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‘Be kinder with deadlines’: What teachers learned from remote teaching last time

Educators share their top tips on what works - and what doesn’t - when teaching online

Teachers have learned key lessons on what works - and what doesn’t - from their experiences during the last lockdown. File photograph: iStock

As teachers take part in another round of remote teaching, many are using the lessons they learned during the previous lockdown to inform their work.

We spoke to educators on what works and what doesn’t based on their experiences last year.

‘Try and keep it as interactive and positive as you can’

Evin Devenney teaches Science and Coding in a post-primary school in Raphoe in Donegal. He is also a Google certified educator and trainer.

Devenney surveyed his students last year to see what worked - or didn’t work - for them during the lack lockdown.

Given the poor broadband in the area and lack of access to digital devices, many a requested a more open approach to the way they submit assignments.

“If I am setting an assignment, I am going to use a more universal design for learning,” says Devenney.

“I will ask the students to give it back to me in any way that they like, if they want it handwritten, to submit a video, or do a model.”

He has also decided to take a more relaxed approach to submitting assignments on time, given that work remotely aren’t always completed at the same pace as in-school tasks.

“I learned to be kinder with deadlines, particularly for the younger kids.”

Devenney also suggests keeping lessons shorter and as interactive as possible . Student engagement drops if he gives long assignments, he says.

“They said themselves they would be more inclined to be involved with smaller chunks of work,” he says,

Secondary teachers also need to be mindful of the other subjects students are undertaking. “They might have six other subjects. It’s tough for the teachers but it can be very tough on students as they feel they are being bombarded or overwhelmed,” he says.

While teachers cannot expect to replicate the in-school day, Devenney says it is worth trying to work to a set timetable.

“I did find myself sitting with the laptop much longer than I would on a normal school day and the kids were online more, it wasn’t good for any of us,” he says.

While he believes teachers learned much from the last lockdown, he says there is still anxiety over remote teaching and encourages teachers to ask for support.

“Be kind to yourself, it is a learning curve and don’t be afraid to ask other teachers or agencies questions,” says Devenney. “There is no right or wrong way, just do it your own way.”

‘Project work is a really good option for remote learning’

Dr Jenifer Symonds is an associate professor of education at the UCD School of Education and specialises in children’s wellbeing and engagement.

Relationships play a key role in maintaining education for children, says Dr Symonds, who was involved in studying how schools responded to the closures last year.

“In the situations where remote learning goes really well the teachers, parents and children feel connected to each other,” says Dr Symonds.

“The quality of the communication about learning and the motivation for learning can really be enhanced through good quality connections and good quality relationships.”

She says it is important for teachers to help families engage with the learning in a way that suits them.

“There is balance to be struck between giving enough work to do and then giving enough flexibility for the parents and children to engage with the work, in terms of the time that is spent learning that is right for them as a family.”

Dr Symonds believes remote teaching can present many positive opportunities for learning and education.

“If the children are allowed to participate with the activities at their own pace, it gives them a lot more freedom than they might normally have in a setting where the instruction is standardised in terms of time.”

She also says that Zoom classes are a great way for teachers to create opportunities for social engagement.

“Remote learning gives teachers the opportunity to think creatively about how to motivate children based on interest and curiosity,” says Dr Symonds, “The primary objective is to get the children to engage every day for some time with the material.”

She also suggests that teachers keep motivational strategies to forefront of their planning.

“In my mind project work is a really good option for remote learning because it enables children who are going to want to work more intensively on something to be able to put more time in, but it also enables children and families who might not have so much time available to do what is required to complete the basic dimensions of the project,” she says.

Giving more autonomy to children in relation to the topic can also increase their motivation.

She suggests teachers should try to teach a wider range of subjects by “embedding literacy and numeracy in other subjects. If it is possible to use topic- based learning. Given what is happening in the world currently, it is absolutely vital to be teaching science.”

Dr Symonds was involved in The Children’s School Life Study, at the UCD school of education, led by Prof Dympna Devine, associate professor Jenifer Symonds, assistant professor Seaneen Sloan and assistant professor Gabriela Martinez Sainz.

‘Open lines of communication with parents’

Meadhbh Caseiro is a primary school teacher in Edenmore, Dublin 5 and has been involved in special education for 14 years .

Finding the balance between engagement and not overwhelming parents was the greatest challenge Caseiro experienced during remote teaching last year.

This time areound she has prioritised communication and parental consultation this year.

“What I did learn from the last time was to open the lines of communication as early as possible,” says Caseiro. “I want parental involvement in relation to what support they want and what would suit their familial set-up. I’m not coming out to them to hound them and show them what they should be doing but I’m there to support them in whatever way that I can.”

Caseiro also suggests focusing on short activities delivered via pre-recorded videos of the teacher.

“I am working mainly with infants and I found that personalised videos worked best. Short and snappy ones,” says Caseiro. “When the kids saw their teachers’ faces or heard their voices they immediately perked up, as opposed to sending a link out with the work that you are covering.”

Caseiro says introducing schoolwork into the home can be a huge source of stress.

“Parents are working fulltime, they don’t have the luxury of sitting down with their kids to try and home-school them and kids with special educational needs can require one to one,” says Caseiro.

“Don’t send out a full day’s work, it is not going to get done. If you can get a little bit done during the day, then I think everyone is doing a great job. Especially for this lockdown.”

‘Keep your content small and manageable’

Krista Dunne teaches English and Religion at Coláiste Setanta, Dublin 15. She is also the assistant ICT coordinator

“I would be saying keep your content small and manageable and the homework small as well for the student and the teacher,” says Dunne. Subjects, such as English can be content heavy, and Dunne recommends reducing the length or number of assignments in these areas.

“It is also important for a teacher to reach out if they are wondering about something for technology or if they are looking for resources,” says Dunne, “There is no point in anybody trying to reinvent the wheel when it is already there.”

Dunne says she learned quickly during the last lockdown that she couldn’t expect students to duplicate the same level of work done in school, both in relation to content and time.

“The level and the amount of work at the start wasn’t something that we could continue with, so we reduced that back a bit,” she says.

Dunne says she will also be reducing the length of her lessons. “My plan for my one-hour classes is for me personally to be online for a maximum of 20 minutes and then to give independent work for the students to work on.”

Dunne suggests that schools that can’t rely on technology to support learning should check in with students over the phone.

“For the people who have no technology they need to be relying on each other and maybe sharing out the workload,” says Dunne. “Try as much as possible to keep in contact with the kids over the phone and check in with their parents.”

‘Keep it small. A Zoom class with 20 kids is never going to work’

Annie Asgard is a primary school teacher in Galway and has been teaching English as an additional language (EAL) there since 2006.

Remote teaching is a challenge - but teaching migrant students remotely can be even more challenging, says Asgard.

“If a child is in a home where there is no English for them and their parents can’t help them with their schoolwork, they are not able to engage with the curriculum,” she says.

Removing support for these children, even for a short period of time can have a long-term impact, she says.

“By excluding a child from having any English language support for a very small window of time you’re basically putting that child at a disadvantage for life.”

She suggests teachers hold language classes via Zoom.

“You would invite some native English-speaking children to the lesson as well,” says Asgard. “If you are going to learn a language there is no point in you learning that language with other people who also don’t know that language.”

Asgard says it is important to keep groups small on Zoom, pre-teach vocabulary where possible and to give students have a task to complete.

“Zoom class with 20 kids are never going to work, you keep the groups small, rotate interest topics and the kids need to have something manipulative in front of them to do or to make,” says Asgard. “We just need a little bit of creativity.”

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