(Image: AAP/Michael Dodge)

Tim Hutton is a high school English teacher based in Brisbane, he tells Crikey how the nature of teaching has changed since COVID-19 hit.

I find myself sailing through uncharted and turbulent waters. The nature of education has changed over the past few weeks. The rapid deployment of alternative learning provisions has left many teachers, parents and students feeling off-kilter. Technological teething pains have resulted in angst and frustration for everyone involved.

That said, the change to online learning is not, as some would paint it, an unmitigated disaster. In fact, it may provide a valuable opportunity to revaluate how we approach schooling in the future.

What “alternative education” looks like varies from state to state, and even between schools within states. In some regions, schools are open as per usual. In others, teachers and students are primarily working from home.

Queensland, where I live and work, is a strange hybrid. The original plan was: students (sans those who cannot be adequately supervised) were to learn from home, while all staff (sans those deemed “high risk”) were to attend campus full-time and work from there. Given the prime minister’s statement that “teachers are more at risk in the staffroom than the classroom“, this latter decision understandably raised some eyebrows.

This plan changed abruptly last Monday, when Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced that select grades would be returning to school today, Monday May 11. This is two weeks earlier than previously stated, and in contrast to the Premier’s commitment to make no decisions before May 15.

The announcement left teachers and principals scrambling. We’d only been given one week to (yet again) overhaul our plans.

Contrary to what many seem to think, teachers receive no prior warning of these announcements. In fact, we sometimes do not receive official communication regarding plans until hours or even days after the government has made its announcement. We are being talked over and talked about, but rarely talked to. As a result, many teachers I know are feeling undervalued and demoralised.

The return to classrooms is a double-edged sword. While it is the preferred medium of teaching for most, there are still high levels of anxiety regarding safety. Though Australia’s medical advice is that schools are safe, this is not agreed upon across the globe. At the moment we have to just hope and pray the government is making the right choice, and that our students, colleagues, and communities will not come to regret the decision.

Regardless of the politics, teachers have been working admirably in trying conditions. Some, in fact, are finding that the change in learning is actually proving a chance to update and redesign their pedagogy.

Some schools are embracing the opportunity for innovation and learning; they are experimenting with new technologies and new ways of being. Others seem to have a remarkably rigid mindset. In these schools, teachers have been forced into a one-size-fits-all model, where they teach lessons essentially as normal, but via video conferencing software. This is a real shame, given we have good evidence that the old ways shouldn’t just be transposed to a new medium.

In my own experience as a high school English teacher, the relaxation of stringent requirements around assessment has allowed flexibility to hone in on what my students need to improve their literacy skills. In the same way that many people are finding the COVID situation has forced them to reconsider what is important broadly in life, schools have been given the chance to pare back superfluous content. Rather than asking what students need to pass assignments, we can instead ask what students really need to thrive.

This might sound like students are missing out on teaching, but the opposite could be true. If done properly, this can actually enhance student learning (as demonstrated in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake). Lightened administrative loads and increased preparation time are giving teachers the space to breathe, reflect, and focus on developing high-quality learning experiences.

Though this time provides some with positive opportunities, it’s important to note that the current situation impacts everyone differently. Teachers of practical courses are, understandably, struggling with demonstrating and assessing skills via distance learning. Students with disabilities, many of whom require the assistance of specialist staff, do not always have access to these staff, and those who have unsafe or stressful home lives will inevitably be struggling too.

Of course, nobody is arguing that a global pandemic is a good thing. But these strange times give schools, teachers, and systems a chance to take stock do some learning of their own for once. It would be remiss of us to rush back to business as usual when we may have learned some better ways of working.