When 2020 dawned, a lot of us knew this was an important year because it was the beginning of a new decade. No one expected the year to turn out the way it did. While in the west, online and hybrid learning models were fairly prevalent at the university level, the rest of the education system worldwide was forced to adopt online methods (at least those who could afford to, notwithstanding the digital divide). It was not so much the forced nature that was troublesome. It was the sheer suddenness of it that jolted the system. Schools and teachers quickly prepared with reinforcements. In general, across the world, schools, students and teachers adapted and continued with education in whatever ways they could. As we close the year that was, it is important to look at some lessons this year taught teachers. Lessons that will serve to be very important as face-to-face classes start.
Learning never stops
Some of us have always said this possibly without practising or believing it. 2020 proves this to be true. Almost all teachers have heard it at least once: “Your mic is on mute”. Heartwarming stories of students teaching their teachers how to handle digital devices (and the other side of the spectrum) are all over the virtual world. A former co-teacher told me that her student stayed back after an online class to help her find the recorded version of the session. Another told me that his entire class helped him assign a test to the class. While at the beginning of the year, many teachers scrambled to find tools, most acknowledge that it is not the tools themselves, but the methods and intention to learn that make a difference.
Teachers are human too
To err is human and so teachers do too. Teachers make mistakes and they move forward. They try whatever is good for their students in their capacity. A teacher tried a new tool and it didn’t work out the way he envisioned it in the virtual classroom. And that’s ok. Children need to see their teachers fail, try and never give up. Perhaps this is the biggest teaching one can teach, without actually teaching it. Is it Zoom or Google Meet? Or Microsoft Teams? What is the best tool? “Today I tried to use breakout rooms in Google Meet… and failed miserably. There was chaos in the classroom. But we all learned and we agreed to try this out in the next class now that we know”
Teachers can adapt as the world changes, fast
Yes. From social media to doorstep delivery of classes a whole spectrum of methods have been demonstrated by teachers. Syllabuses and timetables were rewritten. Lesson plans were reworked. Teachers around the world, in their own small ways, have proven that they can step up to any challenge thrown at them, fast.
It’s no longer a one-way street
For those who didn’t realise it earlier, 2020 showed that the era of “stage performance” teaching is gone. It is unrealistic to expect students with limited attention spans to simply listen for almost an hour without any interaction. Teachers realised the importance of classroom interactions, discussion groups and breakout rooms when teaching online. That should be the order of the day in a physical classroom too.
Teachers are not the fount of all knowledge
Teachers may and will not know everything, even in their subject of specialisation. It is time teachers take the plunge and say “I don’t know” at times. There is an element of risk in doing this. Would students continue to look up to us? Would there be respect in the relationship? These are questions that will pop up before saying “I don’t know”.
From 'working for' to 'working together'
A good additive to “I don’t know” is to say “Let us find out together”. By doing this, the student becomes an accomplice in the hunt for information. Both the teacher and the student end up learning more. Working together helps the teacher to see the student in a different light (and vice versa). A former colleague told me about a recent “I don’t know” incident in her classroom. She followed it up with “Can you google search and find out?”. When the question is open-ended, the variety of answers, interpretations and extent of discussions are rich. It turned out to be a collaborative classroom on steroids.
Release a new version frequently
2020 taught teachers to reinvent frequently. Reinvent teaching styles. The way to look at the subject matter. The way to approach a particular class or student. Those teachers should not wait for the universe to force it on them. Changing style refreshes teachers and engages students that are all too familiar with each other. 2020 saw teachers adapt to home science, flameless cooking, putting on shows, trying to make the experience rich.
Yield control at times
2020 taught teachers that it is good to let go of control at times and have students lead. It could be a project, a presentation or a simple discussion. This could turn out to be an eye-opening experience for the student to realise how difficult it is to be a teacher, especially when visual responses are not apparent.
Recognize experts in the classroom
Sometimes the subject expert is right there in the classroom in front of the teacher. A particular student. A student with a background in the textile business in a fashion design course is the subject expert. Have them talk about their business to other students. Participate as a student in that class, sit among students and discuss as they would do.
