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11 January 2021

The Monday Briefing: The Word

The Monday Briefing: The Word

On Friday, I had a long conversation with TJ Juttla as part of his 'The Teacher’s Point of View' podcast series. We discussed a number of topics around education and some burning questions in connection to the sector. I’m looking forward to listening to it when it airs in a few weeks’ time. He posted something on LinkedIn soon afterwards which made me think about things moving forward - defining his ‘word he wants to live by this year’ as ‘collaboration’. Quite an apt choice, I feel, given the circumstances.

The enforced distance, now introduced into British society again, brings several challenges, and particularly in a school setting. It is now impossible to enjoy the many small interactions which I would normally have with students within the College. Remote learning is effective in terms of teaching content and covering the course, but there are many things lost to a lack of face to face interaction. One can’t quite capture the ‘light bulb’ moment when an individual makes a break-through in their learning over Google Meet, and nor can one see the body language of a student in the corridor or hold a leisurely general conversation about just how they are doing as easily. One can, of course, make oneself available to chat, but students tend not to make appointments for this purpose - it’s just not how they operate. 

Collaboration with students, therefore, becomes more difficult, and one has to work harder to maintain the upkeep of student wellbeing. There is more to teaching than simply delivering the course content to students, and the professional instinct we all have for identifying and then assisting students with issues outside the classroom can be harder to come by. It can be easy to forget, however, just how adaptable and resilient students can be. I taught 11 lessons over Google Meet last week, and I found the response from all of our students, from year 10 up to year 13, to be quite impressive. I gave out several merits for the extremely high levels of engagement and the quality of answers given. Students were compliant, and dedicated. It helps, of course, when they have clear instructions to adhere to - and so, ensuring that agreements around expectations during the remote learning period are made clear to all, avoids confusion.

With staff too, collaboration becomes trickier - particularly in ensuring a united approach. Again, one can hold regular meetings over Google Meet to catch up, discuss progress so far and address new initiatives, but it is difficult for fundamental change to commence, especially when compared to having all staff in College at all times. I am conscious of the wonderful momentum which had developed in the College over the Winter Term - an unmistakable thrust which had been adopted by staff to make positive changes based around our priorities for the year. It would be easy just to let that go, to bunker down and concentrate on survival. That’s not how we operate here though. Several members of staff identified a need for an appraisal target connected to improving their capacity for the administration of online learning. There is no better opportunity for this now - and I’ll be meeting with them regularly to discuss their implementation of improvements in delivery. They have a great deal of support in this - both through sharing expertise amongst colleagues at the College, and, in a wider sense, through the Bellevue group. Staff are certainly not on their own during this period of isolation.

It has been great to have as many staff as we have in College during this lock down. We’ve continued with Lateral Flow Testing for all staff and are yet to have a positive result. The College is a safe and secure environment to work in, and it also provides some semblance of normality for students who see staff here. Some staff value the ability to teach from their rooms, utilising their resources, whilst also maintaining a clear work-life division, and I’m happy to support this wherever possible. We also have some staff who have certain needs too which require them to work from home - and where this is clearly justified, I am also fully supportive of this. I know that all of our staff share a passion and dedication to ensure that students perform to the best of their abilities. This means that I can trust them to deliver. But the dialogue around continual improvement should continue, and this requires collaboration. I have ensured a weekly meeting to discuss all aspects of College life is in place, and I know staff will engage with this seriously. They can, and do, of course, continue to email me with enquiries alongside this - and I’ll always encourage a message to discuss any matter, no matter how small.

The last aspect of collaboration within any school which has become more challenging is that of parental engagement. Perhaps more than most, the College places a great deal of faith in the relationships built with parents. We make it clear, from a very early stage, that when their son or daughter enrols here, parents enter a partnership with us to monitor, encourage and challenge a student to be the very best version of themselves they can be. In the Winter Term, we had several meetings with parents to intervene when issues arose, and found that students responded to these appropriately. Our parents evening, held over two evenings in two separate weeks in October 2020, was conducted over Google Meet, and gave a chance for every member of staff to make contact with parents. Where necessary, follow up calls were made, and by the end of the month, there had been a 100% success rate in making contact with parents to discuss progress. It looks as though our February evening may need to follow the same arrangement, and we will likely adapt the programme for the evening, spreading it out to make more time for parents to discuss issues and to ensure they have a full understanding of where their son or daughter are in terms of their learning.

In many respects, while students are home, their parents become our eyes and ears. They will see their son or daughter’s demeanour on a daily basis at first hand, and the relationship between parent and child will inevitably grow closer, for better or worse. I was very fortunate to see my daughter take her first steps during the first lockdown, to expand her vocabulary to real words and to fully enjoy some treasured moments with her. I know, however, that the difference between looking after a two-year-old and a teenager can be vastly different and I’m sure many parents are finding difficulties in motivating their children whilst attending to work themselves. To this end, I’m conscious that parents may well be needing support too, and I’m happy to do all that I can to facilitate this. I’ll be making myself available in 4 year-group specific half-hour slots in evenings across each week during the lockdown period to be on hand to answer parental enquiries over Google Meet so that we can have a full discussion where needs be. It won’t quite be akin to Franklin D Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’, but it provides an opportunity to seek advice or clarification over any issue. I hope that it serves as a form of reassurance during what is an extremely uncertain time for parents. I know that this is exactly the sort of collaboration which I would really appreciate for my daughter; I also know that we must work as hard as we can to reinforce the well established partnerships we have made during this time.

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