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Teachers asked to turn on a dime



Teachers are used to rolling with the punches; in any school day a hundred plans can change in a hundred different ways. But these are — to use the phrase of the year — unprecedented times.

Empty classroom (Getty images/ Pornpak Khunatorn)

The weeks before the school holidays were characterised by atypical levels of anxiety among teachers. In addition to the general society-wide COVID-induced stress, schools were deemed 'safe' and 'essential'. This was despite the extreme difficulty of maintaining the recommended social distancing and hygiene practices in these settings. Some schools were even running out of soap, while others had no appropriate hand-sanitiser.  

While we were given assurances by public figures that it was safe to send children to school, there was very little talk about the wellbeing of teachers in these environments. Additionally, the messages we were getting from the government were unclear: we were dealing with Schrodinger's children, who were simultaneously safe from virus, but also were a risk to their grandparents and the community if sent home. If they’re a risk to their grandparents, how were they not also a risk to their teachers?

I say this not to necessarily argue for school closures — no doubt there are some strong arguments for keeping schools open when at all possible — but to explain why anxiety was so high for many teachers. The high baseline levels of stress, the government's failure to provide clear messaging and schools' inability to enact best-practice hygiene policy left many school staff feeling like sacrificial lambs. Even with students at home, some teachers are being asked to physically attend school, where they have to share crowded staff rooms, toilets, and kitchen facilities with dozens of other people, from whom they struggle to socially distance.

Now teachers have, with little guidance and limited professional development, been asked to fundamentally redesign our schools. Good thing we were given a whole extra week of pupil-free days to achieve this goal.

I don't want to sound too ungrateful, because there isn't a playbook for this scenario, but if all it took to build a passable digital schooling ecosystem was a week of hard work, we'd have done it long ago. We haven't been asked to turn on a dime, we've been asked to pirouette.


'We often think of teachers as people who have all the answers. And, indeed, teachers are highly trained professionals with a specific skill set. They aren’t, however, perfect.'


Teachers are resourceful, but moving to an exclusively digital medium is well beyond the experience of many. This is, of course, no individual's fault; nobody has asked them to do this before (nor at such short notice). While some fundamentals remain the same, digital pedagogy requires very different thinking to standard teaching. The rapid uptake of new forms of practice is understandably going to be a real challenge and stressor for some.

Additionally, there are matters of equity to be considered. The digital divide is real. While the Victorian government is getting devices and internet access to students at government schools — South AustraliaQueensland and NSW are still looking into it — there will be teachers who can’t guarantee students will have a device suitable for online learning, let alone a stable internet connection through which they can download learning materials. Normally, teachers have a certain degree of control over the learning environment, even if they cannot control what goes on at home. When home becomes the learning environment, the factors for consideration multiply exponentially. Many students with additional needs, such as those with disabilities, will also be forced into learning situations where they do not have their usual support structures.  

Though schools are working around the issue of accessibility, for many it is an afterthought in the rush to reinvent the wheel. And who can blame them for having imperfect systems in place? The wheel is falling off the car and we are being asked to keep driving. The 'solution' for accessibility is, however, often to mail students paper copies of worksheets and activities. There is little doubt that these low-tech solutions will create a second-class of learner in those unable to access the higher-quality digital resources. This group of students — who are often already disadvantaged for socioeconomic, cultural, or other reasons — may experience a further widening in the educational gap between themselves and their peers.

But, also, we must be careful not to blame individual teachers for these outcomes. Rather, school systems need to put structures in place that ensure equity for those who are vulnerable and at risk of missing out.

We often think of teachers as people who have all the answers. And, indeed, teachers are highly trained professionals with a specific skill set. They aren’t, however, perfect.

Undoubtedly, there will be growing pains. But what we need to do is provide teachers with the resources and room to grow. Since this is untrodden ground, there might be a bit of initial throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. Though there is some self-interest in this request, I am hoping that parents, students, and schooling systems can be gentle and patient with teachers who have been thrust into a new frontier and acknowledge that we're all in this boat together.

Despite my concerns, the shift to online learning also presents a unique opportunity. While certain digital technologies can be a barrier for some, they can also improve accessibility for others. In fact some research indicates that, when done properly, online education (particularly a hybrid of in-person and online) can be even more effective than face-to-face learning alone. As someone who has worked with university bridging courses, many of which were offered partially or entirely online, I have seen the power of online learning to change lives. If teachers are given appropriate training, and schools are given the resources to differentiate learning for those who need it, this could be a valuable chance to upskill many teachers in a way that will improve our education system for years to come.



