Teaching in the time of Covid – a personal reflection

Cristina George, head of English and sixth form tutor at Godolphin School, reflects on teaching and learning in extraordinary circumstances

An air of uncertainty hung heavily over the panelled hall at Godolphin School when the first lockdown was announced. The panelling of the hall had been a generous gift from a former headmistress and was the last job completed by the school carpenter before he headed off to the front in WW1. The heart of the school, the hall is normally a thriving bustling space; it is a corridor between various rooms and the place where worship and assembly has been centred for over a hundred years.

Now chapel continues, but in a form that is hardly recognisable. Around our site, the chaplain’s weekly message, screened live or pre-recorded, echoes, simultaneously in different classrooms, maintaining some semblance of ‘business as usual’ while emphasising just how different life has become. In lockdown two windows and doors are open to improve ventilation, even on these colder mornings, and students sit huddled in their warmest winter wear.

Unlike normal chapel, there have been new opportunities to use the screenings to share music, laughter, pictures of the countryside as autumn progresses and some uplifting videos of the Marian Missionaries of the Holy Cross dancing their version of the hokey cokey. Do check them out!

When lockdown one started, the strange new world of virtual lessons through unfamiliar applications, seemed little more than a mass of recognisable words with unrecognisable definitions: teams, streams, notebooks, calls, sections, posts, links, sharing, pages. Led by our brilliant head of digital strategy, teachers bravely embarked on a Matterhorn learning ascent that required the same positive attitudes, determination and endurance which we seek to inculcate to our students.

The school’s digital programme, due to be rolled out over a two-year period, was squeezed (incomprehensibly now) into a two-week steep climb. Years of teacher planning, resource building and activities, perfectly suited for classroom practise, seemed hopelessly redundant as teachers navigated their way onto the virtual teaching paths.

I am not going to lie, many of us found the going tough. Stuck at home as the spring term started, several felt isolated and at sea. A holiday spent ‘trying to get your head around’ the Microsoft Teams and Class Notebook features meant that normally confident teachers, outstanding classroom practitioners, felt considerable anxiety about taking the virtual leap, with many reporting tears of frustration on a daily basis during those early weeks.

And if we thought it was bad for the teachers, students at home were, equally, having to rise to the challenge and work hard, not just at their studies, but at the IT too. They have been splendid with innumerable instances of them dealing with their teachers’ (and their own) glitches with humour, generosity and resilience.

A sixth form student survey confirmed overwhelmingly that students preferred to be in the classroom and that what they missed most were their friends, house parents and interacting with teachers

So has it all been worth it? What is the view now that we seem to be some way up the mountain?

Coming back this autumn, every teacher has been provided with a Surface Mac Pro along with a basic degree of training and, I think, we can honestly say it has been worth the effort. Teachers have embraced the flexibility offered by the virtual world, using it to adapt lessons imaginatively and creatively for students who are both in school or at home isolating. We are far more able to capture and seamlessly include internet resources, broadening study in a way that develops curiosity.

Collaboration has been commendable, with diverse departments offering cross-curricular inspiration for IT use. Students have acquired IT skills and independence that will serve them well at university and beyond. They know they are in a very fortunate position, with many of their peers not so well accommodated, and have risen to the challenge by taking more responsibility for their learning. Feedback can be delivered quickly and efficiently in a range of ways, including the use of the (miraculous) stylus, so that students know how to improve. And photocopying consumption has been drastically reduced which has to be good for our planet.

There is a flipside, of course. Distancing yourself by two meters from the students whose hands you might normally guide, is not how most teachers like to direct. Looking out at a row of heads, bent down and illuminated behind screens, has been difficult to adjust to. Opportunities for writing by hand have to be deliberately factored into planning as students will still be examined, for the foreseeable future, on paper.

A sixth form student survey confirmed overwhelmingly that students preferred to be in the classroom and that what they missed most were their friends, house parents and interacting with teachers.  Several thought they were more focused in school and said that they missed participating in the wide range of co-curricular activities. It seems that the classroom and being together, that very human need to feel part of a larger community, remains central to the school experience.

I sat, this week, in the gallery above our beautiful hall, the normal buzz and bustle, hushed eerily at this moment in time. I am pleased to report that the carpenter who crafted the magnificent wooden panels survived the trenches and returned from the battlefront of WW1. He must have noticed that world had changed unimaginably then, as we see it changing now and this gives me great hope.

Our school, its teachers and students and its wider community will get through this troubling time and perhaps some things in teaching, at least, might be for the better.


You might also like: Cristina George asks, is it really ‘good to fail’?

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