How our teachers are coping with the reality of virtual learning - and dealing with rogue Dads!

Drama is one of the more challenging subjects to teach virtually, but Ms Murphy, who is living during lockdown with her family in Brighton, has been impressed by how well her pupils are rising to the task

How are our teachers coping with lockdown and what are the particular challenges that working remotely have thrown up?

We spoke to head of Year 7 and art and design technology teacher Jordan Thomas, drama teacher Jesinta Murphy and head of maths Catherine Tibbetts about how they are faring in our brave new virtual world

Worrying about your Dad bursting into the room and disturbing your lesson is not something that teachers usually have to contend with. But with virtual teaching now being the new norm for Bolingbroke staff and students during the Covid-19 pandemic, this is just one of challenges being faced by drama teacher Ms Murphy, who is currently living in lockdown with her parents and brother in Brighton.

My father doesn’t appear to have any concept of what online teaching with a microphone is, so I am constantly having to ask him to not just enter the room and turn the radio on full blast whilst I am talking through a tricky GCSE exam question,” she says.

Apart from trying to keep her Dad under control, Ms Murphy says the biggest headache for her was in getting to grips with the new technology, admitting she is no tech whizz. “I have never heard of, let alone used Microsoft Teams or Class Notebook before distance learning began,” she said. “The main challenge was teaching myself how to use the software before being able to teach the pupils how to do so.” And undoubtedly subjects such as drama with a strong practical element are always going to be more difficult to teach remotely than other more desk-based academic subjects.

“ The key ongoing challenge for both myself and the pupils is how active and energetic my subject is in school, and how to continue being able to do this at home.” Despite the difficulties created by online teaching, Ms Murphy believes that overall it’s going pretty well. “Keeping creativity alive is a battle, one which I think we are winning!” I think it’s going brilliantly, of course I miss the pupils and miss them having the opportunity to perform to a live audience, but I really do feel everyone is making the best of the situation we are faced with.”

 

She added that the pupils have been “absolutely fantastic” since distance learning was introduced, taking every challenge in their stride. “They are taking every opportunity to be creative and work in groups (from their homes!) to keep the creativity going. Their motivation and resilience to wake up, set up their own classroom and work throughout the day without a teacher in the room never ceases to amaze me.”

Art teacher Mr Thomas has been impressed by the way the pupils have buckled down to online learning

Meanwhile, Ms Murphy’s colleague art teacher Jordan Thomas spends around two hours each day in virtual lessons, and agrees that switching to an online learning environment so quickly was the toughest part of the change.

“This left so many people, both staff and pupils having to learn completely new systems and come up with a whole new way of teaching in a day, which was a big difficulty,” he said, adding that for the most part he has been impressed by how well pupils have responded to the new ways of working. “I know it hasn't been easy for everyone but the persistence and problem solving that so many have shown has been a real inspiration to me and I am glad they get to engage with so many new skills and develop themselves in new ways. I just wish it had been under better circumstances and for less time. But every great problem produces greater solutions so I can't wait to get back and build on all the amazing things people have been doing.

“I think everything has its trials and uprooting an entire system of education which has been tried, tested, tweaked, refined and improved upon for hundreds of years was always going to be a huge task. But, I believe we have done an incredible job alongside our community and think it is going so well, once we have everyone build those IT skills we will have everyone really pushing their potential in a time where it could have been so different.

He admits, though, that there is much that he misses about face-to-face teaching. “I miss the fun interactions and the ability to help and demonstrate skills at a faster pace. I don't get to see the process of pupils working as much or see the smiles of everyone,” he said.

Ms Murphy, meanwhile says she misses the children most of all. “They are still fantastic – hilarious, quirky and hard working online, but nothing replaces being in a room with them all.

Meanwhile, head of maths Catherine Tibbets said that one of the hardest things about the new reality is missing the interaction with pupils. ‘There is such a wonderful energy to teaching that cannot be felt in the virtual world,” she said. “Although the lessons on the face of it look very similar, the running of them is very different – it is harder to gauge pupils’ understanding.” She added that she also missed the use of whiteboards and “that lighbulb moment on pupil’s faces” when they finally understand a problem. “I look forward to being back in school and seeing them all again.”

Ms Tibbets says she is looking forward to returning to teaching in the classroom, though thinks she she has learned from her experience of working from home

Despite these difficulties, Ms Tibbets says that maths distance learning has got off to a great start, with the use of the online platform Hegarty. “Pupils were already familiar with the platform through their homework but have completely wowed the maths team with their participation and drive to succeed,” she said. “Number and algebra aspects of the course are definitely easier to teach with virtual lessons, but shape work is definitely a challenge. “ She added that she was “super impressed” by year 10 who have been learning about circle theorems this term, “not an easy topic to learn outside the classroom.”

Some of the new ways of teaching will be usefully incorporated into teaching when the school reverts back to normal, she said. “I think we have learned a lot through our time spent in distance learning. Practices that we will continue to use when we are aback at school to further improve what we do. However, I cannot wait to feel the real buzz of teaching again, created from our pupils’ vibrancy that my laptop and desk simply cannot replicate.”

And there have undoubtedly been some benefits to working virtually, according to the teachers. Ms Murphy is grateful not to have to face an hour and a half commute to work into Battersea every day - I’ve got it down to 89 minutes,” she quipped, while Mr Thomas is also enjoying not having to get up quite so early as usual – and being able to play Disney and other show tunes while working – “it somehow seems a bit more appropriate at home than at school!”.