Primary Teaching and a Pandemic

Thank you, next!

lessons

2020, WHAT A YEAR! Did anyone else feel like we were living in a Black Mirror episode? No more ‘living your best teacher life’ that was for sure. The pandemic taught us all some valuable lessons, both in and out of the classroom. In this post, I reflect on the rollercoaster of life as a primary teacher in 2020 and discuss the positives to be taken from a year of dramatic change.

Whatever our feelings may be towards moving into this new year, we survived 2020, just about. So as the new term begins, let’s give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back for making it through and put that Destiny’s Child song on full blast (camouflage costumes are optional).

I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it, I will survive, Keep on surviving

Future Nostalgia

Despite Miss ‘Rona’ appearing at the end of 2019, we were all blissfully unaware of what was to come in the early stages of the new year.

As an international teacher, I was fortunate to spend my Christmas and New Year break of 2019 travelling around India. A foggy sunrise at the Taj Mahal, Yoga in Goa, and camping in the desert. I was living the absolute dream, that had become my life for the last three years, since deciding to teach overseas. You can find out more about me here.

Although the trip wasn’t as relaxing as I’d have liked at times, I felt ready to embark on my favourite term at school. Each academic year, getting to know a new class is exciting but it completely exhausts you. The second term offers light relief, as you know the students and they know you.

In equal measure, I was ready to embrace the next chapter of my life by moving on from Malaysia. As well as the school, which has become my home and family since leaving the UK in 2016.

On the first day back of term 2, I was fortunate to fly to Hong Kong for an exciting new job opportunity. However, all my plans for the future came to a sudden halt! Kind of like when you’re getting to the best part of your lesson and the fire alarm goes off!

Thank you, next

The derailment of the plans for 2020, showcases that you never quite know what is around the corner.

As teachers, planning is a fundamental part of our role and it becomes natural to let this spill into our everyday lives. It’s absolutely fine to abandon the lesson plan when things are going awry. Similarly, we cannot be bound by the plans that we had for our lives when fighting a global pandemic.

There were things we all had to sacrifice: a wedding (you, not me), fun experiences, jobs, placements, or even a dream holiday to Sri Lanka for the Easter holidays (that’s more my style). It has certainly been rough having to accept the state of play at times.

However, there was lots of time for reflection, to pause and wonder (in a very Carrie Bradshaw tone)…what really matters?

Word Up!

There was much to talk about this year. Everyone had something to say about what was going on. Suddenly, we began using an assortment of new vocabulary when communicating everyday events. The language we used became influenced by the latest developments in the pandemic.

Unprecedented was selected as the ‘People’s Choice 2020 Word of the Year’ by Dictionary.com. Other popular words from the year were isolation, pandemic and lockdown.

Vocabulary instruction

When exploring new vocabulary in the classroom, I use the three-tiered system. Warning! This is not to be confused with Boris Johnson’s slightly less effective tiered system to combat the spread of the virus in the UK.

  • Tier 1 represents everyday language. 
  • Tier 2 consists of high-frequency words which are not as common in our everyday speech but used widely in written form. These are your focus words for teaching as they support pupils in developing both their reading comprehension and written composition.
  • Tier 3 encompasses technical vocabulary which is usually attributed to a specific domain. As these words are more challenging they are best taught within a direct context.

This system is really useful when beginning a new topic or text. Firstly pre-select the vocabulary that pupils will encounter throughout the text, unit or topic. Then allow opportunities for the pupils to initially sort them into known and unknown groupings. You will be surprised by some of their choices.

Display the vocabulary in the classroom, play sentence building games, write them in vocabulary journals, and find related/oppositional words. Most importantly, refer to them as frequently as possible. Just like we did in 2020. Did we talk about anything else?

The graphic below highlights how some of the vocabulary from the year may be categorised.

primary teaching tiered vocabulary

The pandemic provided a context where both the tier 2 and 3 words naturally transferred into our everyday speech, even for the 6 and 7 year old students in my class.

There is a lot more that can be discussed about vocabulary, and it is an area of particular interest to me. Alex Quigley has explored this topic in-depth within this post and I would highly recommend his blog, The Confident Teacher.

Can you guess another extremely popular word from 2020 using these clues?

  • Begins with the /z/ sound
  • It is often used to describe the action of a rocket
  • 2020’s favourite form of communication

You can now write this word on your whiteboard and hold it up to the camera. Oh and please remember to keep your cameras on throughout the lesson!

Virtual Insanity

After working in primary schools for almost a decade, I have begun to feel more confident as an educator. Experience, professional development, and a great working environment has enabled this.

Teaching is one of those professions where you feel that you could always be doing something better, and nothing stays the same for long. We teachers love to tell the world how hard our job is but somehow the message never quite sinks in. However, in 2020, no one was ready for the special treat that was…Virtual Teaching! 

Overnight, the job we had trained to do was about to change completely, and not entirely for the better. 

For the first months, our students received daily pre-recorded lessons, which was harder than expected. There was a lot to learn in a very short time.

How to insert audio into Google slides? The best method for screen recording? How to overlay images and text onto iMovie? Not to mention, trying to solve the variety of technical issues parents and students faced. Even for someone who professed to be fairly tech-savvy, I needed some refresher training.

