Locked DOWN but not locked OUT

A teacher’s reflection on lessons learnt while under lockdown

It all happened seemingly overnight didn’t it? One day we were all happy and together and then the next, we were forced to be apart. One Friday afternoon I wished my learners goodbye and a blessed weekend, as I always do – I even said “See you on Monday”. But Monday came and I had half my class present, Tuesday came and I had even less…by Wednesday I stood in solitude in my classroom and gazed out at 14 empty seats. By Wednesday, there was no more joyous bustling about and echoes of laughter and chatter as school was officially closed to students. In a somewhat cataclysmic turn of events, our worlds as we knew them were turned upside down and inside out. And whether we wanted to face up to it or not, we all found ourselves driven headfirst into an ocean of unchartered waters and uncertainties. Teachers, parents, schools, business owners, employees, essential workers, and children – let’s not forget our children. Our hearts and minds were overwhelmed with so many questions, doubts and fears….and now, a few weeks in; we are still swimming – only the more we paddle and kick for survival, the more enduring we have become (although it may not always seem that way).

Yes, COVID-19 has indeed been a real game changer!

As a teacher, suddenly forced to be apart from my learners under uncertain circumstances, I very quickly had to wrap my head around my own insecurities and fears. I had to identify them, deal with them, and then very quickly GET OVER THEM! Like so many other teaching professionals, I was expected to continue to teach and to step up for the children and parents of my Grade 4 class of 2020. And being the person that I am, I would do all that I could to rise to the challenge because at my core, I am a teacher! I meet needs as they arise and I invent ways to access knowledge and impart skills. I also live to inspire and encourage and the more I reflected on it, the more I realised that just as challenging as this change was going to be for the teachers, it was equally if not more so for the parents and children. Suddenly, encouragement and support became the order of the day.

Over night, remote and distance learning became our new normal and I, like so many others, had to learn to swim very quickly in a sea of online teaching territory. Thank goodness for team based approaches and collaboration with equally passionate, dedicated and creative teachers! #Teamteachers There is just no way that I would have had the courage to tackle the challenge if I didn’t have the support of knowing that my entire school and teaching community were rallying together, routing each other on and constantly checking in.

However, it also became clear very quickly that there is a lot out there, and as much as I tried to upskill and amerce myself in new and exciting methods of enhancing my teaching from home, there is always the risk of information overload and what I have come to call; ‘digital drowning’. It is so easy to get caught up in the ‘know how’ that you can just as easily loose sight of the ‘know who’. In the initial midst of all the technological chaos and tech-savvy talk, I had to remind myself of who was always on the other side of the digital divide – I teach humans not robots and because of that, I have always strived to teach through relationship above all else. And in the absence of my physical presence, there still has to exist a connection.

Teaching through relationship is about so much more than just the premise that the more teachers know about their students the better they will teach them. It describes a complex social environment in which teachers, parents and students openly communicate, share experiences and participate in activities that together, make for engaged and impactful learning. It is about establishing grounds for community and support. When done well, teaching through relationships recognises the human stories behind each child and their families, as well as that of the teacher. And at a time where forced distance is imposed on us, the humanistic element of connection cannot afford to be lost.

The power of connection is that it promotes the idea that we are all in this together, that people are seen and their stories are heard. There is an undeniable comfort and sense of security in staying connected to those familiarities of our previously ‘normal’ lives to help us adapt somewhat more comfortably to the ‘new normal’ we find ourselves in.

For the children in our classes, it means not just receiving online instructions and pre-programmed activities to keep them ‘doing’ for what good is it to just ‘do’ without truly being engaged. And in order for full engagement to happen, children need to feel motivated, encouraged, secure enough to take risks and as supported as possible. The same can be said for their parents who needed to know that they were not expected to be anything more than the supportive and loving parents they have always been because their teacher would still be there for them every step of the way. I was still the teacher and would continue to teach. Content would come from myself and my team of teachers, it would be delivered in our voices and in our familiar styles. We established our presence and affirmed that we had not gone anywhere.

Additionally, the more I reached out and established platforms for support, the more relaxed my parents became and the more productive my students became. Daily class check-in’s on our class group, frequent reassurances to parents and keeping instructions clear and expectations low really helped to stabilize the initial rocky foundation. It took reflection on my part and a willingness to go the distance – I had to allow myself the chance to be somewhat vulnerable in exposing my teaching style and overcoming insecurities by being overly visual, verbal and 100% present. Video calls and online zoom sessions with parents and children only served to further humanize all of us and strengthen our connection as we bonded over messy houses, discussions about pets and met halfway in terms of agreeing to expectations – every family situation was different and not all needs could be met in the same way, so flexibility is key. Our communication had to remain open, honest and heartfelt. I also realised the importance of feedback – parents want to know that they are doing OK and children are still children, they thrive off the praise and acknowledgement we offer them. The awarding of merits for the achievement of individual goals proved a valuable tool in motivating my students, but also helped to ground them in a familiar practice that connected them to our classroom culture, our way of doing things.

Life under lockdown has taught me many lessons – it has afforded me opportunities to clean out many ‘closets’… to reflect, re-align and refocus many of my own priorities both personally and professionally. I also think that it is safe to say that life after lockdown will never be the same…we cannot allow it to. And as digital learning advances and drives education forward into the next phase of our lives, may we never loose sight of the importance of staying connected – truly connected. There is no denying that technology and digital platforms are necessary tools for enhancing learning and equipping students to succeed in a digitally driven world, but the role of the teacher speaks directly to the HEART of education. For what good is a tool in the hands of an uninspired and discouraged mind?

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