Last Monday, I was at work for a total of 5 minutes before I read a message telling me to isolate for two weeks after having come into contact with a friend who tested positive. Literally 30 mins later, I was teaching my first proper lesson via Microsoft Teams and have been ever since.

Since I posted about my self-isolation on social media, many in the edu-sphere told me of theirs. Unfortunately, I suspect significant numbers of staff absences will be a key feat of the dreaded ‘new normal.’ Now more than ever then, it makes sense to share good – or even bad as you can learn from it – practice.

In the past week and two days, I’ve learnt a lot which from which fellow teachers could probably benefit should they end up having to self-isolate. While online teaching is by no means an adequate substitute for real teaching, (if it was, then surely schools are a waste of time, energy and money?) just by doing it, I’ve picked up some strategies to make it more effective- or at least less ineffective! It is worth noting that I’m a secondary science teacher and as that’s the context I’m speaking in, it is inevitable that not everything will be transferable. Take what you can from what follows:

Re-teach/Recap (even if you think you don’t need to)

It’s funny how much you rely on kids’ facial expressions to decide whether or not they know what you’re on about! As I’m in my 15th year, face reading is easy for me so rarely do I find myself jumping into a new lesson/topic without recapping/re-teaching whatever I (literally) feel is necessary. I may even omit it altogether. It all depends on some factor which is impossible for a teacher to identify when remote teaching. Seeing as Teams blocked my teacher instincts a couple of times, I think it’s a good idea to recap/reteach any necessary prior knowledge irrespective of your gut feeling. It may take up time, but if pupils don’t understand your lesson, over Teams, it is far more difficult for you to intervene. Best to avoid.

Stop questioning (for a bit)

When teaching a new concept, many of us question probe to tease the answer/explanation out of the pupils rather than telling them straight. When teaching online the first time, you may find yourself automatically going into that mode only to find that kids will shout out answers that you wont hear, or too many will speak at once, causing you to intervene. In essence, question probing whilst explaining will slow down your already slow lesson (more about the latter later). Instead, give them the explanation straight: speak in short snappy sentences and repeat yourself multiple times. When you’re finished, then ask: ‘Any questions?’ Instruct pupils to raise their hand and direct their questions to the supply teacher who will then repeat them to you.

Questioning, mini white boards and self-assessment

One of the most frustrating things about teaching 30+ kids online is not being able to know for certain whether or not adequate progress has been made. In a bid to overcome this supremely annoying feeling, I went a bit AfL crazy and tried to recreate my real lessons as best as possible.

When doing targeted questioning, I noticed that some pupils were a bit reluctant to answer my Qs so to make it more ‘real,’ I turned on my camera so the kids could see me on the screen and I asked the supply teacher to turn hers on so I could see them. Kids didn’t like it (no one likes a camera in their face!) but after the initial chuckles, there was a marked improvement in their engagement which justified the extra time spent.

I questioned by name – the same as I would normally – only this time I asked kids to speak loudly (you won’t hear the kids at the back of the room unless they do). In addition, I continued to do mini-white board tasks and asked the supply teacher to check answers and inform me of their progress, i.e. How many have answered correctly? Are there any common errors? As well, I projected questions on the screen via power point which the pupils would self-assess. We even played games like ‘just-a-minute’ (where a kid summarises everything learnt in the lesson in one minute) with the whole class – including me – watching. Think, pair, share is also very doable.

Your pace will be slower

I know that’s not really a tip per-se, but it helps to know what to expect so you can plan ahead: There is a good chance you wont get through the amount of content you want. (Or maybe you will but I didn’t sometimes because I overdid it with the AfL? God knows). Setting up at the start: ‘I can’t hear you!’ ‘I haven’t said anything yet!’ ‘You’re on mute!’ etc. etc. can take a good few minutes (it takes some getting used to) but that aside, everything else just takes longer: you have to repeat yourself many times to help ensure understanding; kids won’t hear you the first time when you ask a question; you won’t hear them when they answer; the supply teacher will have to move their laptop to a position that suits you, and then move it back again after.

Communication is key

So if you do end up having to isolate and your class is covered externally, I recommend requesting the same supply teacher to cover you for the full two weeks. You may have a limited say in this (and it might not be possible) but schools should know that it will make everything a whole lot easier. As you will be in constant communication with whoever is covering your lessons- ‘Can you freeze the screen please Miss?’ ‘Can you check their mini-white boards please Miss?’ ‘How many got it right Miss?’ ‘Have they finished yet Miss?’ ‘The screen is going to go black for a second while I change the power point Miss’ – the quicker you each learn how the other operates the smoother your two weeks will be. Be extra specific when giving instructions either to the supply teacher or to the kids as anything else will cost you time which is already limited.

The kids will chat more

Kids, by their very nature, will talk more and work less when their teacher is not physically present. Again, if this wasn’t the case then schools would be redundant institutions. Over Teams, it’s harder just to do the whole: ‘Er . . . Excuse me!’ (followed by pin drop silence) so when kids were talking a bit too much for my liking, I turned my camera on and as solemnly as I could, told them how they are going to have to get used to these types of lessons and there simply isn’t time for me to re-teach everything. I think the face-to-face to nature of it was what made it effective- just like the questioning. It’s easy to ignore the voice of someone you are not going to see for two weeks but when they pop up on the screen it gives it a bit more ‘umph.’ And of course, the supply teacher did their thing too.

Stay safe guys,

Omar

Omar Akbar- Teacher; Author: The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual: What they don’t teach you in training and Bad School Leadership (and what to do about it)

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