This school year has been unprecedented, to say the least. Distance learning became the norm even while some teachers struggled with technology, and students faced mental health challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of schools. The pandemic has also disrupted life for students with special needs as some struggle to stick to a routine while others are cut off from access to their treatments.
As the academic year comes to a close, we asked teachers from around the world on what they’ve learned this past year on the job.
Noel Tuohy, 32, UAE
“None of us saw this coming. It’s one of those things that you don’t think will happen to you until it does,” Tuohy, the computing head at Jumeirah English Speaking School in Dubai, told Re:Set.
Despite all that the pandemic has brought, Tuohy observed the adaptability and resilience of his students and colleagues. This year, he has found a greater appreciation for well-being. “We have emphasized the importance of being socially and mentally well. This is something we all know is important, but I don’t think [it] ever got the air time it deserved,” he reflected. “Going forward, I think we can see a lot more emphasis on children, teachers’ and parents’ well-being.
He has seen his students produce good quality work and manage their time efficiently and shown capability beyond what he expected. “[In the future] I will be pitching that bar a little bit higher and allow children to use a springboard if they need to, but with the right support and encouragement, so many of them will clear it without much assistance at all,” he said.
Neha Gala, 25, India
Gala teaches children from ages three to five at the Shri Vile Parle Kelavani Mandal School in Mumbai. “This year was challenging. Online classes are something that we’ve never done before,” Gala told Re:Set. The main focus for her is to ease the child into a school environment with an emphasis on social interaction. Pre-school is the initiation of children into a structured form of learning, and that relies heavily on personal interaction.
“I don’t think the children enjoy online classes much,” Gala told Re:Set. “But this will not affect their [three-year-olds] education in the long-term. For four to five-year-olds, missing this year of in-person learning would make a huge difference because these two years have a lot of learning milestones, and being set back in these years can take up to two years to undo,” Gala added.
She has learned to accept and adapt to the need of the hour. To make up for the missed personal interactions, she schedules 15 minutes before class to casually chat with her students. She conducts ‘show and tell’ to get to know them better. “That bond is hard to forge right now and feels very superficial because they don’t even know what we look like,” she said. Virtual classes also meant that teachers had to learn to develop their creativity. Rather than just looking at their screens, Gala and her colleagues used activities like treasure hunts with the support of the parents to ensure that children still learned and were involved.
Kaitlin Scharff, 28, USA
“I learned to focus on what is important for my students’ academics, but also their social and emotional well-being,” Scharff told Re:Set. She teaches general education at Liberty Corner Elementary School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
Scharff made sure to get dressed for her Zoom calls like she would for work to ensure that the students had some form of consistency in their learning. “They needed to see Miss Scharff on their Zoom call, not Kaitlin at home,” the educator told Re:Set. Despite her school district providing internet access and loaning devices to children who didn’t have access to them, Scharff anticipates that all children will be behind. “Think about the difference between an only child, with parents with a flexible work schedule that can give time to their kids’ coursework and a child with four other siblings whose parents are caught up on work calls,” Scharff told Re:Set.
While distance learning left teachers and students with no choice but to embrace technology, “no form of technology can replace the relationship students and teachers form together in the classroom,” she reflected.
“The classroom is a magical place, designed by teachers to be a safe space. In there, we are a community. I will never take this relationship for granted again because it is crucial to a student’s success. The reason distance learning ‘worked’ for my class was because we had seven months to develop our relationships before leaving school. I knew how to get on a Zoom call and relate to my students. They got the work done at home because they knew I was holding them accountable and they respected me. In the future, my goal as an educator will continue to be finding ways to connect with my students and foster our relationship,” Scharff concluded.
Lucy Bisson, 32, United Kingdom
Bisson’s school is usually good at planning for resources ahead of time, so they were prepared to move into remote working straight away. Bisson teaches geography and has found online resources helpful while navigating distance learning. “I want to use more online platforms because I have observed that it has helped students with homework as well. I also want to consider the different ways that people might learn better than traditional methods,” she told Re:Set.
For Bisson, this time has been a discovery of holistic education and realizing the importance of providing a supportive environment for skill development rather than just grades. The biggest shift has been in prioritizing overall well-being over just grades. “We need to continuously reflect upon what has happened in the past few months, and see how it affects us individually, as a school, and as a country. The focus must move towards creating a happy, healthy, and effective citizen,” Bisson elaborated.
Mansi Gandhi, 24, UAE
Gandhi is a math teacher and this past academic session was her first year as an educator. “As soon as I started getting the hang of it, things changed. We have online lectures, but I have realized the importance of in-person interaction,” Gandhi told Re:Set. “Ordinarily, we would meet the child after class if there were corrections to be made, or to recognize an achievement, however that aspect is completely gone now.”
For her, the work days have now gone from seven hours to 24 hours. “At times, students cannot attend class because of connectivity issues or other issues. We cannot let them miss lessons because of these things, so the students message us anytime and we have to respond,” she added.
Gandhi, like many other teachers, picked up a variety of skills and tools during distance learning and she found this time has contributed to her growth as a newly minted educator. “After the first few months of teaching, I started to understand the expectations [of being a teacher] and working from home helped me organize my workload better.”