Teachers in Capes

A tribute to the staff of my school and all teachers around the globe:

STEM on Twitter: "Not all heroes wear capes. Some Teach ...

A few weeks ago, I started a post called, ‘A Fly on the wall in a Lockdown Classroom.’ It was a reboot of an article entitled, ‘A Fly on the wall of a 21st Century Classroom,’ which I had started just a week before we shut the schools due to COVID-19.

Now the buzz word being flown around by that pesky flying insect is ‘hybrid education’ and the ones swatting it like Novak Djokovic on steroids (before he messed up and infected a bunch of people at a poorly screened tournament) are the neglected heroes: teachers.

You know, even when I studied (one hundred years ago) lecturers were warning us that ours was the ‘Cinderella’ profession. Yet the problem is educators don’t seem to even have a chance to dance with a prince these days. And I think the attractively-challenged siblings of the fairy tale are all the more set to spoil their day; yet our pedagogues are cleaning more chimneys and firesides than ever as they put the shine on the nation’s youth.

Let’s recap: in March this year, before the world locked itself away, 21st century skills consisted of technology in (some) classrooms, depending on the status of the school in this unequal world, and an effort to develop the 6 C’s of education.

6Cs Times Two - DT&L 3239

We were toying with the concept of allowing students to tune in from home if they were sick, because we had the infrastructure at our school, but it was more like a well-fed house-cat toys with a beetle, than an alley cat going after a dozing bird. There was no real need; no hunger. Sure, we thought it was a good idea, but there were problems – other more pressing needs; no data on how parents would respond; educators’ core beliefs that we function best in person (and by ‘we’ I mean teachers and learners – I still believe that btw); teacher reluctance to ‘perform’ live online; additional technologies needed; teachers’ online skills; data costs; learner connectivity (The digital divide is still a major impediment: in India, for example, only 8% of schoolchildren have internet and a device at home; it’s not much better in South Africa at 11%) …the list goes on. Factor into this, that educators, as low-end income professionals themselves, do not necessarily have uncapped internet or data at home.

But there was a trend towards online learning and homeschooling among the middle class because of the increased focus on the individual and scorn for mass education. And independent schools were starting to see that exodus, a trickle sure, but it was there.

Then COVID-19 happened.

And global Lockdown.

And all hesitations were swept off the table like the victims of an angry politician.

And ‘Cinderellas’ all over the world stepped up to the new job. Our teachers spent the April holidays cramming remote learning strategies; necessity being a far better IT peer coach than any school or corporate programme to upskill staff. They did it on their own (unless they were lucky enough to be a part of a larger organization, like the group of schools we belong to), in their own time and in some schools, or countries, at their own expense. And they didn’t go to the ball with a handsome prince; they sat at their laptops and studied and then delivered, at times rewarded merely by the criticism of parents who saw only the tip of the work-iceberg and thought the live online hours were ‘all teachers were doing’; spending hours playing IT techie to get children connected and as usual going above and beyond.  They shed the Cinders’ rags, suited up and cloaked themselves like the heroes they are. No need for a saviour prince swooping in to the rescue. They went from fireside to frontline IT gurus in a few days.

And they stayed on track with the curriculum, like models on the catwalk, who maintain their sashay, despite losing a heel.

Some schools in our group even turned into factories using 3D printing to produce shields for healthcare workers and for our own staff.

Then the presidents and health authorities unlocked our front doors and school gates and we came back to school. Now that ‘fly on the wall’ sits there watching half a class of masked teens and small children while teachers go back to their natural environment without the physical structures 21st century skills flourish in. No more learning hubs with groups huddled together to problem solve. Our youngsters sit in rows now to ensure social distancing like a throwback to old fashioned, industrial revolution-style regimentation. We do have fun wriggling eyebrows to communicate, trying to be heard via accents, masks and shields like medieval fighters. But we can’t hug them or see them properly so teachers develop robot systems to gauge comfort levels and wellness. We’re using sign language to communicate.

Imagine being able to look over a doctor’s shoulder or peer into a lawyer’s inner sanctum while she works? Or hang onto an accountant’s every telephone call? That’s how teachers work in the hybrid environment: live on TV with all their vulnerability and privacy on display to every parent (some even interrupt their lessons (I kid you not). A few years ago educators would have been up in arms about having cameras in their classes for this reason. Now we’ve put them live on TV and they’ve adapted. What heroes! It gives ‘a fly on the wall’ a whole new meaning.

