Online but not out

While teachers and support staff are expertly accomplishing the rapid transition to online learning, they are also surmounting considerable challenges, writes Monica Crouch.

The coronavirus pandemic has imposed upon teachers an unprecedented upheaval: an almost overnight shift to online learning. At the same time, it has revealed just how adaptable and innovative teachers are in managing this transition.

“Despite teething problems, the profession’s capacity to respond to the challenges has been remarkable,” said IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Assistant Secretary Liam Griffiths. “Teachers are managing the challenges as they arise, as they always do. They’re making new and better use of technology.”

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, the principal of SCEGGS Darlinghurst, Jenny Allum, emphasised what a “sterling job” teachers are doing in the face of the coronavirus. “Their care for their students has been exemplary, their creativity to develop innovative lessons has been amazing, and they all deserve our greatest congratulations and encouragement,” Allum said, before expressing reservations about the new environment.

What it involves

It’s no small thing for teachers to take their established lesson plans and transform them into structured online learning courses. It requires preparation time, IT support, access to resources, and a sound working knowledge of online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. Some schools were already part way down this path, others have started from scratch.

One factor is crucial. “It’s the human connection that will make the technology effective,” said IEU organiser Pat Devery. But maintaining this connection through a screen is not easy.

Support staff are helping teachers get set up for online class delivery, undertaking research into online resources, providing technical backup, developing and preparing class material, dealing with correspondence, liaising with high-needs students and taking small online groups for targeted work.

“Teachers have embraced this online transition and it’s the perfect opportunity for the profession to be at the forefront of decision making,” Devery said. “Parents and schools need to show faith in teachers.”

Exposing the issues

But if any of this sounds like the brave new education utopia some commentators are touting, it’s not. One teacher described it as “changing horses in a fast moving stream”.

“Distance learning is really hard,” the principal of St Patrick's Marist Dundas, Angela Hay, said. “If you try to substitute what you do inside the classroom over into a distance learning model, it's just not sustainable. It's way too hard. You can’t give feedback to every student in every lesson.”

Members are reporting substantial work intensification and lack of time to develop resources. While there is clearly plenty of work for all, casuals have been suspended or had their hours reduced and support staff have been stood down.

Yet reporting requirements in the new online environment have ramped up. Teachers at Georges River Grammar School in Georges Hall have been asked to email a report on each student to parents every week, while teachers at Malek Fahd Islamic School in Greenacre are expected to make a weekly phone call to each student’s parents.

Online teaching brings class sizes into sharp relief: managing 30 or so students on Zoom is particularly challenging. Keeping in close contact with at-risk students is also problematic, particularly when they lack a supportive home environment and technological resources. Initial studies reveal that physical disconnection from school is deleterious to these students.

Teaching prac-based subjects such as art, drama, chemistry, music, and technical and applied sciences is also tricky. While theory may become the temporary focus, teachers are devising creative workarounds, with one directing science students to measure the density of household objects. But this isn’t possible in all subjects.

The coronavirus has also complicated work, health and safety issues for school communities. While many schools have allowed staff who are at risk (those over 60, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women) to work from home, some, such as St Brendan’s Catholic Primary School in Bankstown, insisted all staff continue working onsite – until, that is, the IEU contacted Sydney Catholic Schools.

Video conferencing from home comes with its own issues for teachers, including privacy concerns, security of digital platforms and who pays for wifi, subscriptions and devices. Teachers also need new ways to support each other in the absence of staffroom camaraderie.

Standing up for support staff

While stand downs and reduced hours have been rife in the early childhood education sector, other sectors are guilty of this too: Newcastle Grammar School has reduced hours for specialist teachers and a teacher’s aide; Lindisfarne Anglican Grammar at Terranora has stood down general assistants, librarians and IT support staff.

All Saints Grammar at Belmore issued stand down notices to teacher aides, administrative staff and bus drivers without notice or consultation. After the union disputed this in the Fair Work Commission, the school withdrew the stand downs (see Union wins on stand downs).

Teachers need to collaborate with support staff to deliver quality education online. “Our support staff members who are education assistants, teacher aides and learning support officers have a fundamental role in bridging the gap between the classroom and online teaching,” Griffiths said.

Taking action

The IEU has partnered with members in primary and secondary schools, early learning centres and post-secondary colleges to advocate for employee rights in this unprecedented time. Despite the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus, all industrial instruments remain firmly in place.

The union rejects expectations of “double” teaching, and fully supports teachers in contending with just one mode of instruction – either online or face to face – not both. Staffing levels should be maintained to support this.

“The union has stepped up pressure on state and federal education ministers to support and protect teachers,” Griffiths said. “It has taken support staff stand downs to the Fair Work Commission. It has called for a rescue package for the early childhood sector. Organisers have prepared detailed documents setting out alternative duties for general staff and answering FAQs from teachers who are working remotely.” (These documents can all be found on the union’s website )

“More than ever, respecting the voice of the profession is essential to making this work,” Griffiths said. “Too often teachers are dictated to by parents, government, society and the media. Teachers know what they’re doing and need to have that respected.”

Hay agrees. “My teachers know best,” she said. “They know what works in a classroom. So we've given a lot of flexibility and time to them to work out what online learning is going to look like for them.” (see Testing positive )