Half Term Remote Reflections: A Glimmer of Hope?

In lots of places, many people have written extensively and eloquently about the changing circumstances for remote teaching and learning for our students in this scenario. There is no doubt that as challenging as this is, we are, slowly, starting to get to grips with our new environment and the challenges we face as teachers and as educators, and are starting to do the best we can for our students in terms of their subject education. 

But one of the biggest challenges that remains is that of community. We know, as teachers, that schools are not just places where subjects are taught and learned – it’s about the shared experience. Whether that’s play time, football at break, or simply the social atmosphere of being with your friends, school is a difficult thing to replace. 

While many pastoral leaders are struggling to replicate and come to terms with those experience for our students, it has also been a challenge for all staff to cope in the same circumstances. We miss the camaraderie of the Department Office, the support and conversations of our leadership teams, and the conversations in the staff room that cross ages, experiences, subjects, interests… what can we do to help the mental health and wellbeing of our staff?

Using existing structures to support staff

Many of us have access to online structures now which we’re using to deliver and record lessons for our students. One of the things that we have done is to employ some of these for staff wellbeing and morale, too. Using Microsoft Teams, a visualiser, and a bit of planning, we’ve managed to replicate our staff room habit of tackling the crossword every now and then, and create a virtual Crossword Club. 

There are days when it’s just a handful of people, and the conversations can become a little more personal – but we’ve had times with eight or nine people chipping in to solve it – and all it’s taken is a book of Jumbo Crosswords and the same structures that we’re using to support our students. 

Our Crossword Club goes across all components of the staffroom: and the simple act of getting some tea, turning on the microphones and working through the thing together encourages conversation, laughter and a feeling of lightness. For some of our staff, particularly those who are parents to small children, it’s a bit of a challenge, but offers the potential for adult conversation and human interaction with no pressure – if the kids come in, then it’s fun for us all! We talk about the crossword, but also everything else – just like you would normally. These have been some of the best memories of my colleagues during this time away. 

Being part of a community – changing the location or theme?

Another key development in this time has been the role of the wider community: through Twitter, or even through specific associations. I’m very lucky to be a Geographer, and therefore part of the Royal Geographical Society and the Geographical Association. Both organisations offer a fantastic sense of community – there’s lots of online engagement, plenty of great friendly people on Twitter, and even a willingness to offer training and sessions in different ways.

In the last few months, I’ve been involved with some outreach for the Chartered College of Teaching, and have been involved in the RGS TeachMeet and TeachChat events. Meeting fellow Geographers on Zoom, getting involved in panel discussions, thinking and sharing ideas about my subject – this has all been remotely done, but brought with it a sense of community for my subject, discipline and intellectual development that I wouldn’t normally get. Most of us don’t – our Departments are quite small, and unless we’re fortunate to be in a Trust with an expert subject lead, or a really proactive school with research and engagement work – we tend to be in little subject bubbles a bit. 

But I’ve met, chatted and worked with incredible experts in recent weeks – privileged to share a virtual panel with Catherine Owen, Mark Enser and Kate Stockings on leadership in Geography, and joined a number of experts sharing ideas at the RGS Teach Meet. I’ve been honoured to be part of the early conversations of Dr Cyrus Nayeri’s incredible Routes Journal for Sixth Form Geographers, and meeting so many talented people as part of the Editorial Board has been really invigorating for my subject knowledge and expertise. 

The challenge, I think, is that we often meet the same people on these events – because there is a small, talented, open minded and giant-hearted community of Geography teachers out there. The bigger goal, I feel, is to share these feelings of community across the people who aren’t on Twitter, or who aren’t blogging, writing, or members of these subject communities. That’s a real challenge for the subject associations, and one that I’m happy to be trying to fix within my own Department!

Doing something for yourself: Online Learning

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the number of online courses has really taken off at this time. There are, I think, a number of reasons for that. 

First, this is the time of year where people are thinking about what they’ve achieved, and considering appraisals or reviews or however it’s done. It’s a quieter time of year, too, with students heading off on study leave, and only exam coaching to be done for year groups – so a lot of “traditional” CPD courses get offered about now anyway. 

Second, I think there’s a valuable sense of agency gained here. Once you’ve watched Netflix, or taught your lessons, what are you doing for yourself – particularly if you’re confined in a small space? For many teachers, a lack of agency is one of the biggest challenges we face professionally – and so I’m unsurprised to see so many people offering courses, and them being very popular. 

Finally, I think we’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of asynchronous delivery. While I think there is definitely a place for real-world conference – I don’t think TeachMeets, BrewEds or ResearchEd are going anywhere any time soon – I do think that virtual training offers an enormous opportunity. As we get better at it, we’re able to capture more of the interactivity – breakout rooms, discussions and live ‘chat’, as well as getting cameras on and people to “meet” one another is different from watching a video of someone delivering their talk. 

But I think there’s a huge appetite for this. I can join a conference taking place anywhere, for free. I don’t have travel time, I can pause, think, rewind, review – I can do as much, or as little as I want. I don’t have to take time out of my working day – I can move it to my convenience. I don’t have childcare or wider issues to contend with – but these online events eliminate those, too. As a potential speaker, I am also much more able to participate – I wouldn’t have had time to finish work, drive home, get up to the RGS for an evening event – but with an online conference, this is not only possible, but pleasant. 

I don’t think we’ll see training providers going out of business, and I don’t think the free conferences will go away – but I hope we’ll see a lot more of this in future – I know I’d attend and get involved in many more. 

I’ve loved hearing so many different voices, thinking about things – and as I start to explore and consider future plans, I’ve got a lot of ideas to take back to work with me when I do.

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