I am the principal of a privileged public primary schools – based in a southern suburbs ‘village’, with middle class families from the suburb supporting us. Our school was built in 1948, so is part of the old colonial past. Over the years we tried exceptionally hard to break the colonial boundaries but the teaching and learning one we thought was good enough. We had not thought to scrutinize all parts of how we learn and teach, even though our school is seen as a world leader in curriculum change.
Initially the COVID pandemic freaked us all out with little knowledge, departmental plans changing daily and lots of scare mongering in the media. After spending the school closure period fighting fires on many fronts, our school settled into a good rhythm, allowing us to picture a different future education system! Now I think the pandemic could just be the catalyst we all needed to make education the way it could be!
Research says that older children’s circadian rhythms make waking up early very difficult. Our school now starts at 09:00 and ends at 14:00, and we have noticed that children seem much more focused when they arrive at school. This focus also seems to come from a maturity they gained while school was closed for a month or two. Children arrive at school so ready to learn, they sit in their own desk space, with their mask on and suck up all the knowledge and skills we struggled to pass on before!
Each grade has three individual break times across the day and the children seem to have settled into the fact that they can’t play close up games, so they play tag with their shadows or sit and chat. The grades are partnered with each other so when grade one pupils are at school, grade two teachers manage the grade one break times. This has allowed the teachers to get to know far more children in the school and the children to feel less anxious about the teachers in the next grade.
With children being at school every second day as we don’t have enough rooms or desks for all the pupils at our school to be at school every day, the children seem to value the time they are present, much more than they did before. The fact that they attend school in civvies might also have something to do with it – and the interesting thing is that none of us have noticed children trying to better each other in their civvies clothing. The naysayers about uniform have always said that children will try to better each other and so a uniform allows for conformity, and saves those who can’t afford to buy the latest clothing. In fact, it has been so lovely seeing children arrive in onesies, pyjamas and wellington boots when it is really wet and cold!
Our parent contact has improved immensely even though no visitors are allowed on the premises! During lockdown our staff met their children using online platforms which meant parents were often in the background. They also had support groups for their parents and met with them once a week or so, to check on how they were coping with being parents and teachers. Now half the staff meet the parents outside every day as if you aren’t teaching that day, your job is to man the traffic in the roads around about, or man the sanitising, temperature taking or movement of children in the playgrounds.
We have adapted our curriculum to focus on four subjects a day only, with mathematics and language every day. On the days the children are at home, they log in for art and music lessons, and only spend another hour reviewing work taught. The amount of time allocated to subjects has been adapted so that we can teach all we believe children should know. Our parents are luckily groomed to expect change at our school! This has helped immensely in curriculum delivery. For the first time, parents and other staff can see exactly how others on the staff teach!
Only about two thirds of our children have returned to school physically, but all learn every day. The work which will be taught that day is available from 9 daily so that if a family is anxious about the pandemic, they can access all learning. If this was always the way school operated, then anxious children could always be present in learning even though they weren’t necessarily physically present. When the weather is miserable, children can choose to learn from their beds at home!
Teaching is now a pleasure for staff. On one day they teach classes for a full day but the next they operate from a ‘business hub’ where they prepare for the next day’s teaching. This has helped staff destress because they don’t have to prepare every afternoon, after extramurals. They also can’t mark at home at the moment; checking and reviewing what children are doing is done in the classroom and books are not handed in. This kind of marking has also given children the responsibility for their own learning.
Assessment has changed completely! It is now focused on looking for gaps in learning rather than looking for marks. The focus is on learning for the pleasure of knowing, not for a report or schedule. Small chunks of work are ‘quizzed’ regularly and so children aren’t warned in advance of a test tomorrow, which creates far less anxiety for the whole family. No homework is being set – partly because we’re getting through so much more at school but also because we believe families need ‘play’ time while the world is so filled with anxiety!
We believe this pandemic has helped our school review all we have done and are doing, making us believe that this way of learning and teaching is sustainable. It is amazing that something like a pandemic has turned our school ‘the right way up,’ when it was actually upside down!