Help! I'm returning to school this term after absence

If you're back at work after absence and have been thrown into remote learning, fear not – Emma Sheppard is here to help
9th January 2021, 12:00pm
Emma Sheppard


Help! I'm returning to school this term after absence
Online Learning: How Teachers Can Make The Most Of Microsoft Teams

For teachers returning to work this term after a period of absence - whether for parental leave, long-term sickness or a break in service - the anxiety of online teaching is a very real concern. 

Some teachers - those who began their parental leave in June, for example - may not return to school until summer 2021, after more than a year away if they were self-isolating as a vulnerable, pregnant member of staff during the first lockdown.

With all schools teaching online in some form since last March, and evolutions in their practice brought about by the logistical changes in September and then again this January, the fear that the teaching landscape has transformed beyond belief isn't completely unfounded. 

But if you're returning to a digitised world from a period of absence at some point this year, there are good reasons not to feel too overwhelmed by this virtual unknown.

Coronavirus and schools: Adapting to remote learning

Human beings are adaptable by nature, and the very experience of stepping out - and then back into - the profession, having spent time doing something completely different in between, is evidence of your ability to thrive by transferring skills and knowledge from one context to another. 

The majority of our current teaching generation have also grown up in an age of rapidly changing technology. Many of us learned to touch-type following hours spent on MSN. We speak a language of social-media privacy settings, joining details, screen sharing and airdropping. Like learning a new language when we are already adept at two or three, our brains are coded to understand the logic of the new platforms that our schools are using.

Online learning is not an exact science, and the core principles of teaching still apply: the manner in which you conduct your virtual lessons will depend on the class, the topic, the day of the week, the weather, students' assessment scores, their mood that day - and yours. 

While it may feel like teachers who have been online since March are light years ahead of those who have just returned, a good teacher will always be tweaking and changing their practice, cutting their losses and celebrating their successes. 

Like learning to drive, the best way to figure these things out is to just get on with it. And if you "crash", it really is a low-stakes context in the grand scheme of things: lessons may end abruptly, or one or two may even fail to get started. Some phone calls may have to be made regarding conduct in the chat (which you can screen grab). 

Keeping a sense of perspective

Soon, your trial and errors, evaluations and successes will enable you to share tips with the experts who got you up and running in the first place. 

Lastly, it's important to retain a sense of perspective. Back in April, the Sutton Trust reported that, on average, just 23 per cent of state-school students were engaging with online lessons, compared with up to 60 per cent of private-school students.

The report, and teachers' own experiences, reveal a myriad of reasons for this: lack of access to devices or wi-fi; students' inability to take on the mature skills of time management and motivation; parents' inability - as result of work, lack of understanding or lack of confidence - to monitor this; inappropriate home-working set-ups; the impact of poor mental health; or the other domestic or caring responsibilities now required of our young people. 

The focus, therefore, should be on what we can do, prioritising the students virtually in front of us, not all the overwhelming things that are beyond our ability to control. 

In such times, collaboration and calm problem solving are your friends, along with a multi-pronged approach.

Heads of department can divide the labour between team members, with someone adapting lessons to be online-learning ready, another creating paper booklets for those who cannot engage online, and another sketching out a contingency plan for classes where virtual learning completion rates range from 100 per cent to absolutely nothing.

Social media provides a great opportunity for wider networking, to share best practice and to get a sense of what's going on in similar school contexts.

Circumstances and demands on teachers are changing at a rapid pace. So, for those of us not yet returning to the classroom, the best course of action right now is to enjoy the present as much as possible, rather than focusing on preparing for future needs that may or may not be relevant by then. 

Enjoy learning the skills that our new online world is teaching us in every aspect of our lives, and then transfer these to the classroom when you're back.

Emma Sheppard is founder of The MaternityTeacher/ PaternityTeacher Project, and a lead practitioner for English

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