There isn’t a rule book for how to handle a global pandemic that leads to schools closing and teachers having to work remotely.
No doubt many are discovering that teaching remotely is a lot more complex than most assume. This past couple of weeks has seen teachers dealing with a whole wealth of problems that quite simply, nobody could have prepared for (especially while teaching five lessons a day!).
If your school is having teething problems, or you’re finding it all a bit frustrating, you’re not alone...we are all learning. For me, there have been a number of potholes in the road but we are finding workarounds as we go that are starting to making an impact.
1. Avoiding communication overload
When you are off site, communication can be much slower and less efficient. Much has been made of the benefits of technology to overcome this – video calls, hangouts and of course good old emails.
However, we have found email has been more of a hindrance, with inboxes quickly clogged up meaning it can become difficult to navigate who has said what to who. As a result we are keeping email correspondence to a minimum to try and filter out the important bits.
Communicating with students is also a challenge. I have been bogged down in requests for technical support with accessing work that we have set online. It’s hard to be both the teacher and IT support.
This has meant that we have also tried to keep communication to a minimum. If you commit too early, you set a precedent and this looks like it’s going to be a long process.
To make everyone aware of this we circulated instructions to staff and students about what constitutes appropriate levels of communication.
This includes reiterating keeping email communication to within school hours (a prior school policy), no use of personal phones for school business unless agreed with the member of staff and no whole school emails.
2. Access workarounds
Distance learning can work – but only if the material can be accessed by students. If you work in areas of high social deprivation, it isn’t a given that students have access to technology.
To overcome this we did what we could to help, raiding the resources we had on-site; trolleys of laptops sitting unused are a redundant resource. They aren’t ideal but they work. Risky? Not if you create a clear contract of responsibility for the hardware and limit the usage.
Within a week, we managed to distribute a number of computers to children who don’t have facilities at home.
The alternative – handing out physical resources – is also not an easy answer. The danger point with regard to exposure and taking into account social distancing when encouraging students to collect work from a central point is risky; and similarly, sending teachers to deliver it just isn’t safe.
The solution can be simple. Boxes left outside the gate with different year group slots for collection each day, each week. Again, not ideal, but it reduces the risk to staff and the public.
3. Embracing audio
We debated video learning and I know many schools have started to explore this avenue. One of the issues is that it can be difficult to have tight procedures around live streaming. In addition, such practice puts teachers in an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous position.
After all, teachers are not trained in onscreen performance and the reality is that this approach is time-intensive and can be really stressful for the person giving the lesson.
To work around this I’m piloting an audio "talk through" of the work that we have set for English. It isn’t something new, but it’s something I’m more comfortable with than doing a live screencast or something similar.
I think if we give students the opportunity to complete work and then help them reflect on it, it’s a lot more productive than making them watch live videos.
In addition, having a recording means that the content can be accessed at any time, and we have already found when looking at how our students access data, that a lot of students do things at different times.
4. Time for feedback
As noted above, communication in remote settings can snowball quickly – especially once you set a piece of work. As such we are learning you have to find a balance between answering questions they may have and trying to limit how much they ask.
Of course, it isn’t easy to ask students to do something and then close down when there are questions that are fired back. To address this, consider allocating staff at a certain time to answer questions on the work set. This limits the onslaught and gives students some thinking time before sending in their query.
Another thing to consider is using prerecorded audio or video of a teacher completing the exercise being set. This can be a really helpful tool for addressing misconceptions and it is surprisingly good practice to help them build up their reflection.
Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, a head of English and specialist leader in education