When I first became a headteacher, the nugget of wisdom that I received time and time again from everyone I consulted was along the lines of, “everyday will be different, you just never know what is going to happen next”. What the last few months have proved are that these words have never been so true! I don’t think that in my wildest dreams I would ever have predicted that we would spend part of our very first year of being open with our doors shut to so many children. Yet, despite all of this, our job remains the same – to ensure that our students receive the very best possible education (after all they only get one shot at this) – so whilst the mechanisms for delivery are changing, our standards must not. Schools, like all of us, are adapting to this new normal and here are just a few of the things we have learned.
- Partners in Learning – home-school partnerships have never been so important and both sides are now valuing each-other more than ever. With parents/carers now taking much of the responsibility for educating their children at home, our job as a school is to support them as much as we can. On a simple level, this has involved ensuring that the right level of work is set for students and that activities and expectations are really clearly communicated with both students and their parents to try to avoid confusion. Throughout the holiday, we have provided suggested activities for the whole family – recognising that just as some families may want to have a complete rest from school-work, others really welcome some structure to help them get through this difficult time. On a deeper level, we know that these uncertain times will be stressful and isolating for many parents. During our weekly welfare checks to students, therefore, we make sure to also check in on parents and are pleased to be able to offer to put them in touch with other parents to support them through this time. This initiative was devised by our fantastic parent-staff association SwanComm and is just one way that we are stronger when we work together.
- Less is more – when we first started planning our ‘distance learning’ provision, there was an immediate temptation to try to replicate a full school timetable at home. We then watched several (very funny) viral videos showing parent experiences with this in other countries and quickly changed tack! We have simplified our timetable to include just four subjects each day with students expected to spend 60-90 minutes on each one, with tasks getting progressively harder so that there is the right level of challenge for everyone. Children have the same timetable each week and tasks are set in exactly the same way (on Google Classroom for students and emailed out to parents). We are definitely learning how to set really clear instructions, as is evident by the decreasing number of questions from children about the work each day. For each subject, one piece of work is submitted each week with teachers providing feedback on a whole class level. There are a number of reasons why we have chosen not to do more: 1) We want to protect mental health and respect the balance between school-work and family time. 2) We know that parents are not teachers and therefore over-complicated tasks just cause stress for everyone. 3) Keeping things simple ensures that we have better rates of student completion of work so that we can hold them accountable. 4) Our teachers can spend more time setting really high quality work if they are not setting such a large quantity.
- Technology is great, but no replacement for the human touch – like so many other schools, we are taking this opportunity to experiment with different tools for distance learning. Jess Shakespeare (our head of science) has been a really pioneer for this at The Swan. We are definitely learning what works (and what doesn’t!!!) and hope that, once this is all over, we will have so many more tools in our armoury to make learning really effective. All this notwithstanding, it is interesting that both students and parents tell us that the most useful resources we are setting are those where teachers record themselves explaining things. It really does seem that, despite the myriad online platforms and technological tools out there, simple, face-to-face explanations remain perhaps the simplest but most effective way for children to learn new things. We are looking forward to being able to do this, without the interface of a computer screen!
So, as a school, we are learning to make the most of a difficult time for all of us. As we face up to these new situations, I am constantly reminded of what a vital job teachers do every day and I am in complete awe of my team here at The Swan (both teachers and support staff) who have stepped up to the challenge and exceeded expectations in every way. It has been amazing to see how much they care for our school and our community more widely – their hard work and enthusiasm has really gone above and beyond. I am looking forward to seeing staff, students, and families very soon. In the meantime, please do look after yourselves.