Teaching in schools during COVID-19: UC graduate and student perspectives

27 May 2020

The disruptions of COVID-19 presented many challenges for New Zealanders. Schoolteachers needed to adapt swiftly to operating in a virtual environment. Here are the reflections of three Canterbury teachers: PE teacher and Head of Dept: Health at Riccarton High School, Sarah Eaton; Clearview Primary School Year 1 and 2 teacher, Esther Marshall (both graduates of UC teaching programmes); and Parkview School Year 5/6 Team Leader, Brett Morell (currently studying a Master of Education in Leadership)

  • Brett Morell teaching photo

    Brett Morell, Parkview School Year 5/6 Team Leader (currently studying a Master of Education in Leadership)

Sarah Eaton

Sarah Eaton, PE teacher and Head of Dept: Health at Riccarton High School

Switching to online learning 

Adjusting to online learning took some trial and error, Sarah says, but she has enjoyed the experience. It presented her an opportunity to redevelop her lesson plans, ensuring they were educational and enjoyable.  “I have been setting tasks for my senior students each week that are clear, relevant to our online classes and they can complete when suits them, as long as it’s done by the next ‘lesson.’ The feedback suggests that they like the flexibility and all students are keeping on top of the work which is great.”

She engages her class with regular fun activities to maintain engagement and connection. “I have been starting my lessons with a ‘starter’ activity using Drawize (an online, multiplayer, Pictionary-type game) which they love and then we get into the lesson,” says Sarah. “I have also been offering live workouts for my students where we have a chance to stay active, connected and motivated together. The feedback has been extremely positive and it’s something they want to continue when life returns to ‘normal.’”

For Brett, the key to success was being considerate of the different learning styles of his students, adapting and intervening with extra support when needed. He says, “the new experience of making all learning available online to all students and making sure I had covered all learning styles and abilities was harder than I initially thought. I had to tweak the programme for some and offer additional supports via Zoom calls to make sure all students could achieve.”

Esther considers wellbeing and emotional connection as important considerations for her online delivery. “I used Zoom meetings and set up activities to help connect both academically and emotionally with my students,” says Esther. “I would also sometimes video chat to check in with students and we would share jokes with each other. This experience has helped me appreciate the importance of wellbeing alongside academic success at school, as checking in with my students and how they are going is just as important as setting up their academic tasks.”

Given that some of Esther’s students were relatively new to school, parental involvement was important, yet challenging as many were also working. She says “as Level 3 came, a lot of our parents began working and our attendance became low. I tweaked my programme by doing more hands-on and engaging topics. I also changed the programme into more oral language tasks like telling jokes to get children excited in engaging in activities. I also shared more videos of myself to have that virtual face-to-face contact.”

Small numbers return during Level 3

At Level 3, the children of essential workers returned to school in person. Teachers were balancing both online environments and small on-site classes. Understanding that returning students could be apprehensive, Brett focused on making the transition back a positive experience. “I made sure to remove the pressure of completing copious amounts of work throughout the day and let the students work at their own pace,” he says. “We used online quiz games to break up the day and generally let the students chat and do things they were interested in such as researching sea creatures, creating their own quizzes, chatting and drawing.”

Similarly, Esther ensured the students enjoyed returning to school.  “Maintaining social distancing was a challenge, but the students knew the expectations and sometimes just needed reminding. I kept the students positive by giving them more freedom than usual, for example, one afternoon we did a talent quest and had students singing and dancing. This was suggested by a student and it made for a fun schooling experience.”

Reflecting on UC studies

When asked how their UC studies helped prepare them for the COVID-19 environment, each had a different answer. Esther, having completed two UC programmes (one in early childhood and one in primary) with distance study elements, has a strong understanding of online learning from the student perspective. She was able to draw on those experiences when planning her teaching. “With the experience of studying online at UC, I was able to utilise these skills when teaching my own class online. Online distance learning experiences at UC, such as using Zoom, helped me with including these online resources when setting up my programme,” she says.

Brett recently completed the EDEM608 Understanding Emotions in Education, Leadership, and Health course, something he found particularly useful both in his role as teacher and team leader. “I could use the knowledge of emotions to support staff and help coach them through their feelings about the whole pandemic and also with planning for the return of the students and the pastoral approach we take.”

For Sarah, people are at the core of teaching. Maintaining relationships through online learning was paramount. “What became really clear to me during this time was the importance of relationships. This was something that was always emphasised throughout my studies as the most important thing for being an effective teacher.”

“One of my Year 13 students said “this is the class I feel the most connected with, it’s great!” which has stuck with me over this time. If I can make someone feel a sense of normality and help them have a better day then I’ve been a successful teacher.”

  • Esther Marshall

    Esther Marshall, Clearview Primary School Year 1 and 2 teacher

Any enquiries please contact nick.maitland@canterbury.ac.nz