An ode to school staff on the front line

COVID-19, which transformed education delivery overnight, grants schools an opportunity to innovate, writes Scott Davidson, Director Educational Leadership.

Image: Our schools have the skills, capability and expertise to make a positive impact.

As I’ve watched people around the world rightly applaud the medical staff on the front line of fighting this COVID-19 pandemic, it’s struck me that many other workers will emerge from this challenge with their reputations enhanced. Among them will be our teachers and school staff.

When Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on March 23 that from the following day parents would be encouraged to keep their children home, the way schools operate was transformed almost overnight.

There are not too many professions that could respond so dramatically within such a short space of time. The transition from the physical to the online or home-based classroom has been challenging and exciting, and is presenting staff and students with an opportunity to think flexibly and creatively.

I was a principal for eight years and now support 20 public schools in south-western Sydney and I am just amazed at what our schools, principals, teachers and support staff have managed to achieve in a matter of weeks.

The work put in by all schools has brought about a range of innovative strategies to keep our students and staff engaged with teaching and learning. Where possible, schools are trying not to disrupt the learning sequence and are continuing to use existing classroom content to best support continuity of learning.

Removing barriers to disadvantage

Working in this environment is not without its challenges, foremost being the ability for all students to access the online platforms. The 20 schools in my network include some of the state’s most ethnically diverse communities. They know that education is the ticket to a more prosperous future and they confront economic disadvantage head on with the support of their schools. In many of these homes parents speak little English. Staff have used daily videos and oral translations via QR codes to keep parents informed and our community language support staff are acting as interpreters where needed. Everyone chipping in to remove any barriers for at home learning.

Where inequity exists our principals and teachers have bridged the divide, whether through the loan of school devices or by creatively finding ways of bringing schoolwork into the home – like the Kindergarten teachers in the Hunter Valley who dropped off work packs to their students dressed in tutus and fancy dress. The NSW Department of Education is also working in this space to support schools and their communities.

Yet regardless of the hurdles we must overcome, the COVID-19 crisis has presented us with an opportunity to really innovate and rise to the challenge of ensuring education continuity in uncharted times. I have seen a culture of collaboration embraced where our school staff are united in the common goal of providing continuity of learning and consistency of routine for our students.

An exercise in creative thinking

We are facing an exercise in creative thinking which is requiring teachers to re-imagine their daily work. A combination of online platforms, video applications, and collaborative online tools are recreating our classroom experience.

Staff are energised by the challenge and opportunity to innovate and collaborate. The positive energy is palpable. Students are receiving highly individualised feedback after they have submitted their online work, with staff innovating their practices to deliver what was once very much a face-to-face practice, especially for our younger students. Physical education lessons delivered via livestreaming mean students can still exercise with the support of their teacher. It’s surprising the hidden talents of staff that are emerging to support this new method of operation.

Like all good teaching methods our teachers and schools are trying to meet the individual needs of their students. They are increasingly conscious of building up the online capability of both students and staff as we become more familiar with this method of delivery. As with all teaching it comes back to knowing and valuing your students, their capabilities and building on this for their next stage of learning. And learning online is a two-way exchange: School staff are refining their learning at home practices as they receive feedback from students. This is constantly evolving and has the potential to enhance how we operate in the future.

Our new classrooms have not been without fun, with school staff dance challenges on social media platforms, mufti days, Lego-building activities, virtual Easter hat parades and musical challenges.

In a time of self-isolation and social distancing, ensuring we stay connected is vitally important. Schools are actively encouraging their students to participate and communicate with their teachers and their peers to maintain their wellbeing. Schools are identifying when and how students are accessing their learning and many schools are organising daily check-ins to pinpoint possible students at risk, and to ensure the connection to learning is maintained.

Educators are incredible innovators. They are inspiring people. I have no doubt that our staff will continue to provide exemplary support for our students and their families and we will emerge from this difficult time with stronger ties to our communities.

The momentum that has been generated within schools is creating an exciting culture that is binding us together. This brings with it a sense of confidence that we will work our way through this difficult period. While not understating the enormity of the task, we have the skills, the capability and the expertise in our schools to make a significant and positive impact.

Scott Davidson is the NSW public school Director, Educational Leadership, for the Fairfield Principals Network.

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