View from a teacher So far we’ve been putting out fires, but it's time for proper solutions

One secondary school teacher says now is also an opportunity to reimagine a new way of educating Irish students.

THERE IS SOMETHING unnatural about closing schools in the middle of the school term. Snow has a habit of disrupting procedures now and again. Hurricane Ophelia and its red weather warnings suspended lessons for two days in October 2017 but we’ve never experienced anything like this.

With only a few days until the end of the secondary school term, no one ever expected that schools would still be operating remotely. Department of Health officials have warned that Ireland will remain in this emergency phase for some time. We’re all desperate to return to normality but we’ve no real idea how Irish schools will resume their normal practices.

Will schools manage to fully restore their pre-Covid operations or will blended learning (a mixture of remote and onsite practices) replace traditional structures? Schools are more than just places of learning, they are social and communal spaces where students connect with their peers.

We have managed to educate our students remotely but the absence of social connections has impacted learning. For some students, their success depends upon it and regardless of their experience of remote learning so many of them are looking forward to reconnecting with classmates and even teachers!  

Room for creativity

Isolated from our places of learning the first days of homeschooling were strange. We logged on, managed Microsoft Teams and adapted. Our survival depends upon our ability to adapt. Everyone is trying their best and some are finding it easier than others. 

Some students are relishing in the freedom associated with remote learning. Freedom from school schedules and conformity is liberating for them. Those who are motivated are soaring and enjoying the opportunity to complete tasks at their very own pace.

Nose piercings, dyed hair dangly earrings and hoodies are no longer regarded as impediments to learning.

Some listen to music as they work, others go for a run between assignments. With so much extra time on their hands, opportunities for creative enterprises have increased. Many are enjoying how their lives now move at a more relaxed pace. When normal classroom practices resume we must remember the enthusiasm expressed here and learn from it.

Many of us have been guilty of affording our students too little freedom in the past and yet we have complained that they are ‘spoon-fed’ and struggle to exhibit independence. There are many lessons to be learned from this crisis.

Whatever format the next academic year assumes we must endeavour to incorporate these positive experiences into school life. Studies in positive psychology have proven that our brains in positive mode are 31% more productive than our brains in a negative, stressed or neutral state. 

Inequality and missing connections

But even those who are experiencing the positive effects of remote learning are missing their connections with school friends. We may be facing this pandemic together but our narratives are completely different. We are each living different stories.

Students’ successful engagement with homeschooling is affected by so many things; their age and specific educational needs, their connection with a particular subject, the setting in which they live and complete their schoolwork, their support systems along with access to IT devices and WiFi connections.

This list of defining features is endless, some are coping well but others are not. Keeping students engaged is a challenge at the best of times and learning from home is very tough for some.

From what I’m seeing as a teacher, the Minister’s announcement to cancel all Junior Cycle exams and replace them with school-based assessments in September only fuelled the inertia that some students were already experiencing. The phase of recent uncertainty regarding exams meant that when it came to Junior Cycle, our third-year students believed their summer holidays had already begun.

Extra support from school mentoring services was called upon to encourage students to reengage. At that point, two schools had the wherewithal to forge ahead with a more manageable solution, opting not to participate in the Junior Cycle.

Others followed and their collective voices soon forced the minister to reconsider. September exams were replaced with school-based assessments in May and since then, I have found that some students re-engaged with online learning. The decision to cancel the Leaving Certificate may have brought an end to the uncertainty but unfortunately, the challenges of homeschooling remain.

Issues of inequality in education have been exposed by the decision to rely on school rankings to determine grades. In order to protect its members, the ASTI encouraged teachers not to engage with Department guidelines on calculated grades by Thursday night. By yesterday, the association had changed its stance. This is a positive move. Clear guidance overall is needed, however, and the sooner the better. Now more than ever we need as much clarity as possible on how best to proceed.

One important thing that we’ve learned from this crisis is that teachers and students must be included in the discussions to negotiate the best way forward. 

So far we’ve been putting out fires – teachers, the department and pupils alike – but it’s time for more proactive solutions. Right now our return to classroom learning is hard to imagine. For most, classroom spaces and maintaining social distancing are major concerns.

We can look to other European countries for guidance but the fact that our student-teacher ratio is proportionally higher than Denmark and other countries that have reopened their schools will make the issue more complex and challenging here.

School transport is another area of concern. Maintaining social distancing on buses will be incredibly challenging. More vehicles and drivers will be needed to manage this effectively and the challenges of ensuring that extra drivers are Garda vetted may add a whole other layer to this complexity. 

Childcare and school differ

The Minister for Children’s plans for the reopening of Crèches and other childcare facilities in June seems to suggest that most will be adopting a pod system but the same systems cannot operate at the secondary school level.

In most schools, students move to a new class every 40 minutes. Access to practical classes will cause many timetabling challenges.

With so much to consider it is clear that in order for educational practices to recommence in September those responsible for managing it must begin working on functional solutions for our safe return.

Children and parents deserve the reassurance that there will be an end to the unreasonable demands they are now faced with, in the form of remote working, homeschooling and social distancing, and that by September they will not be expected to stretch themselves any further. But we must not forget that safety is paramount and that fear will compromise learning. Those who are returning to education will expect that proper provisions are in place so that everyone is involved is protected. 

Opportunity for change

Historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. For parents who are currently balancing more tasks than they can handle and for students who depend on classroom connections, a new vision for education must be given serious consideration. It’s a mammoth task, but it’s an opportune time.

In this period of emotional and political uncertainty, with many impediments destabilising plans for government formation, a cohesive strategy for the reopening of our educational facilities is essential. Regardless of the differences or the problems we face, stakeholders in education must begin devising concrete plans for this new era of learning. In the event of a second wave of the virus, we the teachers, and pupils and parents, need to have faith that the system is prepared. 

It is time to reimagine a new landscape for learning. Children’s right to education is firmly established in law, but our duty of care also extends to their safety and happiness.

voices logo

Anonymous Teachers
Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel