In my first year as a principal, I never thought I’d be managing a school with hundreds of students from my kitchen table in my sweatpants. Yet, that’s where I (and practically all of my colleagues around the country) find myself because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though millions of students are waking up to school in their living rooms, remote learning is roughly the equivalent of a World War II air raid shelter; it may help save us, but it is anything but comfortable. Indeed, teaching and learning from home are much more challenging than they sound.
One teacher of history emailed: “I am managing with this, but remote learning is as soul-less as a blind date with a slot machine.” Another teacher likened the inordinate time spent on screen to “indentured digital servitude.” School communities everywhere are learning that long hours spent on screen without the warmth of human interaction is especially fatiguing.
Though this environment is largely foreign to most teachers, much initiative and awareness about the craft has emerged. If nothing else, the national emergency has forced educators everywhere to completely rethink the enterprise of education. How do we conduct learning without a school? How on earth do we teach science without a lab, physical education without a gym and math without a whiteboard? Whoever heard of a staff meeting with no staffroom? With this conundrum at the forefront, a new age of fervent educator collaboration has been born that no convention centre in the world could hope to host.
Using various connective programs, teachers and administrators everywhere are meeting on a daily basis. We discuss what is working, what does not work; we trade insights and creative new ideas. Millions of resources and technologies are routinely shared between teachers in different countries, not just in different departments. Many teachers have embraced this opportunity to be wholly creative and reach students in unique ways. Sure, online learning is nothing new, but this is a forced national movement, not the hitherto seen minority of students trying to upgrade credits. Never has this amount of collaboration among educators been so universal and fluid. On my last video conference, a principal from Vancouver Island exchanged timetable strategies with a dean of studies from Nova Scotia, and a department head in Quebec decided to team teach with a French teacher in Ontario.
Our sharing has revealed some surprisingly unique understandings. The most important of these is that, for the first time in history, the singular direction and first priority of schools is student wellness. In this environment, time takes a backseat to process and teachers must rapidly change direction to meet student needs. Flexibility is the absolute rule, not just a welcomed personal quality in a gracious instructor. The main goal throughout all of this is learning, not assessment. It may sound strange, but often, in a conventional school, a disproportionate amount of time can go into lengthy evaluations which have the effect of restricting rather than enhancing learning opportunities.
Winston Churchill quipped, “Out of intense complexities intense simplicities emerge.” This truth comes alive online as a continent discovers that teaching and learning can actually be liberated with a little simplicity.
Some realities, however, are starkly the same in the virtual school as they are in the real. Even through the screen of a laptop, for instance, the vital factor in all learning remains the relational connection between a teacher and student. One student wrote to me, “Seeing my teachers’ faces and hearing their corny jokes is what keeps me going.” Another wrote, “after two weeks of depressing news, I logged in, saw Ms. N’s smile, and all was right in my world.” More than ever, the familiar, reassuring look of a teacher is needed to inspire a spark of initiative. If remote learning gives children anything, it is the opportunity to have some routine, a connection to a vibrant world they know and to which they will one day return. In that awareness is hope, and in that hope is a spark to keep them learning. Online learning, it seems, is not as remote as we thought.
School in the midst of isolation has not just taught us about learning—it has also taught us about the learners themselves. Many of the teachers are reporting that they are seeing greater initiative and participation from students who usually hide in the background. “We’re getting buy-in from kids that I wouldn’t have expected this from; all of a sudden they are excelling.” One surprised English teacher explained in a video conference. Somehow, removing complicated and intimidating social dynamics has helped quieter students focus more on learning and less on peer pressure. The ability to set aside the anxiety over one’s physical appearance in order to focus on a lesson has played a role as well. In a world where all that matters is your voice, your ideas and your effort, looks and clothes no longer count for the same influence. Competition between students is less apparent and this too has liberated some learners.
Even though we are aided by more technology and interconnectivity than ever before, the virtue of quiet, disciplined study and strident effort is still paramount. In a landscape where a lab now refers to the pooch sleeping at the foot of a plugged-in student curled up in a recliner, nothing yet replaces good hard work.
An old curse thinly veiled as a blessing states, “May you live in interesting times.” The virtual world of learning has been as interesting an epoch as the world of education has yet seen. Let’s hope it gets a lot less interesting and a lot more usual as soon as possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob Costanzo is the Head of School at Villanova College in King City, ON. His writing and ideas on education have appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, textbooks and on the CBC. His school launched VVC, Virtual Villanova College in time for school closures due to COVID-19.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2020 issue.