Reflecting and Rethinking – Learning from the Pandemic

The beginning of the academic year has been challenging. We, at SAfE, continue to be humbled and inspired by Surrey’s school leaders, teachers and school staff.

It is tremendous having young people back attending schools, learning, socialising and being a community. However, in order for this to happen the relentless planning for staff absence, logistics, changes in curriculum and timings of the day require agility and resilience that verge on the superhuman! The need to keep abreast of daily updates, to interpret and respond to them and to communicate to all stakeholders in a way that fosters a ‘can do’ and positive climate is unremitting – yet you do it. Everyday.

Thank you!

It is now over seven months since we went into lockdown and we are likely to have to live with the pandemic and its implications for many months to come. Despite the challenges of the ‘now’, how do we ensure our ‘new’ normal is better than the normal we had before? How do we use our learning from the last seven months as a platform for change to address some of the endemic challenges that have long plagued us?

In the ‘building back better’ playbook created by Big Education three distinct phases of moving forward are identified:

Respond, Recover, Rethink.

The respond phase includes making ‘back to school’ possible; logistics, staffing, communication and the day to day needs of the moment.

The recovery phase is one of listening and learning – it allows us to begin learning the lessons from lockdown.

The rethinking phase is potentially the hardest but the most crucial. The playbook promotes the importance of rethinking during the recovery phase and suggests that leaders who do not engage in ‘rethinking’ are in danger of leading schools that return to their ‘status quo’, losing the potential gains of doing things differently and perhaps even better! The Playbook emphasises the importance of engaging with all the school community – staff, parents, pupils and other partners – they all will have insights.

In the spirit of sharing here are four personal reflections from the last seven months.

Blended Learning

Technology was never going to replace a teacher but lockdown has highlighted the huge advantages of integrating technology and more traditional pedagogy. Technology can significantly add to the learning experience, support self-regulation, improve assessment, give access to powerful resources and help reduce workload. As the EEF reflect it is how technology is used that matters most: ‘Great teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for their pupils’. Moving forward, professional development is that prioritises the effective use of technologies whether pupils are in school or working at home is crucial. But equally important we will not achieve equity unless all children and young people have equal access to technologies – our question is how do we achieve this.

Community collaboration

The pandemic highlighted the extent to which schools have been plugging the gaps in support for vulnerable children. Schools stepped into the breech whether through delivering food parcels to families, visiting and checking up on pupils, making additional phone calls pupils, providing support in a raft of ways. The dedication, determination and commitment of schools and their leaders was amazing. For years, schools have had to take on more and more responsibility for the wider wellbeing, safety and welfare of pupils as capacity of other agencies to provide high quality support has become limited. This situation was unsustainable before the pandemic. Now, with the demand for additional support likely to rise we need a fundamental shift towards schools being ‘an anchor for, but not the provider of, a comprehensive range of state and community support for children.’(RSA, Bridges to the Future). We need joined-up, collaborative, place-based action with central and local government working with schools to co-create and commit to a new way forward. Schools cannot meet the needs of children and young people alone.

Professional learning

At a personal level we have all found new ways to work – and many of them are positive. Gone are the days when we will make long trips for short meetings, or travel miles after school for a professional development course. We have all become ‘Zoomers’ (other platforms available!) and it has been fabulous to see the sharing of knowledge and practice across Surrey through our webinars and networks. Schools have continued to prioritise professional learning and the communities of practice that are developing and deepening remain ever more crucial. We must not lose these ways of working.

Esteeming Teacher Expertise

Teachers have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic over the last seven months. Parents have gained a deeper appreciating following their experiences of being ‘teacher at home’! But more than this now is the time to truly celebrate teachers’ on-going expertise and commitment. John Hattie reflects:

‘Unlike parents with 1-3 children in the home class, teachers have 20-30 at once, can motivate them (mostly) to engage in activities that the students initially do not know to do, know how to make the struggle of learning joyful, can provide feedback at the right time and in the right way to each student and teachers do not ‘do’ the work for the students – and for 200+ days at least 5 hours every day. Teachers know where to go next for each student’s learning, how to balance the breadth and depth of the ever-varied school curriculum, and invest in after school work of marking, preparing, developing resources, going to professional learning, and meetings. As parents, how exhausted were you each day!’

On a daily basis teachers make thousands of individual decisions in the classroom which at a whole school level make a collective difference to the lives of a generations of children. Teachers are intelligent, articulate and experts in people and their behaviours. Let none of us accept ‘teacher-bashing’!

I believe that despite the ongoing challenges this remains a time of possibility and optimism. We must all take the opportunity to make some time for strategic thinking, raise our heads from the stress and pressure of the right now and look ahead with intention to ‘build back better’ for both our pupils and our profession.

Thank you all for being brilliant.

Maria Dawes, SAfE CEO

Thank you to Michele Miller for her big contribution to our collective thinking in this blog.

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