Later, we began exploring Zoom, which seemed to be as contagious as Covid. Quizzes, raves, bake-off’s, sing-a-longs, gym training, Bingo! You name it, we were invited to them all! As lockdown fever struck, the whole world (including our Grandma’s) were Zoom-ing!

It was only a matter of time before we started to use it to connect with our students. Zoom has some good features for educators such as a blank whiteboard and a waiting room. My particular favourite is the “mute all” function. It wasn’t always plain sailing on the other end of the screen, nothing ever is with 6 year olds. 

Remember how I mentioned that managing your class becomes easier in term 2? Well at this point, we were starting from scratch. 

“You’re on mute”

dAILY mANTRA ON ZOOM

To host a lesson you had to be an octopus. Trying to mute them all whilst letting those in the waiting room enter the call. Then avoiding someone drawing all over the whiteboard, changing their background to space, and at the same time simply get through a game of hangman.

“I can’t see your screen!”, 

“Your voice is lagging!”

“Can I show you my dog?”

Despite the challenges, and there were many, we were the fortunate ones who could actually facilitate a virtual schooling environment. Many schools around the world were forced to close with no such provision.

More than just a place for learning, school offers children social and emotional care, in addition to routine and structure. In times like this, the school environment itself is actually more important than any learning objective we can attempt to teach.

The daily interactions we had with our students were focused on helping them maintain a sense of normality despite the chaos.

Furthermore, we recognised, even those who aren’t educators, the importance of school as a physical environment. Parents certainly had a new-found appreciation for the role of teachers as they attempted to step into our shoes.

Thank you, next

9 months later, and I have taught online more than in physical school. It has enabled various developments in my practice such as:

  • Strengthening my technology skills
  • Becoming a whizz at using online platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet and Nearpod.
  • Leading Seesaw across the school as both an Ambassador and Administrator
  • Discovering new strategies for engagement and accountability in a virtual classroom.

I certainly wouldn’t have chosen this course of professional development but it has definitely expanded my teaching in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined. For that I have to be grateful. Perhaps in the future, virtual learning will be a focus for teacher-training?

Top tips for virtual learning

tips for virtual teaching
  1. Set expectations. Spend time establishing the expectations for a virtual classroom. Review these frequently, perhaps at the start of each lesson.
  2. Routines. Link the virtual classroom to your physical classroom. Use resources, games, books, and materials they are familiar with.
  3. Praise. Celebrate how well the students are managing their learning. Share screenshots of their excellent work as they enter the call.
  4. Mark less. Give verbal feedback to the class and review previous misconceptions together. Then try another example and/or edit their previous learning.

Working from home was an interesting journey and I miss my classroom dearly. In the summer holidays I was so excited to return back to school, it was like being an NQT all over again. Buying new resources, picturing how I wanted my classroom design and layout to be, as well as starting a teacher IG account to gain inspiration from the global teaching community.

Follow me!

What The World Needs Now (Is Love)

Whilst the majority of 2020 was dominated by a contagious coronavirus, there was something else more positive spreading across the world – love. And not the “savage” kind that Jason Derulo sang about.

Instead of a physical love, it came in various other forms such as: text messages, voice notes, surprise packages at the doorstep, an invitation to an online quiz, video call catch-ups, and applauding the amazing frontline workers. We were given the time to appreciate the people who are most important.

“Love, actually is all around, if you look close enough to see it”.

The conversation around mental health, and especially teacher wellbeing, has never been more important. For further inspiration on sharing the love, here are some kindness acts for the coronavirus, as suggested by mentalhealth.org.uk.

Joy was slightly overshadowed by all the chaos but there was a lot to be grateful for. Babies were born, marriages, graduations. new businesses, secure jobs, career changes etc.

There were fun times too. We discovered creative ways to entertain ourselves at home, whether that be in the kitchen or on Tik Tok. The time we did spend together was even more special. If nothing else, Gaga gave us Chromatica to keep us all dancing!

Thank you, next

We may have been locked down, isolated, quarantined or simply separated by 2 metres, but we were all in it together. No comparisons but an appreciation that everyone is fighting their own battle. 

Despite the thousands of miles and difference in time, I am more connected to people than ever before. And although the whole of humanity might not be cured from unhappiness, or from Covid, let us try and hold onto those moments of love and joy we experienced. 

We can’t control what happens next but we can control how we let it affect us.

We’re in slow motion, can’t seem to get where we’re going

But the high times are golden

‘Cause they lead to better days

We’re gonna be alright.

Key lessons of 2020:

  • Planning is useful but be ready to adapt.
  • Accept that you cannot always control the future.
  • Working online/ at home is tough but it teaches you new things. 
  • School is more than just a place to learn. 
  • Love and kindness makes the world a better place.

2021 has finally arrived and although we’ve not yet reached the end of our pandemic journey, we are stronger than before. Every challenge faced in the last twelve months has better equipped us for what may come next.

Who knows how we might be teaching this time next year? Will the pandemic be a distant memory or a haunting reality? Which words will reflect our experiences? And what we will be grateful for?

Let’s hope for a positive year ahead.

Thank you, next!

Charlie

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