A Governor's Perspective

Posted on: 03/07/2020

Over the past few weeks you have had the opportunity to read blogs from Mrs. Drummond, parents and children all giving their thoughts on the distance learning provided by St. Helen’s College during these unprecedented times. I am writing now as someone who has looked on from the outside and has, for the past half term, been right inside “at the chalk face” or at least today’s IT equivalent! Back in the autumn, when Mrs. Drummond asked me if I would be willing to take on the supply maternity cover for Mrs. McLaughlin for the second half of the summer term, I was only too pleased to accept, but neither of us could possibly have imagined at that time what the summer term would bring.  

At the beginning of 2020 we were being made aware that a pandemic might be just around the corner, but few of us understood what an impact that it would have upon our lives. As the spring term progressed, it became increasingly obvious that, in all likelihood, St. Helen’s College and all other schools would be asked to close and that the children would have to be educated at home. Waiting for that to happen was a surreal time as plans were made for what was surely to come, while the daily life of school continued largely unaffected. As Governors, we were kept fully apprised of the developing situation and we were always on hand to give advice and support to Mrs. Drummond and the SLT as they made their plans. As a former Head of many years standing, I have many experiences to draw upon but, like the majority of serving and ex Head Teachers, none that fully prepared us for this previously unimaginable situation. 

As remote learning got underway at St. Helen’s College, I saw how much time and effort the teaching and support staff were putting into making necessary amendments to their lessons, planning and timetables. This was not in order to produce a ‘watered down’ curriculum, but rather to ensure the delivery of the richest curriculum possible from a different platform. As always, their aim has been to maintain the provision of as many opportunities as possible for the children to extend their love of learning and to develop independence, resilience and mutual respect as they grow as young people ready to make their mark in our ever-changing world.  

This aim has been achieved successfully despite the challenges for staff, for the children and for you as parents. Even the most “tech savvy” people have had to learn new skills and understand new aspects of technology. St. Helen’s staff and children are fortunate in that many of them were familiar with, and aware of the power of, Google Classroom, but still there has been so much for all of us to learn. So, having been observing closely from the outside, on 1st June I entered fully into the St. Helen’s College online teaching experience.  I knew the Year 3 curriculum well, I had already met the children in 3M and had been fully briefed by Mrs. McLaughlin, but I also knew that I had much to learn about the technology, and my learning curve in that department has been steep!

I am really enjoying teaching 3M. I have always enjoyed working with children, seeing those ‘light bulb’ moments, helping pupils to understand something new and exciting  about the world or about themselves. I love watching as they grow and develop, ask questions and form their own ideas and opinions. All of these and many others are the reasons why I have been involved in the education of young people for so long. Yet remote learning and teaching online is a real challenge; it is hard work! There is no other way to describe it and my current experiences have brought me to reconsider many aspects of classroom teaching that I had previously taken for granted.  

All teachers plan their lessons carefully. There is a curriculum to follow and many would argue that, as educators, we have been too bound by that, but that is a discussion for another day. However, we are, by our very nature, spontaneous beings.  With the children in the classroom, no teacher would want to stick blindly to the plan when a new, unexpected learning opportunity appears. We are working with people, not machines, and therefore we want to respond to their needs as they arise. We constantly encourage our pupils to be independent. This is so much easier physically in the classroom where the teacher is able to monitor progress more closely during the lesson and gently steer a child back on course if they have drifted, often by asking a relatively simple question at the right time. With remote learning, a child may complete a considerable amount of work before the realisation that they are not quite on the right track. Similarly, with resources it is much easier to provide an individual with appropriate support or extension exactly as and when it is needed in a more discreet manner. Last week one of the pupils in 3M remarked that there were so many attachments to the assignment that day, so I explained that these were necessary ‘just in case’ for some and not all of the activities would be used by everyone. 

However, I think that the greatest challenge of not being in the classroom with the children is that we cannot really see and appreciate each other as people. Yes, if all of the cameras are working and switched on then we can see faces, but not all of them all the time, and particularly not when the teacher is in ‘presentation mode’ on their device. As humans we constantly send out and respond to non-verbal messages, so not being able to see most, if not all, of these signals is very hard. A teacher is able to respond naturally and immediately to a smile, a shrug, a frown, a raised eyebrow or a despondent droop of the shoulders in the real classroom. These signals are unseen in a remote learning classroom and I have found this a very strange and quite challenging situation to which to adapt. The very term ‘remote’ is exactly what we, as teachers, do not want to be. We are not, and should not be, remote and distant; the children are used to us being there for them and that is how we have been used to working. The majority of teachers are not used to speaking into a void, to an unseen audience either and certainly that is something that I found I had to become used to pretty quickly. Some children have found it challenging to speak online; they feel more shy than they would be in the real classroom, and this can also prove to be a barrier to learning. A quiet, discreet chat is possible when we are physically in the same room but there is no such thing as a quiet chat in a Google Meet lesson where everything is heard, or printed, for all to see. 

Fundamentally, of course, I am the same teacher that I was before this experience. I still want to undertake all that I am used to being able to do in the classroom, and so it has been frustrating when this has not been possible. I have no doubt that moving forwards there are some aspects of remote learning that we will want to keep. There are always positives that emerge from any situation, however difficult it might be. Remote teaching and learning has certainly made me ponder on which aspects of my role as teacher are the most important to maintain and those that I really would prefer not to continue.   

After five weeks of teaching remotely, I can honestly say that it is only now that I am immersed in the situation myself that I can fully appreciate the enormous amount of time and effort it has taken the staff every day to provide for their pupils during this pandemic. So many aspects are involved: planning, delivering, marking, giving feedback, ensuring that pastoral care is all that it should be so that no child feels that their worries are not being heard and acted upon, speaking to the children about everyday matters, contacting parents to give information and reply to concerns, liaising with other staff and a myriad of other unexpected matters to be attended to. All of these things take so much longer than in a ‘normal’ school day. There simply are not enough hours in the day, or days in the week, and that is without taking into account the family commitments that all staff also have.

All of the staff at St. Helen’s College always work hard and thoroughly deserve their summer break every year but this is particularly true this year, far more than any other. As a Governor, and I know that I speak for Mr. and Mrs. Crehan and the other Governors too, I sincerely congratulate the staff and thank them, not only for surviving and rising so well to all of the many challenges presented to them recently, but also for their dedication and determination that has meant that they have provided your sons and daughters with such a rich and varied experience over the past months. 

During the past weeks you have been able to have increased insight into your child’s school experience at St. Helen’s College and I hope that you have found it to be an interesting and rewarding one. We do not know exactly what the future will hold, but your sons and daughters are growing up in a very special school in historic times.  

I wish you, St. Helen’s College pupils and the rest of your families a safe, happy summer break as refreshing as possible in our current times.  

Miss Beckett