Offaly teacher reflects on teaching through Covid

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Grainne Egan who teaches at the SHS in Tullamore

It has been well documented that this global pandemic has greatly affected many aspects of our world, and for English teacher, Grainne Egan, in the Sacred Heart School, this has never been more true.

“Back in March, when both students and teachers hurried out of the school, laden with the entire contents of their lockers, nobody could have predicted the seismic shift that would occur in education in the following months,” notes Graiine.

“ As a teacher in Sacred Heart School, Tullamore, I realise how lucky I am now, that we were as well prepared as anyone could have been for the ‘new normal’ of online learning. There is no denying that it was a steep learning curve for all involved, but at least we had already started this climb years previous. As a school community, we have been using devices, ebooks and apps to supplement and enhance our teaching for a number of years now. It has been questioned over this time, whether the students having devices was the best idea, or if they would be better off using books, as they always had done,” says Grainne

For Grainne, while there has been uncertainty over the last nine months, one undeniable fact has shone through- that technology is the way forward. Be it in education, shopping, commerce or any other field, we will not flourish in this world without using technology. It was not without its challenges, but this change in the face of education brings with it a host of positives and certainly, it is here to stay.

From March until May of this year, Grainne found that teachers and students (and often parents too) were pushed to the limits of their IT capabilities as staff tried to maintain a sense of normalcy and continue with the curriculum that wasn’t getting any shorter.

“I learned to screen record, apply voiceovers, host Teams calls, motivate students from miles away, share screens, use breakout rooms, and be more flexible in my teaching than ever before. One of the initial speedbumps in online teaching was accessing all students and continuing learning for every child. Thankfully, we were well set up for this- every student had an active school email that gave them access to every Microsoft platform no matter where they were. We had already been using Microsoft OneNote extensively in school, so we had a strong foundation upon which to build, “ says Grainne.

The students quickly came to grips with Teams and figured out how to set up and return assignments, organise calls for live classes and use smaller breakout groups for group assignments.

“After the first couple of weeks of ‘Oh God this is so tough, how am I going to do this’, I started to see the benefits of it and settle into ‘the new normal,” says Grainne “and the live classes provided a sense of normalcy and community, both of which were wholly lacking in all of our lives at the time. It was a chance to check in with students, for them to ‘see’ each other and to give students structure in what seemed like a never-ending vacuum of time.”

There have been obstacles though. Access to broadband is not evenly distributed throughout our county . The school had to find ways around this. Staff recorded classes so that students could watch it back (also a fantastic tool for differentiation as students could go back, pause and replay the class when needed), or they could listen in on the class and type the questions instead of turning on the cameras and mics and freezing completely. Both teachers and students became adept at problem solving and thinking outside the box when it came to technology, essential skills for the future.

Grainne reflects that she acutely aware of how lucky she is with the students she have. The engagement levels in online learning were fantastic, to the point that she can say with confidence that third years and sixth years are well on track to have the curriculum completed within the usual time frame- a massive boost to our student’s mental health.

The key issue for Grainne however, aside from the obvious educational advantage to continuing online education effectively, the really positive effect that this had on our student’s wellbeing cannot be overstated.

This link provided a sense of community in a time of complete social isolation. It gave our students a structure where there was very little.

“The single most positive result of this educational shift, in my humble opinion, is the emergence of independent, flexible and resilient students at the end of it all.” Says Grainne, “ They were responsible for logging in on time to classes, there was no bell to warn them. They were responsible for meeting deadlines, there was no teacher holding their hand out for the work. They were responsible for accessing the materials uploaded for them, there was no sheet being handed to them. “

As a teacher, teaching content is less than half of the job- what is the point of it all if they leave school unable to take control of their own learning and expecting it to be handed to them? The best lessons are the ones where the students take ownership, they are the ones that they remember. Online learning made the students aware of their role in their own education, an invaluable life lesson. If students go on to further education, that landscape will look familiar to them after their experience during the pandemic. Grainne believes they will be more prepared for the transition to 3rd level than any group before them as a result. They will be dab hands at group projects compiled on collaborative documents, researching online effectively and of course the IT skills required for a third level education.

For Grainne, returning to school has not signalled a return to business as usual. Many of the social aspects of teaching and learning have been curbed. Students can no longer sit in groups or hand up copies and little smiles of encouragement to a hesitant child are often lost behind the mask. But like everything else, Grainne feels, are learning to adapt. Groupwork is done on collaborative documents, assignments are handed in on Teams and staff are learning to smile with their eyes.Grainne finds that once again, our students have risen to the challenge.

Going forward, the educational sphere has irrevocably changed. She hopes we will get our groups back, and will be able to see each other’s expressions soon, but some changes are here to stay. Students are now well able to access, upload, download, create and embed files in a variety of formats, leaving more time in class for effective teaching and learning. The days of forgetting your copy, or not knowing what the homework was are long gone (and good riddance). Students are realising that learning is not just writing- they can create vlogs and sways, surveys and advertisements. The use of technology has led to so much scope for creativity and evaluation. The lines of communication between teacher and student are more open than ever before. Like everything, this has its drawbacks, but when used correctly it is an invaluable tool .

Being able to have a quick check in with a struggling student, to send little reminders to the class when needed or for students to clarify homework questions with you instead of struggling for hours at home with it, has made the world of difference.

To sum it all up, despite all these changes, one key fact shines out of the fog; that at the core of effective learning is a skilled, flexible and passionate teacher who is committed to supporting students by whatever means necessary. Online learning had its ups and downs but the school environment and all that goes with that, cannot be replicated through a screen. Staff skills, knowledge and resilience have been pushed to the brink this year and yet the kids are still learning, the teachers are still teaching, and we are all still smiling. Grainne knows won’t ever return to teaching exactly as we did ‘before’, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Education needed a bit of a shake-up and it certainly got it this year. Covid 19 forced us all to take a step back and re-evaluate all we thought we knew so that now we can move forward again, stronger, more resilient and better equipped for life’s challenges.