By Heather A
Heather is a fully qualified teacher (PGCE) with an MChem Chemistry (1st class honours), who has devoted her career to being a full time tutor, specialising in A level, GCSE and IB Chemistry (she also offers Biology & Physics tuition). Heather worked as a Teacher of Chemistry at Wellington College for 3 years and during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns, she invested her time exploring new technologies and innovative ways to teach her students in live lessons from home.
To benefit from Heather’s experience as a professional online tutor, and receive support in secondary level Science, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 207 3856795.
Working from home, the new normal and unprecedented times, are just some of the phrases we have grown accustomed to over the past 18 months. These phrases alongside new habits of putting on and taking off face masks, sanitising at every available opportunity, even if your hands are still slightly damp from the previous sanitation and steering well away from anyone seen to have any slight cough reflex, are aspects of life that I can’t imagine ever disappearing.
Opening up a brand-new planner, neatly filling in my timetable and creating a list of targets for the upcoming academic year has been a custom I have come to enjoy at the start of every new school year. However, this September rather than my usual, “I will mark every piece of homework the night I receive it” resolution, that inevitably won’t be fulfilled, I am choosing to reflect on some of things I have learned during the pandemic. Before I continue, this article is certainly not a political piece and I will not discuss any components of the education system that I think we should have learned from, but entirely focus on my personal experience and 7 positive learnings from teaching online at home.
- Don’t leave everything to the last minute.
I, myself, am a huge procrastinator and as much as I tell my students to complete their homework the night it’s set, I can’t say I always practise what I preach. However, if the last 18 months has taught us nothing else, leaving things to the last minute doesn’t always pay off, particularly in the world of exams. For those students who performed consistently, preparing for all kinds of tests and generally engaged well in class appeared to have been rewarded for their diligence in this year’s teacher assessed grades. For years many students have enjoyed the night before the exam cram, particularly at GCSE level, which has been sufficient to accumulate some qualifications. However, as I’ve found with post 16 education this technique begins to fall short and can come as a huge shock to the system at the end of year 12 tests. Whilst increasing stress for mini-tests is certainly not the message I am going for, encouraging students to prepare for end of topic tests, completing homework well before the day its due and developing their confidence to ask questions in class when they are unsure are just some of the ways we can encourage consistency and hopefully steer them away from the last-minute cram.
- Structure, planning and organisation is key.
Whether, like me, as a tutor you have actively chosen to move to a working from home lifestyle or been forced by the ping of self-isolation, it is difficult to adapt to the “freedom” and lack of structure that come with this venture. I have found that planning my day with my morning coffee is one of the best ways to stay motivated and not let my usual standards slide. As much as a to do list is great, scheduling my day has provided me with significant advantages. Prioritising the to-do list, allocating an amount of time for tasks and allowing time for breaks and exercise allowed me to reduce the feeling of guilt associated with not being glued to my computer screen from 9-5. Starting the day with some of my least enjoyable tasks helped to get them completed early which allowed me more time to focus on the things I wanted to do. Organising a time for exercise in the middle of the day, especially if it was with a friend, meant I couldn’t get out of going and always gave me a boost of energy to keep me motivated and focused for the afternoon ahead. Encouraging my students to do the same during lockdown, they often discussed the benefits to their mental health for getting out the house and how scheduling their day made them feel more productive, getting more done during the day to free up the evenings.
- Feedback doesn’t need to be onerous.
Although many teachers may dread it, I have always found pupil feedback to be useful in developing my teaching practice and helping me to adapt my lessons to address aspects that I might be unaware of. This is also true to say for my students – the giving and receiving of feedback is important throughout any learning process and allows us to identify areas for improvement. This isn’t revolutionary and continues to be a subject of educational discussion and debate. During lockdown, trying to maintain engagement and not fall behind with my exam year groups, I turned to the surge of online technologies to help me re-evaluate how I deliver feedback I found a number of resources that allowed me to make quizzes or use prepopulated tasks to assess class and pupil progress, provide instant and personalised feedback and set tasks to suit the needs of an individual. I also found using this method meant I was able to collate and use data for anything from a 10 question recap starter to a full class test. It also meant I was able to identify misconceptions or a student having difficulties a lot earlier than if I had to manually mark or take in the marks from self-assessment.
