by Adam Majsay Deputy Principal (Teaching & Learning) K-12 | Emanuel School
This article was first published in Leadership Ed, Issue 12, Term 3, 2020 under the title, The new normal.
The months seem to have flown by since Australian schools were compelled by force majeure to find new ways to deliver teaching and learning to our almost four million school-aged students, essentially overnight. The shift from face-to-face teaching with digital platforms as, largely, an adjunct to the ‘real business’ of teaching students in a physical classroom, to an environment in which online engagement provided the core means of connection between teachers and students occurred at a rate and scale that required educators to dive into the deep end, with eyes wide open, and (to extend the metaphor even further) to sink, or swim.
Six months on, it appears that teaching is a remarkably buoyant profession. The need to respond to unprecedented times has resulted in unprecedented acceleration of professional growth and development for Australian teachers, especially in terms of how we have embraced digital technologies as a core driver of student learning. The period of remote learning forced us to accelerate our adoption of digital learning technologies as schools moved rapidly to provide an authentic means of connecting with our students and each other. Many schools achieved in a matter of weeks what might have taken many years to embed under the usual circumstances, against the usual competing priorities. However, these were not the usual times, and, simply put, teachers didn’t have any other choice.
Though we never would have wished for a year quite like 2020, it has been a time of substantial positive change for school education, as we have embraced digital transformation, shifted to on-demand models of professional learning, uncovered previously untapped resources within our staff teams, and demonstrated that we have the capacity to exercise considerable flexibility and adaptability in our practice as we reimagined how schools function and how learning happens for students and for teachers.
Often, professional learning sessions designed to support teachers in implementing new technologies have been scattered throughout a school year, in hour-long blocks during start-of-term staff development days or in afternoon staff meetings. Such staff training may be led by passionate and committed IT leaders or volunteer teams of digital ‘early adopters’ keen to share the innovative approaches that have worked for them in their classrooms. When, though, such teacher training moments are not part of a continuum of professional learning, when they are not clearly linked to observable and legitimate educational needs, and when the human resources required to enable ongoing support to teachers as they grapple with new edu-tech are not readily available, the impact of such training is often diluted against the usual competing priorities of school life.
The adage that a burden shared is a burden halved rings true when reflecting on this time. As schools settled into their model of remote learning, and as leaders adapted our available professional learning time to ensure that we focused on what was essential for teachers to learn so that they were immediately equipped to support the learning of their students, we benefited from the breadth of expertise within our school communities. Our staff meetings, no doubt delivered via video conferencing tool, were transformed into on-demand professional learning programs, with multiple simultaneous breakout rooms hosting teachers sharing their technology tips and tricks with other teachers. Though there was much for us to learn, the responsibility for our learning was widely distributed. Our collective know-how was shared more freely than ever before, and we all grew in skill and confidence, knowing that, though we were each furiously paddling to stay afloat, we were not alone in the water.
As many of Australia’s schools returned to a semblance of business as usual mid-year, education researcher and advisor, Simon Breakspear spoke of the need to avoid a ‘snapback’ to the way we have always operated. Considering our time navigating uncharted waters gives us an opportunity to not only reflect on the key takeaways this time has offered, but also to allow this shared learning moment to precipitate a process of renewal for teachers and educational leaders, both in the ways we teach and, importantly, in the ways we learn.
There will always be a place for professional learning that addresses school-based and compliance-oriented priorities. However, the unique demands of this year have required us to pare back much of what we do in schools to what is truly essential and to reconsider how we spend the precious time that we have available. Perhaps, in such a pared-back environment, we would prioritise an approach to professional learning that meets the immediate needs of our students and our teachers, in the moment. Perhaps we would ensure that we continue to benefit from inviting the experience and expert voices of our colleagues around us to inform the professional learning conversation. Perhaps student voice would also be captured, ensuring that our professional learning efforts also meet the students where they are at. Perhaps we would design professional learning programs that draw on our teachers’ understanding of their individual learning needs, of where they need to help to grow and of how they best receive that help. It is time for us to embrace such a transformation in teacher professional learning, and to move ahead with the many positives we have gained in this ‘new normal’.
Breakspear, Simon. “Building Back Better”. Simon Breakspear, 29 May 2020. Webinar.