Coping with distance educating as a technophobe teacher

Yvonne Williams is as unsure of herself in the virtual classroom as she was in her first classroom as an NQT. But the kindness of colleagues – and the good humour of pupils – saves her

Yvonne Williams

Woman looks at computer in confusion

“Be careful what you wish for,” is the mantra of one of my writing-group friends. And, indeed, there have been many wet and windy mornings when I’ve envied the working-from-home brigade. 

What could be better than a leisurely cup of tea while the rest of the world is commuting? And, after years of climbing three flights of stairs to my classroom, what could be easier than a short walk from my sofa to the computer in the study for a quick burst of teaching?

I remember vividly the staffroom conversation about constructing a glamorous second self over the internet, smoothing out the wrinkles and improving the features in a virtual facelift (so much cheaper than the real thing). That must have been at least seven years ago.

Fast forward to last Friday. All the staff are in school, while students are at home, waiting for their virtual lessons. 

New sympathy for struggling pupils

After a year of posting homework on Firefly, our IT platform, I’m complacent enough to think I’ve got it sussed. But, just in case, I attend a half-hour training session in a packed IT suite on how to use Microsoft Teams.

By lunchtime, I’m lost in my office, keeping one eye on the virtual work on screen and unable even to get myself started on Teams. If I’ve never sympathised with students who’ve found my lessons difficult or too fast-paced, I do now.

The kindness of colleagues saves me. One is hellbent on an uplifting singing session. I can’t spare the time. We trade my singing for her expertise. And I feel much better for the group singing (appropriately distanced from each other on tiered seating). 

I feel more secure once I’ve had a run-through with our deputy head on using Teams to set up meetings for the next week – and keep my fingers crossed that I’ll have time to rehearse using the IT stuff remotely.

A kind of teaching hell 

But on Friday evening I’m in a kind of teaching hell, as unsure of myself in the virtual classroom as I was all those years ago in my first lesson as an NQT. 

On Monday morning, the IT platform crashes. Frantic emails (from me) about how to get in touch with groups. 

There’s nothing for it but to go online and muster my Year 9 reading group to check they have some work from the PowerPoint I posted on the crashed IT platform. I explain verbally several times and they get it – hopefully. It’s a bitty session, and there are wrinkles to iron out, to put it mildly. 

One of my colleagues has generously included me in her webinar before lunch. It’s more than helpful – and more advanced in terms of technological tools than I’m capable of at the moment.

At lunchtime, I glance at the Tes website to catch the usual coronavirus fest. And the headline: ‘Web lessons 'not natural for UK teachers'. 

You don’t say. It’s all right for a statistician like Andreas Schleicher to make this pronouncement from his secure IT haven. He’s not teaching. 

In years past, I could have extolled the virtues of the real classroom over the virtual-learning space. But I’m minutes away from my next lesson online and still have no real expectation of the learning platform functioning fully.

And it’s Year 11. Rashly, I’ve programmed in a creative-writing session. It doesn’t get much riskier than that.

Last week’s shock announcement that all GCSE and A-level examinations were cancelled hit them hard on the day. But then I reckoned without their natural ability to bounce back, their good humour and co-operation. 

The human element

My use of the IT was clunky, as I’m sure they knew. But together we explored the features of Teams for sharing creative sentences and snippets. I wanted them to work on producing a writer’s voice. 

Assessment took an unusual turn as my voiceover feedback was punctuated by them “marking” each other’s work with thumbs up, hearts and other – often interesting – emojis. 

With the IT platform now up and functional once more, we switched to the PowerPoint for slides showing interesting angles, so that they could write with attitude.

There was some banter to lift the mood, and the lesson was conducted with my Year 11s’ customary good humour. 

It was a learning hour I shan’t forget. I can now use Teams in some ways, and can adapt my teaching to the facilities it offers. 

No, Mr Schleicher, I’m not yet a techno whiz. It will take a few weeks to make my delivery slicker in the virtual classroom.

But yesterday I learned once again the most important lesson of all in teaching: that people matter, that we’re best when we work together. Technology is only the platform. 

Yesterday, in spite of all their doubts and disappointments, my Year 11 made everything all right. It’s the human element – the kindness of colleagues and the intrepidity of students – that really matters.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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