- Practical subjects can work from home, you just have to be creative.
As a chemistry teacher, working from home was something I worried about particularly from the practical perspective which not only is a large component of the curriculum it is also one of the main draws to the subject. However, this was an aspect of lockdown that I felt I wanted to, at least, make an attempt at being creative and giving the students a chance of completing work that wasn’t on the screen with ingredients they had in the cupboard or could be obtained fairly easily. The kitchen can be turned into a makeshift lab and students were able to complete experiments that investigated some simple acid and base chemistry, colorimetry and rates experiments without having to leave their home. Doing experiments at home also helped students to relate to the real-life application of the subject that can sometimes be removed when mixing chemicals in lab. Now this is not to say all experiments can or should be done at home, however, with careful selection and planning, there is no excuse not to incorporate the odd experiment should we have to return to the ‘at home’ classroom.
- Seeing a face can make the difference.
Teaching online was a shock to the system for everyone and whilst I was able to see many of my students with their cameras on for the first few weeks, after the novelty wore off, it felt like for much of my lessons I was talking to myself with the occasional, “Miss, you’re on mute” comment to break the sound of my own voice. Staying connected is just as important for the teachers as it is for the students, slight facial expressions or not looking at the screen can really help to guide a teacher as to whether a student understands something and can help determine engagement. It can also help to identify any pastoral concerns, this might be someone looks upset or doesn’t appear to be their normal self which from a muted microphone and blacked out screen is difficult to determine. I would, therefore, encourage all members of a lesson, teachers and students to have their cameras on for the duration or as a minimum during times of discussion or ‘teacher-led’ talk.
- There is such a thing as too connected….
Whilst social media has been on the rise over the last 10 years, our addiction seems to have been accelerated by the global pandemic, keeping us connected whilst we’re not together. I am certainly guilty of having my attention span lasting a grand total of 2 minutes before reaching for the glowing screen of a Whatsapp, Facebook or Instagram update. During the lockdown this felt like more of a challenge than before, however, I found putting my phone in a separate room and closing off all the apps on my computer with the exception of the ones I needed, meant I was able to concentrate on the task at hand without my mind wandering or me compulsively picking up my phone to fill the gap. Online it is more difficult to monitor but encouraging students to remove phones from working environments entirely by putting them in a different room or under the supervision of a parent/guardian is a good place to stop that split second distraction. I would also encourage online lessons to be scheduled into their virtual calendar as meetings which automatically switch off notifications for the duration of the call. This helps prevent the ping of an email notification from causing them to lose focus and getting drawn into something completely unrelated.
- Everyone is constantly learning and so we should.
The world is an ever-changing place and as we have discovered the environment we know right now, can change in an instant. When I was a student I thought my teachers, like my grandad, were the fonts of all knowledge. Now as a teacher, I have come full circle, realising that although I may know quite a lot about Chemistry (my subject speciality), I certainly don’t know much about other subject areas, identified by my performance in the endless online pub quizzes. Like my students I am constantly learning; from them, from colleagues and from the world around me. Two years ago, Zoom was just a function on a camera, Corona was a brand of lager and Bubbles were something kids got in party bags. However, in the last 18 months we have all learnt new skills, adapting to this new environment and maybe even learning a little more about ourselves. In my profession we focus on our students to do the learning, but in order to provide them with the best education we also need to recognise where we can learn and enjoy the process too. Whether that be figuring out how to conduct an interactive class lesson online or reading beyond your area of expertise we should all be aiming to continue learning, that’s what education’s about after all.