Tim HuttonTim Hutton is a teacher, masters student and freelance writer based in Brisbane. He writes on politics, education, media, societal issues, and the intersection of all of the above.

Topic tags: Tim Hutton, education, COVID-19, digital divide



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Existing comments

Another excellent article from this author. The intersection of the current COVID 19 issues with the age profile of the teaching service (approximately 11% over 60 years of age in Queensland State Schools) has resulted in a some teachers both struggling to embrace new technologies amidst social constraints, as well as face their COVID 19 vulnerability due to age. Given existing concerns (e.g. Jensen, Hunter, Sonnemann & Cooper, 2014) about one year of student age not generating one year of learning, we must ensure that whatever teaching takes place this year, by whatever method, that it is "quality" teaching. Jensen, B., Hunter, J., Sonnemann, J. and Cooper, S. (2014), Making time for great teaching, Grattan Institute. Retrieved from https://grattan.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/808-making-time-for-great-teaching.pdf

Jennifer Elvery | 14 April 2020  

My long-dead dad, a senior teacher in the Vic education system, enjoyed his final appointment as Deputy Principal of the 'Correspondence School'. It catered for students who were not able to attend school in person and included those in geographically isolated places, those with disability, and those in juvenile justice, to name a few. This organisation still exists as 'Virtual School Vic.' and would have much experience to offer teachers who feel inadequate in response to what is being now asked of them. Not everything needs to start from scratch!!

Margaret | 14 April 2020  

excellent article. Thanks

James McCaughey | 14 April 2020  

What will we learn through this enforced distancing, this brave new world? Very recently, I had an interesting conversation with my oldest daughter who is a kindergarten teacher. As can be imagined, some (a very few) children in kindergarten have the self-confidence and concentration skills to navigate new material online, without too much assistance from parents. Most need varying amounts of parental assistance when interacting online with teachers. These youngsters have just started their school careers and now this.... It is a particular challenge for their caring, devoted teachers who will say after all this "Now what did I learn?"

Pam | 14 April 2020  

Tim has covered classroom teachers' concerns about moving school online. But the elephant in the room is what's being done with relief teachers who are feeling increasingly overlooked & unsupported? What a waste of human resources!

Theresa | 14 April 2020  

Tim, I have immense empathy with you in this excellent article, which traverses both ethical dilemma and professional issues. I am not a school teacher, but a retired university lecturer, with experience in bot face -to-face teaching in both large and small groups, as well as producing online learning resources, including whole subjects online. Unfortunately it seems there are many out there, not only politicians, who think that all you have to do is write out what you were going to say in class, put it up in electronic form and the student does all the rest, hey presto! Instead, as you rightly say, it is not just a matter of being familiar with the technology, but a matter of developing a different pedagogical approach altogether, and for many, that takes time to develop.

Dennis | 14 April 2020  

As has been mentioned there are Distance Learning centres for Children who cannot attend a physical school building. Surely they could be utilised to ensure quality education is delivered on line, by people who know how to design and implement learning. In NSW there is a very large Centre in Queanbeyan. School of the Air is in Alice Springs. Surely it would be better to utilise the professionals rather than all teachers trying to invent the wheel.

Gabrielle | 14 April 2020  

I sent your excellent article to a teacher friend and got this reply. "This article absolutely nails the situation. For example, we ran out of hand soap in some classes and had to pool all our supplies (which had been provided by parents) to re-distribute and get us to the end of term. Physical distancing was impossible even with a 10th of our regular students so If they all return we will see corona rates go up. "I am one of those teachers who doesn't fall into any high risk category and have also been carrying the load for teachers who have kids and have stayed at home with them so worked only 2 days from home in the end."

Bruce Laidlaw | 15 April 2020  

Thank you Tim for this brilliant article. My whole teaching staff have felt forgotten by our state and government. You have hit the nail on the head. I wish the SMH would print this on their front page. It would be nice to educate the parents who have been very critical online about the choices we have had to make in this crisis. One parent said they didn’t sign up to be a teacher. Well we didn’t sign up to be online educators. We are doing the best we can.

