Political leaders were signaling - often using mixed signals - the likelihood and need to close schools and transition to distance learning. Here in New South Wales schools switched to distance learning for about six weeks, forcing teachers to adapt their programs very rapidly to support students and their parents with learning from home.
Currently around Australia we now have the whole range from fully face-to -face schooling, to partially remote learning, to fully (with some essential worker exceptions) remote learning. Random schools are thrown into immediate lockdown whenever a teacher or student tests positive to the viral infection. Teachers pivot their programs very rapidly between the different ways of delivery depending on the advice from health officials to their education authorities.
My doctoral research explores the way policy is enacted in teacher practice, and I seem to have landed in the middle of a system where policy has flown into flux.
My fieldwork actually started in the midst of one crisis - the Black Summer bushfires - and ended during another - COVID-19. I was fortunately able to modify the shape of my research to allow for interviews with teachers to find out how they experienced the rapidly changing work environment during the virus response.
I’m sure some of the findings are familiar to many teachers and researchers out there, and they aren’t specific to schools. For many people, the switch to working from home was sudden and required quick thinking and adaptation.
The teachers who participated in my research reported a number of interesting, and not all negative, experiences.
Workload increased dramatically
Teachers already faced significant workload demands going into the crisis, an issue plainly described in a partnership study between the NSW Teachers Federation and the University of Sydney. The teachers I interviewed explained how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this big time.
Teachers spend a huge amount of time planning and programming a school term, and much of that planning is premised on the physical environment in which they work. Educators take for granted the material contexts of their work - it helps them to improvise when necessary, to draw on a repertoire of skills and capabilities built up through experience.
In the Sydney school where I did my research the staff made a very rapid shift to online learning. This led to late nights preparing lessons, in some cases over-planning work for students in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction.
Some students felt more comfortable online
A number of teachers reported some students coming out of their shells in the online space. Otherwise shy students felt more empowered to contribute to lessons. Students with strong digital literacy skills were able to support teachers and fellow students in creating dynamic and interesting contributions to online learning.
While there has rightly been some attention paid to students who missed out because of inequitable access, there are also lessons that can be learned about engaging students who are less confident about speaking up in front of a classroom of peers. The digital world is here to stay: being confident learners in digital communities is an important life skill, virus or not.
Professional communities were more important than ever
The staff at the school scheduled an impromptu staff development day focused entirely on delivering learning remotely. Colleagues ran sessions on platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Faculty members headed to different classrooms to practice running Zoom lessons with each other. The New South Wales Department of Education also facilitated a ‘virtual staff room’ on Teams, and many teachers reported the value in sharing ideas with their colleagues both within the school and further afield.
When I spoke with the Deputy Principal of this school, he suggested that their quick response to COVID-19 was possible because of the school’s proactive approach to professional learning. The school saw the Professional Development Planning (PDP) process not as a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise, but rather a way to learn about the strengths and opportunities facing the school. He explained:
“What professional learning is about is foreseeing what obstacles might lie ahead, so that you can be properly prepared for when they do happen and you couldn't get a better case in point than COVID.”
A year-round professional learning calendar helps staff at this school see the connection between their own Professional Development Planning and the whole school plan. Qualitative analysis of Professional Development Planning goals and professional learning needs helps inform the school planning process. And the teachers I interviewed were consistently engaged in improving their classroom practice.
Teachers felt their practice had improved because of the crisis
Each teacher I spoke with said that they had learned something during the crisis and that their practice going forward would improve as a result, sentiment echoed in a survey conducted by researchers Rachel Wilson and William Mude. This included their ability to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into their lessons, the different ways they can engage with their students, and their professional knowledge in the domain of online teaching and learning. As one teacher explained:
“I think there will be good development in our skills that will make us better teachers going forward. It's been a baptism of fire, but I think we'll all be better practitioners and have a wider repertoire of skills.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of things on their heads: it is a black swan event, something gigantic and unexpected that shifts the way we understand the world. Nassim Taleb, who wrote the book, The Black Swan, followed that with another book, Antifragile. He explains that the opposite of fragility is not resilience, but antifragility: where something responds to a shock by getting stronger.
The teachers I worked with pre and post COVID-19 (as far as we can say that we are ‘post’ this virus) are a perfect example of antifragility. So far, 2020 has delivered some of the biggest shocks imaginable. And out of it the teachers in my study have become even better at their craft thanks to the strength of their professional communities and their school's meaningful approach to professional learning.