The reality of emergency remote teaching: Impact on teachers’ professional and personal lives
‘Online learning’ has been a hotly-debated term; something many have considered as either the future of education, or the doom. The shift to ‘online learning’ had not been as pervasive as predicted, but this changed dramatically with COVID-19.
Teachers, students, and parents alike found themselves thrown into an unprecedented situation with global school closures. Across many low-income contexts, many began to rapidly transition, where possible, to ‘emergency remote teaching’ options. With no time to structure a curriculum specifically aimed at teaching via an online medium, it was now a case of providing as many pupils as possible with basic education, with any tool available.
In this context, it is important to understand and recognise the crucial difference between ‘online learning’ and ‘emergency remote teaching’. Online learning tends to be rooted in a specific process of learning design. It’s structured with the use of best-suited online learning tools to be able to achieve prescribed learning outcomes. On the other hand, Hodges et al. (2020) explain emergency remote learning as ‘a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances’.
Much has been said about what the transition to emergency remote teaching has meant for students and how this has impacted not only their academic learning, but also their physical and mental wellbeing.
In this blog post, we have decided to focus on a question that has remained mostly invisible from the ongoing discourse: What has this sudden and forced shift to technology-mediated teaching meant for teachers, both professionally and personally?
To help answer this question, we have interviewed six teachers from different countries and varied educational contexts. Georgia*, Maira*, Imogen*, Matteo*, and Avery* shared details about their experience with technology-mediated teaching; both before the pandemic and after school closures went into place. They highlight how this shift has impacted their personal and professional lives.
We begin by providing a brief snapshot of the teachers’ prior experience, if any, with online learning. This is followed by a discussion of the impact of transitioning to online teaching and learning on both their professional and their personal lives. We conclude by analysing challenges along with lessons learned. Throughout, we share how teachers found solutions to address their students’ learning needs.
We hope this blog will be valuable for school owners, school leaders, educators and families as we all continue to navigate effective approaches to online teaching and learning.
Previous engagement with technological tools for education
Georgia*, who works for a network of affordable private schools in South Africa, already had some experience with using technology for teaching. She had been trained by her employer as early as 2017. Since then, she had been using the knowledge acquired to provide her students with pre-lesson materials (often in the form of videos she uploaded to a private YouTube channel) that she would then build upon in class. This blended approach allowed her to engage in discussion with the students and to ask them to think critically about the taught subject.
Maira*, on the other hand, whose work consists mostly of assessing students’ oral literacy skills in Pakistan, had not made use of technology-mediated learning and teaching before the COVID crisis. She had to find new ways of carrying out her work; ways that she had never envisaged, her specialisation being so reliant on face-to-face sessions.
Imogen*, a UK based and tech-savvy-teacher, had only used document sharing and marking tools such as Google Classroom and quizzes with her secondary school students before the pandemic struck. Her pedagogical approach primarily relied on synchronous, face-to-face, teacher-led learning.
Matteo*, an Italian teacher in Germany had only used video communication tools for individual language lessons but had no other previous experience with online teaching.
Avery*, a High School teacher in the US, on the other hand, had extensive experience of using online tools for teaching. She would use projectors to share lesson agendas and a weekly calendar on key upcoming activities, as well as more advanced EdTech tools such as Kahoot, Quizzlet, Newsela, Prezi, and iMovie.
Impact on pedagogical approach
All of the teachers interviewed had to modify their pedagogical approach in order to continue to teach their students. However, despite the shared necessity to transition to an online teaching and learning environment, the impact of this shift manifested itself in varied ways.
Georgia* and Imogen*, whose everyday approach involves a high level of interaction and discussion with the students to address doubts and misconceptions, reported that the main challenge was posed by the inability of answering questions in the classroom. They also highlighted a growing lack of engagement from some of the students. To address this issue, Georgia* used her awareness of it to put more effort into directing the students in their consumption of pre-session materials, in order to address potential doubts and offer detailed guidance.
For Maira* it was a matter of finding new ways of operating altogether. She discovered tools such as Padlet, various digital reading platforms such as Storynory, Oxford Owl, Global Digital Library and diverse story-telling avenues including Giggle Box and Storyline Online. This allowed her to discover tools and ways of teaching that she had not been previously privy to and she found the journey of exploration itself very informative.
