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Can lockdown bring teachers and pupils closer together?

We all know remote learning is not ideal and would prefer for our children to be back at school, back in a learning environment and back with their friends.  But what of the teachers and how they are dealing with this unusual style of teaching?  We hear from Alan Gillespie, principal teacher of English at Fernhill School about his experience and what positives he has taken out of lockdown teaching

Being apart from students in this crisis can actually make it easier for you to get to know them. 

In a normal school day before coronavirus, in a normal classroom, in a normal world, I would make sure to speak with every pupil, at least once, in every lesson. Share a little joke, discuss their work, or ask how they’re doing. It’s a habit I picked up from a colleague years ago.  It helps to build a strong relationship with every pupil I work with.  But it is difficult to interact with pupils equitably. No matter how hard we try to democratise the classroom, some pupils inevitably attract a disproportionate share of our attention. There are a hundred different reasons for this, ranging from behaviour to learning needs to personality types.

As a result, there are many pupils we don’t manage to connect with as often or as deeply as we’d like. These tend to be the introverts, the reserved personalities – the ones whose report cards will talk about them needing to come out of their shells.

Remote learning and email interactions have changed a lot of these dynamics.  Now, everyone is speaking to me at the same volume. There are no hands flying up or pupils showing off. My attention is not being drawn to hotspots like it can be in a classroom. 

Instead, I am enjoying detailed, individualised interactions with every pupil who wants them. I am seeing videos and photographs of pupils working in their own homes and gardens. I am answering more questions and seeing more experimentation, with children no longer burdened by self-consciousness or peer pressure. They can tell me when they’re stuck or explain wacky ideas which sounds counterintuitive.

“I might be getting to know some pupils better by not actually spending time with them.”

I am also in the unusual position of teaching a pupil I have never met.  She joined the school just after lockdown measures were announced, and her engagement and efforts in every remote lesson have been superb. I wonder if I would have been able to get to know this new pupil’s wonderful personality and interests quite so quickly in a busy and fast-paced classroom environment?

Teachers could see this lockdown coming for long enough to develop expectations. I fully anticipated that by now I would be sick of my laptop screen.  That I would be benefiting from good support from my colleagues and school management, and that I would have eaten far too many biscuits. These forecasts have all come to pass. What I didn’t expect, however, was that through remote learning I would actually get to know some of my pupils better than in face-to-face lessons. 

I am proud of the content that pupils are sending every day. In the most challenging and unusual of circumstances, children are as creative as ever. Of course, there are some whose engagement has stuttered or deteriorated. The attainment gap is a real concern. We miss and worry about these children. There is no need to be too harsh, only to offer mentoring and support.

“The deeper we get into this lockdown situation, the more sensitive we have to be towards wellbeing and emotional needs.”

This abnormality will not last forever. And – if we continue sending out quality lessons, providing regular feedback, and stimulating nourishing dialogue – maybe we can return to school having formed better relationships, and with greater knowledge of our pupils than we had before.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow. He tweets @afjgillespie 

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