Once upon a time, pre-COVID-19…

Once upon a time, in a pre-COVID-19 world, most educators would have recoiled at the overuse of buzz words like “agile”, “adaptable”, “resilient” and even “independent”, which had come to lack any real meaning. Then, the unthinkable happened, and in a heartbeat, almost like a switch had been flicked, we embraced remote, online learning and rediscovered the true significance of those words when it comes to education. Suddenly, every moment felt more precious and our staff members, compelled by the need to ensure that our students experienced a continuity of high-quality learning, stepped into an even higher gear.

Technology was no longer optional and all of us needed to step up and learn how to effectively integrate our use of eLY, Microsoft Teams, Google, and any other links; all the while hoping there were no scheduled NBN outages in our area. The space-time continuum seemed to collapse as the school term merged into the holidays only to merge back into the school term. And professional egos were cast aside as we already knew what we didn’t know, yet we plunged into the deep end anyway. Energised, yet exhausted, we learned new platforms, which we taught to our colleagues, and then, of course, our eager students needed to learn while navigating these new virtual spaces.

And learn they did. Most staff members reported gains in curriculum time, less behavioural issues and, professionally, a sense of satisfaction from learning new things despite the stress of adjusting in such a short space of time. Teacher agency saw the rise of grass roots leadership and with that a burgeoning solidarity. Never have I been more proud to be a teacher. It was funny at first to see colleagues talking into laptops; however, walking through the halls, something else was going on. I could see their animated faces as they strived to connect with their students – the power of voice, facial expressions and then the evolving pedagogy to suit our new online delivery of the curriculum – in that order, because we all know that the learning doesn’t happen without that human connection.

And learn they did. In the High School, we surveyed the students and staff members. Our survey data, informed by a significant uptake by the student body, told us that we were doing something right. The students were also constructive in their appraisal of our efforts and the common theme of “less screen time, please,” was heard, as was the need to have a mini-break between classes. Common sense, really. But there was nothing common about remote learning and, as learners ourselves, we were all ears, just wanting to ‘get it right’ and find the ‘right’ balance.

And learn we did… New buzz words have emerged like “new normal”, “hybrid” and “blended learning”. As if going back is even an option – in terms of classroom practice, what would we even go back to? Learning has never been more personalised, staff members have never been so engaged by their own professional learning and desire to upskill, and they are more invested than ever in seeing students achieve to their best potential.

We’ve learned from John Hattie that collective teacher efficacy is the collective belief of the staff in their ability to positively affect students. Not surprisingly, it rose to number one in his list of things most likely to impact student learning (2018) and such a belief has been shown to be strongly correlated with high student achievement.

Remote learning has shown us what is possible when the collective good rises to meet a challenge, while still allowing for individual differences.

The enduring challenge for us as educators – whether we are teacher leaders in the classroom, middle leaders or more senior leaders – is to not let the clock wind back but rather to harness the power and creativity of what is working well and transfer that into the physical classroom. The learning must remain relevant and engaging.

Aasha Murthy, current CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, summarised the current state of play quite well when she said;

Prescient leadership in this new and uncertain universe needs to be mindful, responsive, resilient, and authentic. A “futures mindset” with three generative dimensions – Focussed Attention, Collaborative Spirit, and Collective Wisdom – makes such a transformative repertoire of behaviour and action possible.”

As much as some of the old can and should never be done away with, we shouldn’t let the concept of ‘going back’ be confused with going backwards, as evidenced by the near full return of all Year 12 and Year 7 students this week, all happy to be back in the land of many and go back to school, remembering that they too have experienced a new normal and what is possible when they let their teacher teach unencumbered by interruptions.

Parents are also the winners in our new normal, not only are they seeing their children learn online, it looks like online parent/teacher interviews are here to stay; “can we please keep them after everything goes back?” asked more than a few parents.

So aside from the occasional internet lag, a Class Notebook in Teams that might be a little temperamental, the video editing that takes a few hours more than you anticipated because you just want to fix that one last bit, and more professional learning hours than we can count; it’s learning that has triumphed. If we learned nothing else, it’s that learning itself will always happen but it’s the people who make a difference as they strive to learn so they can keep the students’ learning rigorous and relevant in an ever-changing world. And learn, we will.

About the author

Assunta Di Gregorio is the Deputy Head of High School, Teaching and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW

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