Editorial: Rising to the challenge of teaching in the age of coronavirus

Ruby Latton, a primary one pupil at Bun-sgoil Ghàidhlig Phort Rìgh, learning at home

WHFP Editorial: 4.6.20

The following account has become more familiar to Highland children than we might ever have imagined.

“Jack wakes up at dawn to feed the chickens and let them out of their coop. He then finds his Dad and helps with the other morning chores. 

“Then it is back to the house at 7.00am for some breakfast. 8.00am is his scheduled class with his teacher. 

“He leaves the kitchen and goes to the study room. He sits in front of the computer and waits for his classmates and teacher to come online.

“The microphone is in position so the small group will hear his contributions to the lesson. This system is called Interactive Distant Learning (IDL) He has seven half-hour lessons using IDL with the School of the Air each week.”

Jack lives at the opposite end of the earth from the north of Scotland. He is an eight-year-old boy in the Australian outback, whose home is 300 kilometres from the nearest school.

For Jack and generations of outback kids before him, the School of the Air has constituted their only form of primary and secondary education. 

This medium of instruction, which was until recently almost unique to the Australian bush, is now almost 100 years old. It began with the invention of pedal radios and has progressed through audio and video feeds to the age of the internet.

Just a few short weeks ago, nobody could have guessed that a version of the Australian School of the Air would be used in most of the rest of the developed English-speaking world.

The good news is that our teachers, pupils and parents are adapting well.

Pupils, like these ones in Gairloch, have had to get used to meeting classmates online

Teaching is a stressful job at the best of times. The 2019 Teacher Wellbeing Index revealed that almost three-quarters of all teachers describe their daily lives as stressed.

It will be little comfort, but that may have assisted our teachers in dealing with the current extraordinary circumstances.

And they are dealing with it heroically.

A newly published survey by the teacher’s union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, suggests that schools and educational authorities have worked hard and successfully “to ensure that their pupils and staff are not disadvantaged during these challenging times.”

The survey throws up some admirable facts.

Almost 90 percent of the 26,000 EIS members who responded agreed that childcare and learning opportunities for the children of key, frontline workers was being provided efficiently.

Three-quarters of responders considered that a collegiate approach to shared difficulties has been successfully adopted.

Similar numbers of teachers agreed that parents had been sympathetic and realistic about “the quantity and quality of home learning materials that can be developed and delivered at this time.”

A large majority of teachers feel that their school has been realistic in what it expects from them, and that their school has managed the switch to remote teaching and learning in a satisfactory manner.

It is not all roses.

Many teachers feel that there could have been more pupil participation in planning the itinerary and the coursework.

They understandably miss the help of support staff and the company of their colleagues in the staffroom.

Remarkably, more than half of reported children have no internet connection or no appropriate computer at home. 

Less remarkably, children with special needs are particularly disadvantaged – “Meeting the needs of children with additional support needs was highlighted as a key issue by members,” reports the EIS. 

“Many stated that in order to support their pupils they also had to offer support to their parents and carers in order to deliver their education at home.”

And in what we have already noted to be a stressful job, most teachers find that working from home creates an “inability to separate out the working day from personal life”, and therefore to locate some private space and personal downtime.

Looking to the immediate future, most of all our teachers want clarity.

They want clarity about how the next academic year of teaching will be delivered.

They want clarity about what assessment and/or exams will look like for the academic session 2020-21.

“For many,” says the EIS of its members, “the lack of clarity about what is to happen over the coming year is itself a source of stress, alongside childcare and shielding responsibilities.  

“For lots of members their work space is not separate from the rest of the home, and therefore accounts of working well beyond the working day, and finding it difficult to switch off are common. 

“This highlights the ever present need to support teacher health and wellbeing, as well as managing expectations from all parties about what is to be expected from their class teacher.”

Those are modest requirements from people who are themselves in frontline vocations. 

Teachers are more aware than most of us that our children’s future is in their hands.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the quality of teaching they are able to offer during this pandemic will make the difference between a lost generation and a generation which is equipped to live full and rewarding lives.

Some people are only too quick to blame teachers when things go wrong. 

We should be doubly quick to praise and listen to them when, in a situation which is wholly foreign to all but Jack, his teachers and his contemporaries in the Australian outback, they make remarkable sacrifices and exercise extraordinary imagination on behalf of our future citizens.