Sara Anderson sits on the couch sipping a coffee, while in the background, her kids pop in and out of the video frame, waving and trying to gain my attention. Anderson, a teacher at Jean Augustine Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., regularly juggles trying to educate her own kids online while simultaneously teaching her students virtually.
“They all know my kids’ names,” Anderson says about her class. Like many people across the country, her home life has become entangled with her work life. But the work-life balance isn’t the only challenge teachers are facing this year as they learn to adapt to the difficulties of educating the next generation during a global pandemic.
The specifics are different for each province and territory, but one factor remains true: the 2020-2021 school year is far from the norm. Small classes have led to a shortage of teachers in some regions and wearing masks can be a hindrance to communication. In addition, for some teachers and students, they are constantly alternating between in-person and remote learning.
To date, no large-scale study has been completed on how these changes are affecting students’ learning. Currently, Prince Edward Island is the only province that has adjusted its curriculum expectations for the school year. Nationally, teachers are taking the initiative to determine what is the most important thing students will get out of this school year. Accommodation is very important.
“One of the tenets of my classroom is that we dictate how our day goes. My lesson plan doesn't dictate how our day is going to go,” says Tyrone Power, an elementary teacher at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic School in St. John’s, N.L. “One of my kids could come in with something that’s phenomenal, so we’ll spend an hour working on what they brought into the class. It's a very dynamic learning environment.”
Building relationships for the betterment of mental health
Dealing with the constant unknown has been a challenge for both teachers and students. Not knowing whether you are learning in-person or online can be stressful enough without the added anxiety of staying safe during a global health crisis.
“I let [the students] know that it is okay to be scared or nervous to be back to being in a crowd,” says Paula Copland, a Grade 3 teacher at Levi Angmak Elementary School in Arviat, Nunavut. Arviat was one of the communities in the North hit hardest by COVID-19. Due to territorial restrictions, the school had to close for four months, between November and March.
“I keep in contact with parents who have kids that are not coming to school, and prepare educational packages for them to work on while they are at home. That gives me a sense of connectedness and it is a way of letting my students know that I miss them,” says Copland.
For teachers who have had to switch to an online environment, connections with the students are difficult to maintain. In a usual classroom setting, teachers can greet their students at the door when they show up for class each day. This allows them to get a sense of how each student is feeling that day. In an online classroom, that element of human interaction is lost.
This isn’t the only barrier caused by a transition to an online classroom.
“You’re not supposed to force them to turn their cameras on, but it is hard to gauge confusion or any kind of facial expression if you don’t have a camera on,” says Dimitra Tsanos, a geography teacher at Humberside Collegiate in Toronto, Ont. “It’s harder to communicate.”
Power strives to strengthen relationships for his students through community engagement. In previous years, he took his students to a nearby retirement home to interact with the residents. That was not possible during the pandemic, but he was able to set up a Google Meet for the seniors to talk with his students.
“They discussed what school was like for them,” says Power. “So the kids get to interact with them because some of them don’t have grandparents who live nearby. Our ‘senior mentors’ is what I call it.”
Keeping students motivated
A community-based approach to learning not only allows students to stay connected but also keeps them motivated. Motivation is something many teachers have noted as a struggle this year. The threat of the pandemic is a constant source of stress for students, while learning on the computer supplies many distractions.
Joanna Thompson-Anselm, a Grade 9 teacher at Milliken Mills High School in Markham, Ont., tries to keep her students motivated by breaking up her class periods.
“I create a little mini-lesson that doesn’t have anything to do with what I'm currently doing in the classroom, but [is] just something where we’re like, ‘Okay, let’s go outside and see if we can find evidence of humans and nature not getting along,’” she explains. “I've really tried very hard to make things interactive because I just feel so bad for them.”
Some students fare better when they are responsible for their own learning. Many teachers note that when given the opportunity to drive classroom conversations, students are more engaged and motivated to show up to class.
“As long as they’re getting the work done, I allow them to really manage their own time. I’m not walking through the classroom like I used to. I maintain the distance,” says Ewan Geddes, a Grade 9 teacher at York Mills Collegiate in Toronto, Ont. “Trusting the students that they will get their work done is a hard thing, but in the end I see that they are handing in the work and they’re doing quite well.”
Connecting with students and keeping them engaged in an online learning environment means taking full advantage of the technology at one’s disposal.
“I've enjoyed the challenge of learning about new platforms to teach geography and developing my tech skills,” says Thompson-Anselm. “It really has forced me to be better with my tech skills.”
Tsanos relies on technology in her classroom as a work-around when students have to complete a group project while keeping a physical distance. Her students work on Google Slideshows and then present them with a wireless mouse from their desks. Tsanos has found that this approach encourages students to practice collaboration, while respecting health guidelines.
However, technology can also have its downsides. Thompson-Anselm created an activity for her students using Google Maps, but because everyone had different laptops, internet speeds and broadbands, some students were not able to access it in real time—if at all.
“It has made me think a lot about equity in terms of people’s level of ability or even just with technology — what technology they have to access the different things that we’ve been doing,” says Thompson-Anselm.
For Copland, who teaches in the remote hamlet of Arviat, there was even less access to technology. Some of her students’ families don’t have phones or internet at home, and she struggled with staying in contact with them to check on their progress with educational packages that were delivered to them during lockdown.
Learning beyond the four walls of the school
Although technology continues to pose issues for accessibility, one resource that most teachers have at their disposal is nature. This year, more than others, teachers have been taking their students outside to learn from the world around them.
“You’ll look at cloud formation for example,” says Power. “[It’s] great to look at one on a smart board or in a book, but there’s nothing like getting outside and having the kids look at cloud formation and the different types.”
Andrew Kitchen, a Grade 7/8 teacher at Fairhaven Elementary School in Saskatoon, Sask., developed an outdoor education curriculum four years ago. This year, his program has come to the forefront.
“Just last week, we managed to get outside and we went through the process of building fires from flint rather than using matches,” he says. “We’ve been taking to the land, learning about Indigenous ways of hunting. Some of the kids got to build what is called an addle addle the other day, which is an older weapon used for hunting.”
Lessons for the future
Although the year has brought many challenges, teachers explain that their primary role right now is to help students through their day. During the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations can be more important than test results.
“The most important thing for me is that they get through this unscathed,” she says. “If you were a really good student up until all of this started, you're going to be a good student again at the other end. I don't want my students getting discouraged.”
Many teachers have learned lessons this year that they think will be beneficial for the future of education. Instead of solely focussing on lecturing or giving assignments, many teachers say they have been learning from their students.
“Education is something that is always changing and sometimes things are out of our control,” said Copland. “When our school first closed, I felt that students were falling behind, but an older lady told me that learning takes place everywhere; even if they are not in school, they learn at home.”
Geddes expresses that the most important thing is that the teachers are enjoying what they are doing. If teachers show excitement about the subjects they teach, students are more likely to feed off of that energy.
“One of the best comments I had from one of my Grade 9 students was that he didn’t know geography could be so much fun,” he says.