A note of concern here is the vulnerability of learners as well in this exposed environment where any parent in the class could theoretically be watching from their work or home computer. We may need to consider only posting recorded videos of lessons, even though it would mean that those at home with health concerns would not be able to connect live. If we regulate anything after the COVID crisis abates, we should consider this carefully. Classrooms are safe places where an element of intimacy and trust needs to exist between teacher and learner. There is something voyeuristic about the possibility of this unseen audience at home. As much as we can continue to teach like this ad infinitum and it will be of great benefit going forward for housebound learners to connect remotely, this should be judiciously used in the long term in order to preserve the sanctity of that classroom relationship.

The remote and online spaces have blurred the boundaries even further for teachers who battle to say no at the best of times and educators are finding themselves assisting learners late into the early hours of the morning, especially in cases where children only have access to data during off-peak hours (read; middle of the night). And they do that because they care. It’s that simple.

And as the online-classroom-hybrid term draws to a close, for those whose schools are lucky enough to be taking a breather, our study superheroes are tired. Deep, in-your-spirit exhausted – so that forcing yourself out of bed is an act of sheer courage.

And they still arrive at school this week to motivate their equally stressed and fatigued students with smiles of greeting, with a Monty Pythonish ‘expect the unexpected’ mindset as they adapt… because teachers refuse to be beaten by a wee virus.

So when you see such a masked and caped classroom hero, do not even dare to breathe a critique that they are taking 5 days off (instead of the usual 15 at this time of year). They worked every single day of lockdown even though the schools were closed. Salute them – they have prevailed and will live to fight another term soon, armed with so much knowledge and experience gained, they could write a book… if they had the time!. Because of them the next generation will not be found lacking. Respect is due.

Forget the glass slippers of Cinderella – just bring them fluffy slippers to match their gossamer capes (They are elegant still, despite their paralysing tiredness) …and chocolate and wine…Teachers like wine.

You can keep the prince.

Of Schools and Screens and Lockdown, and Socialising Scenes

There was a young man walking past outside my window as I was dressing this morning, and I had already opened my curtains. If he had looked up he would have had quite an eyeful (and needed some years of therapy too, I imagine), but fortunately for my modesty and his medical aid savings account, he was so engrossed in his cellphone  (never mind that since it was during the exercise hours of lockdown, and he should have been jogging) that he did not notice the matron in her knickers in the house across the road from his morning constitutional.

But as I streaked (literally) into the bathroom, I contemplated what I had seen: a pedestrian on this glorious morning, face in his phone, not noticing the colourful dawn (or even where he was going). Much has been said about the zombie apocalypse of technology at our fingertips and I don’t want to comment on that, but I worry about our children in these times when all they are doing is on their devices – even school now.

The socialization of young people is being significantly affected the longer we stay in lockdown, in that they are not spending time in the same spaces as one another, because physical presence is so important for appreciating the nuance of meaning via body language, tone and pitch, as well as social development within groups. This is something that homeschoolers recognise and ensure that they take their children out of the home to places and activities where their children can mix and mingle.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for social development above health and safety from the virus, but I am saying that this is an area to consider when it is time to return to school. Pre-school age children are particularly likely to show social lags if they do not return to school with their mates after lockdown. Of course, some children are physically vulnerable, because of pre-existing conditions, and one can appreciate the need to protect their health above all else, but none is immune to poor socialization following long periods of isolation, so parents who choose to wait some months before ‘re-introducing their young into the wild’ should consider finding ways to do ‘virtual play dates’ or ensuring they spend time in unstructured play in the same space (with their siblings at least).

Children in lockdown are missing out on collaboration that is a very real part of the creative process and of 21st century education. Peer learning is vital for childhood development. Studies show that children with better social skills in pre-school, perform better academically in Grade R (Kindergarten) and are better adjusted to Foundation Phase, are better able to regulate their emotions and maintain more positive friendships in later years.

