Staying connected at school - Education Matters Magazine
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Staying connected at school

Few schools expected a year like 2020. Education Matters looks at how teacher-student relationships helped educators get through this unprecedented time of crisis.

Kylie Elling, the Dean of Studies at Macarthur Anglican School in Sydney New South Wales, has long known about the importance of relationships between students and teachers.

But when March 2020 brought about a lockdown in the state, meaning the school had a matter of weeks to adapt to remote learning, she says the importance of these good relationships was truly brought to the fore.

“Students need to feel safe, secure and happy before they can succeed at school,” says Elling.

“COVID-19 made us sit back and realise how much impact it really did have. It has shown us how important student wellbeing is to learning.”

COVID-19 required almost every teacher, parent and student across Australia to rapidly adjust to remote learning in 2020.

In a matter of weeks, schools like Macarthur had to find and implement viable alternatives to the traditional modes of teaching in a physical classroom.

Australian schools were not alone. According to UNESCO, by the end of March 2020 over 1.5 billion pupils, or 87 per cent of the world’s student population, across 165 countries had been affected by school closures caused by COVID-19.

In Australia, K-12 schools experienced interruptions in every state and territory, although the extent and period of closures varied significantly across jurisdictions.

In early May, only 3 percent of children in Victorian government schools were in attendance, whereas the Northern Territory had returned to normal levels of 79 per cent.

However, Term 3 for students and teachers in Victoria took a drastic turn when Premier Daniel Andrews announced a state of emergency, enforcing remote learning for six weeks of the term.

As a result of the rapid onset of the pandemic, many teachers found their key focus shifted from teaching all the content online, to working to connect and establish relationships with their students with increased contact.

A survey, conducted by researchers at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne, explored the challenges and opportunities experienced by teachers as classrooms moved to remote and online learning.

The survey highlighted that the rapid transition to remote learning did not leave teachers and students with much time to prepare for this mode of teaching and learning, but that they nevertheless managed the task successfully.

More than half of respondent teachers from primary and secondary school – 57.85 per cent – said that n that they either somewhat or strongly agreed that students were prepared to engage in learning online in the home, while 34 per cent of teachers somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed that students were truly prepared..

In terms of social development and emotional wellbeing, the survey found that three out of four of the primary and secondary school teachers surveyed said that remote learning would negatively affect students’ emotional wellbeing to some degree.

The survey reported that: “This would manifest in forms such as anxiety (including obsessive-compulsive disorder related to personal cleanliness), feelings of disconnection, withdrawal from interacting with others, and missing friends.”

The survey did note, however, that a positive home environment would be a primary variable in how the lockdown affected students’ welfare.

“As with social development, students’ families are seen by teachers as an important factor in determining the extent to which individual students will be affected, and how they will be affected,” the survey noted.

When children were learning from home, Beyond Blue – a charity that provides resources relating to mental health –  released support tools to help parents and teachers cope with remote learning.

“Develop a plan with your child about their schooling over the coming weeks. This will need to be done in collaboration with their schools, but it will be reassuring for them to know that there is a plan, even if it needs to be adapted later,” Beyond Blue outlined.

The platform encouraged students to communicate with technology when face-to-face wasn’t an option.

Back at Macarthur school, Elling says their work in using technology to encourage ongoing communication between students and teachers paid off. However, it was a historical investment in the relationship that was the true source of their success.

“As Dean of Studies, my role at Macarthur is focused on academics, and my colleague Tim Cartwright in his role as the Dean of Students, focuses on the wellbeing side of student life. We work very closely together, allowing us to guide and support each student holistically, rather than in isolation,” says Elling.

Elling says that using technology to communicate with parents as well was a key element of successful online learning. She notes it continues to this day, with parents having limited access to school grounds due to ongoing COVID restrictions.

“The pandemic has meant that we are not seeing parents at the school as we normally would,” Elling says. “However, we’ve worked to keep communication lines open and speak to parents regularly by phone when there is a pastoral concern with their child. It is about connecting with students and families and promoting that trust which leads to engagement. If a student isn’t feeling happy, safe and secure in their environment, they are not going to engage in their learning and not going to be able to give their best.”

Elling notes that the biggest lesson learnt from remote learning in 2020 was that learning was about quality rather than quantity. So while it was a challenging year, she sees a lot of positive outcomes for students in the future.

“At the end of the day students are our main priority. It not only strengthened our relationships with them, but as a school community.”

The Australian Education survey supported that Elling wasn’t alone in seeing some positive outcomes for the school, and for individual students.   

“Where students may have disrupted the class, some teachers commented that the shift to working from home has put a stop to this,” the survey outlines.

“It has been observed that student engagement has improved in some instances for students who would normally be disruptive and for those students who would be affected by disruptions in class. Improvement in student work was also observed, although teachers noted that this could be due to parents having significant input and editing student work. Teachers also reported that some students’ organisational and time management skills improved.”

“It was also beneficial for students who struggled in class being able to work through the content at their own pace and review it multiple times,” Elling adds.

“From a teacher’s perspective we had a lot of teachers who had to learn new technology really quickly,” says Elling. “This has had a positive effect moving forward and they are now comfortable with that technology, which is something they probably wouldn’t have learnt. While our teachers and students were exhausted, I really do think we adapted things that we had to change. We are asking ourselves why didn’t we do this before, because it’s actually better for the students”.

aIn addition to having some improved systems, perhaps the biggest benefit for students, says Elling, is that they appreciate being able to come to school every day.

“We had students come back into the classroom after remote learning and say I am so grateful for my teachers,” she says. “We realised they took it for granted as well.”