Plant trees you’ll never see

I don’t think any of us chose to enter the teaching profession to sit at a screen all day. It’s a very different existence to that which we are used to. And it’s tough. Really tough. It makes me realise just how much our day to day lives consist of interaction. And whilst we are doing all we can to emulate the connection with our young people, nothing beats being able to teach them within the same physical room.

Think back to life in our physical classrooms. The subtle expressions of confusion which allow us as teachers to check for understanding. The nods of agreement when learners finally ‘get something’ you’ve explained. The look of frustration when a task is tricky. The pleading eyes which beg for assistance without wanting to outwardly communicate that in front of peers. The snippets of gossip the S6’s tell me. The silly comments between peers. The under the breath moans when a task is particularly difficult.

These interactions are what build relationships. The respect you gain for pupils when they honestly admit to needing help. The trust they gain for you when you quickly swoop in to offer support in a way that doesn’t single out one particular individual. The belief you have in them when you see them persevering with learning. The confidence which they take from your expert subject knowledge and your demonstration of skills. The faith which grows when they know you want the best for them and will do anything you can to help them achieve their potential. This doesn’t happen overnight. Building a relationship takes time. And whilst the foundations for strong relationships have already been laid in the physical classroom, the move to online platforms for learning, somehow force us to rewind and reset. It’s like being back to that start of term in August. It will take time to build that trust again.

For me, this week has gone relatively well. I’ve had good attendance and positive interactions at live check-ins. Some brilliant work submitted, and opportunities to assist and support lots of learners online who are having difficulties. But, in the interests of honesty, it’s not all been brilliant. I’ve really missed our pupils. It may seem the ideal teaching situation to be sat with a room full of silent learners – indeed I’m sure many of us during a particularly difficult period with S2 have wished for this exact scenario. However, despite how much we may have moaned about how vocal pupil A was, or how frustrating the low level chatter might have been late one Tuesday afternoon, I don’t think any of us would swap it for our current situation.

There is definitely much less of a need to a focus on behaviour whilst teaching remotely – no one pupil distracting others and no-one wandering out of their seat. But, talking to a teams meeting of 15 pupil icons, with no familiar faces and no idea of what is going on at the other end, is a somewhat different challenge. Are they listening? Are they focussed? Are they learning? Are they understanding? Are they even there or have they just logged on, then gone back to sleep? Last week I wrote here about some of the ways I’ve been working to increase participation of pupils in live lessons. I found the strategies really useful for encouraging pupils to ‘think hard’,’ participate and check for understanding. This week, this has definitely given me confidence that there are most definitely effective ways to take the pedagogy in school and transfer this to a remote situation.

As a profession in which self-reflection is so important, it can be so difficult to know how we are doing. Reflecting on my lessons this week, I’ve pondered many ways in which it might have been better. Did that questioning go as well as it could have? Was that task structured in a way to support understanding? Did I remember to ask everyone to make sure there is active participation? Are we having an impact? Are the kids ‘getting it?’ Is the way we are doing it working for learners? It can be frustrating when students whom we know are brilliant learners in the physical classroom, don’t submit work. Or don’t even appear online. It can be soul destroying to have spent time making resources and a only a small number of pupils engage. But this situation we find ourselves in, is unknown – we haven’t taught like this before. And there are so many more variables which will impact engagement and online learning. We need to be compassionate for the individual situations our learners find themselves in. Just like we as teachers are learning, so are our pupils. And it’s a huge, steep learning curve for them.

I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t want the best for their pupils. That’s why so many are exhausted right now. They are constantly trying to improve the online learning experience for our young people. To support them in the best way possible. When we can’t be beside them in person, we try our very best to be there for them virtually. But it’s definitely not the same, and it perhaps doesn’t give us that instant gratification that comes from a successful face to face lesson.

I want to finish by saying that whatever you are doing, you are making impact. Young people and families appreciate the connection with teachers. They might not admit it, but in their lockdown world, these online interactions and opportunities for learning are more important than ever. Like everyone, young people are facing huge challenges during COVID. We need to be mindful of this and communicate our support. Whilst there might not be the instant satisfaction of productive period spent in school with learners, don’t underestimate the positive influence you are still having on your young people. We might not see it visibly in the same way as we would in school. It might be a while before our young people look back and realise the dedication you had to their learning by teaching a live lesson with a toddler sat on your knee. Or the late nights you committed to, to ensure the voiced over powerpoints were recorded. They might not understand initially that you encouraging them to respond in the chat or unmute to give answers might have been worthwhile learning and not just an attempt to embarrass them. But someday they might.

As the wonderful Gavin Oattes often reminds us, ‘plant trees you’ll never see grow.’ It’s often years before young people look back and realise how thankful they were to have you as their teacher. Don’t let that stop you doing your best for them this week. You have huge impact and what you are doing during this period of online learning is important and appreciated.

Hang in there if you are finding it tough. Reach out to others if it’s been a difficult day. Take confidence from the small wins. You have got this.

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