books and sitting in close proximity to our colleagues over a cuppa during breaktime.
Most of us had no idea that the world of education would be turned on its head. We moved from having little personal space for several hours a day, to being in isolation (no mention of booths please) during a national coronavirus lockdown.
Yet the world still turns and we are still teaching. Well, sort of. Perhaps not everything has changed, at least not yet.
Without notice, teachers have had to move online. For some, the move has been fairly straightforward. Depending on the school you work in, or your own proficiency in IT, you might already be used to Google Classroom, Class Charts, Education City, Mathletics and the like.
But not all of us are. Not only that, we all use these tools in different ways. This is not necessarily a problem, variety is the spice of life after all. But with a varied education delivery system you will also have variance in the quality of what is provided.
There will inevitably be some ways that tend to work better than others, in most contexts. But at the same time, we need to understand that there are methods of delivery that might be, in most cases, more effective for the students in terms of what they learn.
There are also ways to deliver effective teaching in an efficient way, removing needless workload from teachers, who in many cases are simultaneously looking after their own children.
With this juggling act in mind, I propose a few dos and don’ts regarding working remotely. They are to be adhered to strictly or taken with a pinch of salt – it is completely up to you. Your own context is central here.
Do: Plan the tech as well as the subject content
If you are going to commit to teaching remotely, then you need to have a plan. It is no different to planning a traditional scheme of work, with subject content to cover, regular low-stakes quizzes and summative assessment at the end.
Not only that, you might have to also teach your students how to use the various apps and online platforms where the work will be accessed and submitted. It is all well and good telling students that the work is on Google Classroom, but if they do not know how to submit an assignment, or answer a quiz on a Google Form, then you are wasting your time.
Plan some basic how-to tutorials, or use one of the many walk-throughs that are available online. That way, the new content delivery system will not become a barrier to learning.
Do: Keep it simple
Using technology to teach can be very distracting. Education apps gain extra functionality with each week that ticks by and there are more online platforms than you can shake your mouse at.
It is easy to succumb to “shiny object syndrome” and try to sample them all in your teaching. But this adds unnecessary complexity. Try to stick to one “ecosystem”, be it Google, Microsoft, or whatever. If you must use something subject-specific, such as Mathletics, or Times Tables Rock Stars, then stick to it for a sustained period before you switch to another platform.
One of the major issues faced by parents who want to support their child’s learning is that they tire very quickly of having to remember a dozen log-in details and another dozen ways to navigate the software set by the class teacher.
If you can, try to collaborate across different subjects, so that as many subjects can use the platform. Education City and SAM Learning are popular choices for this very reason, as they house multiple subjects within one system. One log-in to rule them all.
Do: Create or curate an independent learning resource bank
Students who take to remote learning like a duck to water will run out of tasks quicker than you can upload them. They need stretching. With that in mind, create a bank of online (or even offline) resources that will push them beyond the standard tasks you set, encouraging them to broaden and deepen their knowledge.
These resources could be links to specific articles, YouTube videos, banks of exam practice questions, quizzes, or even open-ended tasks that ask students to write in greater detail, but giving them full creative control.
By doing this, you allow students to take greater ownership of their learning and you can push them to take on greater levels of challenge. These tasks must be meaningful though. They should inspire students further, not just take up their free time. Think killer, not filler.
Do: Contact your students
Teaching is a social activity. So to teach remotely can be a little daunting – and not only for the teachers. Students need contact, via whole-class feedback and also on a one-to-one level. Many students need that interaction, not only to guide them, but also to give them the confidence to keep going when they are unsure of the path they have taken.
For many students, the fact that an adult has taken the time to think about their work and given them useful feedback is invaluable. For some students, this might be one of the few positive interactions they have with an adult in their life. Whether teaching online or offline, nothing has changed in that regard.
Don’t: Expect your students to complete five to six hours of work each day
The rigour of the school timetable makes it easier for students to work for five to six hours each day on a range of tasks. After all, they are supervised and have relatively few distractions. Not only that, but their timetable sets out what they should be focusing on during each hour of the day.
Remote learning does not quite work that way. Students can come and go as they please. Not only that, but many students, at this time in particular, are taking on domestic duties while their parents work. Family time is also vital during this worrying period and must be encouraged.
This makes it totally impractical for us to expect the same sort of working patterns that we experience in school.
And while we cannot and should not expect students to work a full “school” day, neither can we expect them to complete a normal school day’s work in one or two hours.
This is an uncomfortable truth for so many of us who have sought to promote “high expectations” as a tried and tested route to success. Right now, we must remember that this is an emergency and we are all doing our best. So accept that delivering the full school curriculum for six hours a day via remote learning is not our goal and is not even feasible.
We must relax our expectations a little and plan to fill in the gaps later on. One union’s advice has been to aim for two to three hours of work each day and then to encourage time for family activities, signpost educational resources, and so on.
Don’t: Respond to emails straight away
Email was never designed to be an instant messenger service. If you treat it like one, then it can become unmanageable. By all means, encourage your students to email you questions. However, it is sometimes useful to set parameters regarding when you will respond to emails.
For example, you might set out to answer all questions within 24 hours, but only between 8am and 6pm on weekdays. Sharing this protocol with students helps them to understand why their query sent on Friday night at 8pm did not get answered until Monday morning at 10am.
You, the teacher, will not feel guilty about not answering and the student will not have watched their inbox for 72 hours straight.
If you do want to operate an instant response type of service – perhaps a trouble-shooting or FAQs session – then schedule a time with students when they know you will be available on your school email or via the school learning platform to answer queries. That way, you and your inbox will not be overburdened.
Remember, union advice is to never use your personal email, social media or instant messaging services with students – stick to school email or other school communication systems so that all is recorded and safeguarding requirements satisfied.
Don’t: Put off learning new ways of working
There is something terrifying and exciting about having to work in a completely new way. As teachers, we get used to our favourite ways of doing things. But sometimes we work harder than we should. By using technological tools, we can reduce planning through collaborating, live on a single document, with colleagues. We can generate and duplicate materials with very little effort. We can create self-marking quizzes that even give specific feedback. But most of us have not done it before. At least not yet. So, here is your chance. Do what your own teachers told you to do. Keep pushing yourself – in that sense, nothing has changed.