Stefanie Dobb | 15 April 2020  

This article is all the more pertinent in light of the Prime Minister's public comments this morning (Wed) which carry the implication that teachers may be wishing to subvert solutions to the very vexed question of providing for kids learning at this time. Surely he doesn't wish to imply that it's teachers who don't care about the kids learning? It may be a cross-eyed compliment to the teaching profession that non-educators think it's all so simple, online or in classroom. In this important discussion of schools the welfare of these very important workers, teachers and school staff, has not been part of the conversation. Teachers above all know that kids need the social context of schools for their learning. Even IF!! there can be confidence that young people's health is not at risk in schools, there is clearly a belief they can transmit Covid 19 to their grandparents, the kids in their dance class and the opposition football team, perish the thought, possibly even their teachers! There has been little, if any, discussion of how schools could provide the safe working environment for teachers that is now matter of course in other workplaces. There seems to be little imagination, or even thought, into what can physically be done to make schools safer. If it is accepted that reopening schools is vital, why has creative thought and financial provision for a hygeinic and safe environment not been a priority? Just a few ideas, small and larger...Hire more staff from the relief /unemployed/student teacher pool to enable smaller groups? Operate schools in shifts to allow smaller groups as many schools don't have available alternate spaces in their configuration? Have kids come to school staggered/alternate days? There are many laid off workers who could be brought in to assist e.g.lots of airline staff would have working with children clearances that would provide them with site authorisation, so they could take on supernumary roles, e.g. allowing more supervision of outside activities, even helpng with technological connections? What increased staffing has there been to provide frequent cleaning of all our schools' many contagion inviting surfaces ( door handles, desks, chairs, school bags, screens, switches) ? Who is superving handwashing and the tolet blocks? Is anyone taking the temperature of teachers and students daily as is done in most public facing work environments? What PPE has been supplied to schools? There were even schools without soap befor the closure. Is it important enough ???

Judy Hearne | 15 April 2020  

Hmmm.... similar to the teachers whom (quote): "they aren't, however, perfect" perhaps this is the opportunity to try to do something rather than an obstructionary nothing; many kids have been packed off to school with laptops and devices for years but we seem no closer to facilitate on-line educational platform broadcasts than 1970's Julius Sumner-Miller. The spectrum of options to proceed start and progress from can't, won't, should, might, could, can, will and then are. I'd like to hear from some one a bit more "can do" like Eddie Woo... parents should invest a few minutes to talk to their children's teachers and determine what end of the spectrum their child is entrusted. Wouldn't it be great to have another Australian of the Year emerge in these times?

ray | 15 April 2020  

'We didn’t sign up to be online educators'. Who says? Online learning has been a feature of most universities and, prior to that, training institutions for well-nigh a quarter of a century. It privileges new knowledge and has changed the role of a teacher from being the focus of a learner's attention to a that of a knowledge facilitator. Indeed, the most valuable knowledge acquisition point is the school's resource centre, in respect of which Teacher Librarians should still be required to operate online to facilitate the learning of their students. If anything, teacher administrators should ease the burden on parents by making the Resource Centre the hub of the school. I suspect that many of our best students may well prefer to learn at home and feel somewhat disadvantaged at having to return to the routinized time-tabling of schooling after the virus has run its course. In that event I hope that educational leaders will learn from these extraordinary times and operationalise better modes of pedagogy than the schooling practices that so many educators, from Freire onwards, have critiqued as adding little value to the sum total of developing human potential other than as a means of social control.

Dr Michael FURTADO | 15 April 2020  

Your article is completely on point and captures the thoughts and feelings of many of the community of teachers with whom I work. Thank you so much for articulating all of this so eloquently. Myself and many of my colleagues appreciate your article enormously! Thank you.

Belinda Winkler | 16 April 2020  

I know that a lot has been asked of teachers with COVID-19. I ca feel for them. It has done similar across society in many different ways. We will have lots of stories and wisdom to share when in calmer times. Stay safe.

John | 17 April 2020  

Well written, Tim. I hope, after this experience, parents and the community value teachers far more highly than they have in the past.

Bernadette | 17 April 2020  

Deep agreement on all points. I would add that teachers delivering VCE in TAFE settings received no scheduled student-free days of any kind in order to make this difficult transition.

Kay Perry | 17 April 2020  

The engineered solution which allows classes to re-open with safety while the pandemic is in full swing and a vaccine hasn't yet been invented will be the same which allows churches to re-open with safety in the same circumstance. If the problem seems without a solution, it may be because it’s not the virus you have to get around but the Jobean prince of this world.

roy chen yee | 19 April 2020