“How are you finding online teaching now?” I asked one of our alumni ECTs at the end of February last year – they had contacted me at the start of January feeling anxious about how to make the move into remote learning during the lockdown (you can read about this here).
“Well, you were right,” they said, “it’s very different and also strangely the same. It’s all the same toolkit, you’re just using some of the tools a bit differently than in the classroom”.
Beginning teachers may be viewing the press releases from the DfE and the rising covid cases with some trepidation. Whilst there was some disruption during the Autumn term, it was also a relatively peaceful period compared with earlier stages of the pandemic – a return to almost ‘normal’ teaching. Mentors need to keep in mind that, in contrast to those training in 2020/21, most of our current beginning teacher cohort have not yet experienced (as ITTs) remote teaching, or even online learning for themselves. Neither have most observed or considered the implications of collapsed/ combined group teaching or the other myriad of possibilities being considered by schools anticipating staff absence. However, in contrast to last year mentors (and wider teams) have been in this position before and so are more equipped to help their mentees navigate this new challenge.
In fact the prospect of blended learning actually presents a valuable opportunity for beginning teachers to add to and strengthen their understanding of how their ‘tools’ can be used to secure pupil knowledge and understanding. What do we need to focus on to help them?
Behaviour for learning
Knowing and implementing the school’s behaviour policy matters all the more when children are unsettled by uncertainty and need clear and consistent boundaries. Understanding how the behaviour policy/ sanctions work in a remote context is vital. What is the school’s expectation around online learning etiquette, engagement and participation and how do you/ should you follow up where this isn’t met by pupils? Whatever the answer, it is important mentors are kept informed as beginning teachers follow through on the policy.
Clarity is important in all teaching situations. In the remote/ online sphere, where limited visuals of the pupils mean it is harder to gauge if an explanation or instruction has ‘landed’, it is vital. Using this opportunity to plan and practise explanations, thinking carefully about how complex concepts can be illustrated with images, stories, exemplification, will support general teaching development too. Similarly, taking time to break instructions down step by step will help pupils to better navigate tasks and, when seeking help, be more specific about the stage at which they have become ‘stuck’.
Checking for Understanding
One key challenge in the classroom is ensuring ALL pupils are participating throughout lessons and aren’t just checking out. This problem becomes even more of a challenge online where ‘logging off’ is both literal and figurative. This means beginning teachers have the perfect opportunity to develop techniques checking for understanding and promoting whole class participation. Making low stakes but high participation approaches a regular, integrated, habitual part of their teaching will really strengthen their overall practice. There are many ways to do this although keeping it simple using as few platforms as possible is usually best, e.g. using a poll in the chat – see here for a guide to some apps. One of the apps I’ve heard many teachers praising is whiteboard.fi; it provides all the benefits of mini-whiteboards in the classroom with the added facility of not revealing pupil responses to the rest of the class. Similarly Google/ OneDrive docs, shared between teacher and pupils, allows the teacher to drop into their live writing, providing active feedback as if walking around the classroom.
Focusing on core purposes
Remote and online learning requires a more focused lesson intention as it is simply not possible or desirable to plan to cover as much content as within a ‘normal lesson’. Revisiting prior learning, identifying opportunities to link back to and build upon previous encounters with the concept or topic at hand, all help online learning to be more successful. Planning lessons which have a clear sense of rationale and purpose is an important area of development for beginning teachers and will benefit all aspects of their practice.
A toolkit of opportunities
For beginning teachers feeling anxious about the challenges this Spring term might present, my overriding message is the same as that expressed by my former tutee this time last year: “It’s all the same toolkit, you’re just using some of the tools a bit differently than in the classroom”.
More advice for mentors on how to structure remote/ online teaching experiences for their mentees can be found here.
The Historical Association’s Beginning Teacher resources also offer support here.