Customise for the customer
2020 has shown more clearly than ever that not everybody learns the same way! Digital classrooms make it a group experience for a teacher similar to how it is in a physical classroom. However, students will still view it as an individual experience. Customisation plays a crucial role to sustain interest as many teachers found out.
Make it personal, make it relevant
Whether it is Mathematics, Chemistry or History, no one would be interested unless it talks to you personally. Are we bringing in the personal touch to our classes or discussions? Are students sitting up and taking notice when events, locations or media personalities related to them are mentioned? Are we using storytelling as a tool to capture interest?
It is easier said than done to make it personal. Knowing students is very important to personalise the classroom interaction. Do teachers know what students do besides studying? What are their interests? How can they engage students in the classroom based on their interests outside the classroom? One of the challenges of the online classroom was to engage and to know if students were interested. More importantly, how were students dealing with the stress of the changed circumstances? Of not being able to go outside. Or seeing their friends. Or simply being asked to sit in one place in front of a screen.
Prepare for the unknown
Conventional jobs are phasing out. Teachers are preparing students for the unknown. When the current class of students graduates, we don’t know the types of jobs that will be available. The student could be the job creator. It is all the more important to focus on skills now.
Beat the board and reach for the skies
Yes, there was a pandemic raging outside. Life went on. Board exams are on schedule for important grades. Life decisions are made based on these examinations. Setting aside the debate that “marks do not mean everything”, it is important for teachers to remind students to be smart along with being intelligent. Yes, sometimes, one has to study a subject that seems irrelevant to one’s interests, in order to ace the boards. Being smart, on the other hand, means to pursue one’s passion in addition to acing the boards and that is possibly a way to beat the system.
Practise what you preach
“Can you turn your camera on?” was perhaps the most used question of the year. A lot of teachers found it hard when it came to turning on the camera themselves in meetings or classes. This becomes harder when you are a teenager where self-image forms an important part of growing up. Students may have reasons not to turn on their cameras, it could be a simple reason as to feeling embarrassed to show their faces. For some, it is the feeling of “everyone is watching me” that stops them. These factors are absent in a physical classroom. It was hard to get used to a new normal but everybody learned and continues to learn. For teachers, the visual cues that were available in a physical classroom were absent. Teachers have adapted by getting feedback through other means and showing examples by keeping their cameras on.
Teachers found that health and eye care was of great importance this year. Extended working hours, spending hours in front of a screen and researching to find the best way to present a concept took a lot of time. It was a reminder to take care of oneself and balance as you invest more time into your students.
Measuring time and spending intelligently
Work-life balance was another issue that was in the spotlight this year. Teachers have their own families and lives to lead. It was important to shut down for the day and start anew for the next day. That extended weekend in between online classes or the movie that was watched with the family was important. The year showed that it is important to step back occasionally and come back with renewed force.
Work together for a common goal
Working together with colleagues towards a common goal was emphasised more than ever this year. Teachers collaborated, exchanged ideas, taught one another, helped each other in times of distress and came together for the students. This is perhaps a very important lesson we teach students: teamwork. Many teachers received that frantic phone call from a distressed colleague asking for technical assistance or a last-minute substitution.
Hybrid is the way to go
As we return back, are we going back to square one? Maybe not. It is important to recognise that learning is going more and more digital. Teachers found that some students learn better online than others in the physical classroom. A hybrid approach is likely to be adopted across the world in the coming years and it is better to be prepared.
The power of praise
Teachers trusted that students were listening online. Exams were done online. Teachers trusted that students would do them honestly. The power of serious, sincere praise that was not overdone showed results. After all, the quality of relationships between the teacher and students is what forms the bedrock of the learning experience. Praise is an underused tool and if used effectively, whether or not mountains move, cameras do eventually turn on.
Dr Shankar Ramakrishnan is a former lecturer with research interests in Engineering Education and pedagogy. He teaches Design & Technology at CS Academy, Coimbatore.