You know, there’s a reason people go to university to learn how to be teachers.
The idea that within a week or two we can take centuries of face-to-face teaching practice and just ‘go online’ is simplistic and fatuous. And yet we hear choruses of complaints from public school parents that teachers are not yet conducting Zoom conferences with their children, and those children’s futures will be permanently blighted.
So to start with a reality check – a few weeks of not learning is not going to make a huge difference to most students. The only people with any legitimate concern are those heading into the HSC and even then there wouldn’t be a legitimate concern if the playing field was level. The problem isn’t that all students are missing out; it’s that one group (the public school students) is missing out. So we’re facing an unquestionable equity issue – but don’t blame the public school teachers for that.
Beyond that, missing a week or two isn’t going to make a difference. And missing a few hours in a day will make absolutely no difference. We home-schooled our children for a year while travelling and one of the things we worked out early was that the average school day is filled with a bunch of stuff that’s easily skipped – some of it has wider value, some none at all. But, if you’re looking for core educational value, a couple of hours a day covers most years of schooling until you get into the upper reaches.
OK so it would be great if everyone could just take a breath a remain calm for the moment and give teachers a chance to move their entire working day into a new mode of operation. Yes their entire way of doing business needs to be turned on it’s head. That’s difficult enough but then, in the public school environment, they have to do that on a shoestring budget, with minimal technical support, and in the context of a monolithic IT system. Do they have the computers, do they have the licences, do they have the bandwidth – how do they get any of these?
But these are technical problems that can be overcome. More importantly is what does teaching online look like? The first step for many schools has been to deliver homework online and take the completed tasks back online. I’m not saying that’s not useful, but it’s not teaching. Teaching is not just about delivering work, and ticking off the results against a marking rubric. That’s a mechanical process, not teaching. If that was all that teaching was about, no one would ever talk about the difference that an inspirational teacher made to their lives.
Teaching involves communicating; it involves breaking issues into digestible chunks and tailoring delivery to individual student needs; it involves enthusing students about the subject. Good teaching, like acting, involves an exhausting emotionally draining performance that connects with the audience.
So, I hear people cry, just start up Zoom and do what you normally do but on screen. Well, no. That won’t work either. Twenty or thirty kids in a Zoom conference – half fidgeting, half looking off-camera at what their sibling is doing. How do you control the class? How does your lesson work? What’s the delivery like? How do you work out who needs help? Again not beyond solving – but teachers need time, and training, and support. For that matter students need time, and training, and support to be at the other end of that process.
(If you want to see how easily this can not work take a look at the US late night comedy news shows. They are usually filmed in front of live audiences and you can see the feedback loop working for the hosts as they adjust their delivery to the audience. Watch the latest ones now they are sitting in lonely isolation and you can just see the difficulty they are having effectively delivering their material.)
Anyway, there are other approaches. My personal favourite is the flipped classroom which, done properly, can be fabulous. But once again you can’t just flick a switch and expect teachers to have effective materials ready to roll.
Finally, let’s not forget that teachers are real people with their own problems and anxieties. And major changes to your working life while in the midst of one of the most anxiety-producing events in living history is not going to be easy.
Look none of this is insurmountable. But we need to give our teachers time and support to make it happen. I would argue that giving teachers a couple of weeks without students in which to sort this out would be sensible. But short of that, we parents should just be stepping back and giving them some space – give teachers a break.