Long term social isolation leads to loneliness and can affect brain development, and mental and physical health. I am sure that parents are tired of their youngsters underfoot already, but more and more I am reading about children really missing their friends and weeping from the sheer stress of being stuck indoors with the same people, no matter how loving we may be. We are starting to see really increased stress levels in children and must beware of depressions, especially in teens.

I have a son in matric this year. This was supposed to be the year he played his last season of hockey for the school; he was cast as the Mad Hatter (why am I not surprised?!) in Alice in Wonderland and was looking forward to his matric dance. Now most if not all of the magic of matric has been stripped away from the Class of 2020 and they have been left in a ‘winter of discontent,’ a barren year of stress and study.

That is really hard for them emotionally but there is a vicious cycle happening here as well: their social isolation at a time when they most need to have some belly laughs, a quick game of football at break, or a round table on the latest gossip, has been taken away. And I am not sure that a nightly game of whatever murdering adventure is popular in the gaming microcosm of their network counts as true socializing, with its attendant eyeballing of mates and endorphin release. You definitely cannot be socializing properly over the ‘gram or WhatsApp because we all know what happens to tone and context in those virtual worlds. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations abound.

Without the release found in the fun part of matric, students’ stress levels are likely to rise considerably and they now have only the parentals at home who are putting additional stress on them because we are stressed for them and the looming examinations sans class time.. 

This will inevitably lead to inability to concentrate and process information. My high school has added a free social session on Microsoft Teams for a kind of virtual break, so that the teens can interact, but of course some are still keeping their videos off (because – ‘pyjamas and bed-hair- duh!’) so they are still not receiving important social cues such as body language and tone, nuances that are so important for maturing social intercourse.

As much as educators allow for some fun and chatting in online classes, you either have lethargy and apathy from your audience or giddiness with junior school learners which is draining for an educator to control and far more difficult than when they are all in the same room:

With prep school children who are having great fun waving their virtual hands and commenting online, to the chagrin of the odd parent who happens to peer over a shoulder, it’s tricky to ensure they are focusing on the content delivery.  But that’s also an elementary school child mindset. We need to let them have fun. We all learn when we are having fun. But it’s also why too much live online work can impede learning. Having said that, online etiquette has certainly improved as the weeks have passed, as we’ve navigated the remote learning space and children are co-operating with correct online decorum.

With high school learners’ videos and mics off (to save data) who knows whether the blighters have gone back to bed even?! It’s tough enough getting signs of life out of teenagers on a Monday morning at the best of times, but now a question such as ‘’You all with me?’ which in class is easy to observe, even if all the responses you get are adolescent grunts, is really hard for a teacher to measure when faced with a blank video wall of cute profile pics.

The moment when a teacher does this sort of informal class benchmarking, is when some of the best learning happens – when an individual ‘fesses up to not having a clue; there is some laughter and everyone refocuses and learns after additional assistance. There is a clinical nature to online ‘live’ teaching that cannot replace the human relationship element so vital for teaching. After all, we teach children, not subjects.  School teaching is not lecturing. We need group work and personal interactions to bring lessons to life. So, it’s not just the peer relationships that are being missed out on, it’s the mentor-learner ones too. I salute teachers who have abandoned their human form and overnight out-transformed Optimus Prime, and who are still ensuring that they nurture their relationships with their charges despite the challenges they face. (Can we clap at about 23:00 for them, when they finish their workday?)

Even the second-year university student in my house, who is a true introvert, is missing the subtle social interactions that happen mid-lecture, which aid learning and build the kind of connectivity that can never come from MTN or Vodacom.

So, as much as I know that we can continue with remote learning for as long as it takes (well at least at my privileged school we can) I look forward to the day we can teach flesh and blood human children, not their screen avatars.

In the meantime, parents, I beg you: send them outside to play and exercise, but if they cannot see other youngsters in the flesh, be a little more lenient with screen time. Facetime and Zoom calls are better than nothing. It may be the only social interaction they are getting.

And tell them we miss them.

Or just show them this:

Or this:


Perhaps we should give in. Who needs great rhetoric or literature. Move over Cicero and Demosthenes. Sit down Marlowe and Plath. We’ve gone back to hieroglyphics:

I just hope we don’t go back to this:

At least there’s one for me (the specs are Versace):