Where can we find solutions to the problems teachers face in a pandemic?
As a history teacher, I am tired of people saying that the pandemic is ‘unprecedented’ (what did you guys learn about at Key Stage 3?!), but with regards to teaching, the way in which we work has changed drastically and in a short space of time. The profession has been working in such challenging circumstances and I ended this term with a feeling of exhaustion that was truly incomparable. I think this was partly physical, but to a greater extent it was an emotional and intellectual drain. Like all teachers, I am worried about contracting the virus, my family getting ill and the welfare of my students. But for me, it’s more about the difficultly that comes with trying to find solutions in this unprecedented (yes, I said it!) working environment.
As a Head of History, I like having solutions to problems and this makes sense as I have a team of teachers whose wellbeing, job satisfaction and progression can be impacted by my decisions. For this I have clear guidance and a wide range of sources from which I can draw. I can utilise my experience as I have been a middle leader for a few years now and have found my previous experiences very useful in, for example, the setting up of our curriculum. I can seek guidance from research evidence and theory learnt during my MA in Educational Leadership and Management, or I can turn to ‘how to guides’ by more experienced leaders. These books allow me to explore the actions taken by those who have been previously successful and apply their ideas to my own context.
As an EdD student, I know that asking questions (important questions, anyway) rarely lead to simple answers or straight-forward actions. To understand the answers to our questions, we first need to explore the relevant areas of academic literature, consider different perspectives, and lean into nuance. All of this is wonderful, essential and illuminating, but it is not quick and it is definitely not easy. So where does this leave us?
I have been left thinking about the usefulness of our usual sources of information in the context of COVID. Literature produced by teachers is both practical and immediate, but not written in the context of a global pandemic. Academic literature requires understanding and deep consideration, research is not a process that bodes well with the current pace of decision making. So where do we go? What do we do?
Option 1: International comparisons
Through the example set by BELMAS, I have read and learnt from wonderful examples of teachers from around the world working together for the greater good. International collaboration leads to a wider understanding of what is going on globally and provides us with the opportunity to learn from teachers who have previously taught through pandemics.
Time is against us. I envisage that over the next few months we will see an interesting compilation of resources from international teaching organisations providing an insight into the international landscape. I look forward to finding solutions from international colleagues, but the cynical voice in my head wonders how we can evaluate cultural differences and context within the decision-making process. I also wonder how many decisions will have already been made before we can use this information. This might lead to last minute policy changes and confusion. Also, much of this literature may be focused on strategic planning at school level, so what does this mean for me as a subject leader?
Option 2: Application of Experience
The pandemic is a test of our ability to think critically and so exploring the way in which we approach problems is undoubtedly worth considering. Our decisions over the past few months have been supported by categorising the issues ahead of us. If an author has experience of positively dealing the issues we are facing in this pandemic, then this seems like a logical approach to finding a solution; compartmentalising the issues we face into familiar issues to identify solutions (Willingham 2020). For example, we can learn from current teachers and school leaders who are applying their understanding of teaching and learning principles to provide ways to ensure that virtual lessons are taught effectively. If we have a clear framework of what the school expects lessons to have, this can be adapted to the new virtual context.
Willingham (2020) also tells us that the ability to think critically is fundamentally based on an individual’s knowledge. Whilst prominent thinkers in the education profession may have the ability to apply their previous experience to their current action, none of their decisions are based on experience of teaching in a pandemic. Having said this unless somebody has a crystal ball, I cannot think of a better solution! When reading articles such as this, I value the thought processes the author has undertaken as much as their recommendations as I can replicate this for our department.
The next question we should be asking is ‘who do we listen to?’ Angela Thody discusses the issue of the educational guru: the celebrity teacher or school leader whose reputation carries a great deal of weight with the teaching profession (Thody 1997). If you are on Twitter, then I am sure that you already have names popping into your head. With the application from experience approach comes the possibility some voices will be louder than others. When reading guidance from other professionals that sense of criticality in our reading of their views is more important than ever, as their experiences might well be relevant for their schools, but are they useful within your context?
Option 3: Action Research
In reality, this option is essentially a more formalised version of the second option. I have written about this process in much more detail for the BELMAS Blog , but in essence, Action research has many definitions as it is used as a process through which to implement change in a large variety of settings. For teachers, we could say that this is a reflective process through which we can explore their practice as a community (Harley 2020). By reflecting purposefully on the aspects of our teaching that we pride, the issues we face more broadly, as well as within the pandemic and what aspects of our teaching we would like to change. We can use the construction of the solutions we make for our current problems into something that will outlive the current climate. Townsend’s (2013) definition of action research is of great importance to us now as he claims that action research helps us deal with practical issues and also brings us closer to our colleagues as we work together to overcome our collective obstacles.
Action Research is by nature something that can challenge authority. Within the current climate, this might not be something that goes down well with senior leadership and may create problems if policy has already been decided and implemented. I for one would not want to be seen to undermine the work of my headteacher who is striving to do their best in such a difficult situation. I would argue that AR can be used by our department to overcome subject/key stage or TLR specific issues. Whilst I would argue that AR leads to better decision making, it does not necessarily lend itself to the immediacy of the situation we are in.
Overall, I wish I had a clearer answer for you! Hindsight is always such a useful tool and at some point we will be able to critically evaluate the decisions we make during the COVID-19 pandemic, but for now, perhaps a mixture of the above sources of information will help us to determine what should be done.
Harley, C. 2020. "Action Research Returns to Schools." In http://www.belmas.org.uk/BELMAS-Blog/action-research-returns-to-schools, edited by S Culshaw. BELMAS.
Thody, A. . 1997. 'Lies, damned lives and storyingtelling; An exploration of the contributions of principals' anecdotal research, Teaching and learning about the management of schools and colleges', Educational Management & Administration, 25: 325-38.
Townsend, A. . 2013. Action Research; The Challenges of Understanding and Changing Practice (Open University Press: Maidenhead).
Willingham, D.T. 2020. 'How to teach critical thinking', Impact; Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching Speical Issue 30-33.