How much of what we educators have learned over the years helped prepare us to face this very new pandemic? To function well as teachers, today, what attitudes, ideas, principles and practices have we held onto, and what other doors did we need to open, and rather quickly at that? Accessing the old and the new…
As we also look back on all our own years of fun and challenges when teaching, our hope is that the experiences we absorbed and learned would equip all of us to handle confidently even the radical changes brought about by this pandemic and the world of online learning. It would be both arrogant and untrue to claim that that was the case: yet, we are educators and therefore we are optimists. We find the way.
It has been my privilege to have been an educator for some forty years. I began, having trained in the UK, as a teacher of English Language and Literature. Other subjects, such as History and teaching modules within the I.B’s fascinating Theory of Knowledge, were taken on board – in other countries – later on. In time, too, various administrative roles were added to the career quiver, along with teaching young teachers about to join this noble profession. Thus, you think you have ‘seen’ just about everything…but that is not so.
Five years ago, it fell to me and a great team to found a new school, a British-international school, in Mexico City. (Our ‘green’ campus today is located in Huixquilucan in the Estado de Mexico.) Now growing by a grade level per year, ‘The Wingate School’ will have some 400 pupils from Kinder to Form 3 in 2021-2022. The feeling always was all our careful planning would allow us to develop in a sure and steady way. Much more tortoise than hare.
Then a pandemic swept all before it… What was the best way for us, for our teachers, to react? Surely, in myriad ways, because of all our unique personalities and contexts, but, whoever we are, all our reactions must be as thoughtful as possible. No mere knee-jerk reactions.
Good teaching involves breeding confidence, both in the teacher as well as in his or her pupils. Initially, in this pandemic, that ‘bounce’ often took a knock. (And there is nothing to fear from telling this truth.) Questions soon swirled around us. Zoom or Google classrooms? Use lots of ‘brain breaks’ between classes, or not? What are appropriate contact hours on-screen according to pupil ages? Set a lot of work; keep them busy (even usefully ‘distracted’)? And, in our own ways, we quickly decided on the best solutions to meet our own school’s needs, as we perceived them.
Well, in terms of discussing how the vast majority of schools and teachers have handled the planning and teaching, the elephant in the room is the technology we all have used. Have had to use. Being detached from the live classroom, our cupboards, books and Bunsen burners, just felt so strange to so many. And certainly to me. Yet, so very soon, teaching and learning via screens (and for how long?) had to become a new norm. For some teachers always would have been quite at ease with the computer hardware and software; many others were not. Yet, we find the way.
The overarching goal, now, was to continue to provide a meaningful school day where real learning took place: thus, if ever all teachers needed to practise collegiality, it was now. Share good practice. Merely going through the motions is not real teaching and learning. Then a new daily rhythm begins to bring a sense of stability, normality and, yes, even generating confidence. Optimism, a ‘can do’ mentality, is a driving force. Put another way, the penny drops… ‘Aha!’ they say. ‘The content is not so very different; often the means of transmitting it, of course, is. And that’s okay.’
The new online paradigm was not just about the roles of the teacher staff. Far from it. For me, a huge part of education is ‘the student voice’. They now had decidedly new things to say and share. Bob Dylan famously spoke of the times “a’changing” back in the late 1960s. That certainly was true in the 60s, yet, to be honest, it always was, and is, the case.
Spontaneously and requested, our Form 2s – the oldest children – quite regularly have provided us with a lot of useful feedback about a) how they were handling their studies online and, equally important, b) how they themselves were faring. (We also had set up one-on-one mentoring sessions.) Of the pandemic itself, that new overcast sky looming above all our heads, some of these pupils called it: “disturbing,” “weird,” “hard,” “sad,” “depressing,” and even “hell”.
All bemoaned the lack of any frequent contact with friends. Still, there were others who saw silver linings to the cloud. For them it was “surprising” and “challenging,” in the sense of drawing the best out of ourselves. Even so, we can all agree that this pandemic has felt unsettling to the vast majority, in our schools and in society at large, owing to the very visible sense of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ in such a very short space of time.
The pandemic seems eternal… Tapping the old and the new: had we struck the right balance? With years of experience and ‘know-how,’ then, the danger always is educators may lapse into an all too comfortable rhythm. In other words, a soothing belief that what was good, say, twenty or thirty years ago, is basically the right approach when teaching today. Suddenly, in light of the pandemic, we had had to scramble to set up a new online schedule (and all that that implies in our interaction with pupils and their families) and, initially, the pupils simply had to go along with it. While that comment about scrambling rings true, we – with many new experiences and skills learned – must not allow ourselves to be rattled, even though this pandemic can make us feel we precariously stand on quicksand. We find the way.
New things, and therefore change, perturb us. Upon reflection, they should not. There are fantastic ‘old’ practices in education that I believe we very much ought to promote. Our person-to-person qualities – promoting values like resilience, generosity, sympathy – that help form not just the historian, artist or mathematician, continue to shape the whole person. As they always did. As they always ought to. I am reminded of the words of a great Head Teacher, David Levin, of City of London School, for whom I had the pleasure of working in the 2000s. Learning of the existence of TWS, he addressed our pupils a few years ago. He spoke to them of the academic…and so much more.
“[While we should] seek to understand completely the underlying principles and concepts…always be kind to another and help each other.”
Transmitting these human qualities, then, forms the bedrock, the underlying reason why we teach. Away with the quicksand. The trick is to maintain our steady course, teaching apt content and skills, by fusing the tried and tested character-building human values and practices along with new approaches in the delivery of the content. Together, they really do provide a better educational service for our pupils. If “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” remains a favourite educational mantra of mine, so does “It is all about the pupils. Always.”
Tom M. J. Wingate V. Head Teacher ‘TWS-Huixquilucan’