Matteo*, on the other hand, had to rely on the availability of interactive features befores selecting a platform. For each lesson, he would need to re-assess which platform would be best suited to his pedagogical approach. Where possible, he would use break-out rooms to favour conversation exercises in smaller groups while he had to adopt alternative strategies (e.g. chain-reaction questions, role play) where the technology used did not allow this kind of approach.
Avery* reported a big impact on the ‘hidden curriculum’, rather than on her pedagogical approach. She underlined the increased importance of socio-emotional learning given the uncertainty posed by the crisis. She also emphasised the need for different approaches to tackle varying levels of internet productivity and drops in student motivation. Her former experience allowed her to implement effective engagement strategies, such as encouraging students to lead the Zoom meetings, using break-out rooms, engaging in physical stretch breaks, playing music and even using EdTech tools to create online games or competitions to conduct checks for understanding.
Impact on personal lives
Unsurprisingly, the impact of this sudden shift to technology-mediated learning has not been limited to pedagogical practices.
In order to cope with this new and sudden change of context, many teachers, like Imogen*, had to increase their working hours so much so that they barely had any time to themselves. Teachers shared they felt the responsibility to be there for their students whenever they needed support, but the students’ sleeping schedule being erratic left them answering emails at 11pm.
Georgia* and Maira* both reported that the support given to them by their employers and parents has been crucial to their ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance (or at least to maintain a similar balance to the one they had pre-COVID). However, unexpected technical issues are always around the corner, especially in settings where the Internet connection is not always reliable. This meant longer working hours for Georgia* in order to ensure that her students felt supported.
Conversely, for Matteo*, who was used to long hours of commuting to reach his students, the shift to the online setting allowed for more preparation time during the working day. In fact, he also appreciated not having to be in public, given the health risks posed by the pandemic. He too, however, found that unexpected technical issues tended to increase his working hours at the expense of his personal time.
Avery*, on the other hand, noticed the negative effect on her health that sitting all day in front of a screen has had. Moreover, since her relationship with her students is central to her teaching style, she realised how different it was to teach students who she had pre-existing relationships with. This was in contrast with students she was unfamiliar with that she would meet doing summer school, for example. Avery shared that this has had a palpable impact on her confidence and on her motivation. To address this, she continuously works on accepting the limitations posed by the online environment and reminding herself that she is, indeed, doing her very best.
Challenges and lessons learned
A common challenge reported by almost all of our interviewees has been catering to students in different contexts.
While Georgia*, Imogen*, and Matteo* were faced with the challenge of bridging significant gaps among students — either due to the fact that some had no access to technology or to their lack of familiarity with it — Maira* found herself unable to cater for students with different reading skills in the same lesson, as she would have been able to do in a face-to-face setting. Exhaustion hit many of them, especially where the use of technology resulted in an overwhelming overhaul of their personal lives. The increased difficulty of transmitting their love for learning and to help students learn self-direction and agency in learning has made the weight of the crisis even heavier.
However, this challenging and unexpected situation forced them all to re-evaluate their teaching practices. The discovery of tools, platforms and teaching techniques has left teachers with a desire to continue implementing them even when schools reopen and face to face learning resumes.
From an increased use of the flipped class model to foster students’ critical reasoning, to the decision to embed more short, sharp tasks to increase students’ engagement, teachers shared they now have more ways of engaging with their students and feel ready to make use of these new learnings once schools re-open.
As Maira* said, “the introduction of technology during this crisis has made [them] realise that things can be a bit different in [their] teaching method”. Technology has been an enabler for some, a source of inequality for others, but one thing is for sure: teachers have been faced with an emergency, and in this critical situation, many of them have used everything at their disposal to continue to support their students.
But support is needed. We have seen in the cases of our teachers that where there was a stronger support system behind them (as in the case of Georgia* for instance, where her employer has prepared her for this situation and has continuously supported her), educators felt more prepared and less overwhelmed by these unexpected challenges. It is crucial for systems — both central and school-level — to be put in place, in order to help, guide, and support teachers in their exploration of new pedagogies and unprecedented realities.
As we have mentioned in our previous blog post, teachers’ collaboration has increased. It will be even more important as we move into the new normal to share experiences and best practices, and to collectively address challenges common across teaching communities.
The Maple Group would like to thank teachers and school leaders at SPARK Schools and Mahnoor Shafiq, a Reading Specialist at Beaconhouse Newlands for sharing valuable insights and experiences to inform this blog.