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Opinion: The challenges of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic

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By Mark Robertson, Oakleigh Grammar Principal.

I am a School Principal at an Independent School in Melbourne, Australia. I have had the privilege of vast experience in serving at a variety of schools both as Headmaster and several leadership roles in a variety of settings.

Leadership provides many challenges and opportunities at any given time. During the COVID-19 pandemic the responsibility of leadership has been tested like no other time in my career and this would be consistent, I believe, for all leaders and particularly so for school leaders.

The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used regularly as a label in managing the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic. Whilst pandemics per se are not unprecedented, most current leaders have not been exposed to such a global crisis in their working careers.

Mark Robertson (centre) discusses the importance of leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia has adopted a ‘suppression’ model which has been supported both federally and statewide. As an island nation we have had early and encouraging success with this strategy consistent with some other nations I would suggest our modelling has been based on. Like many other nations whereby ‘second waves’ have arisen unexpectedly, community morale has been negatively impacted. In my own state, Victoria, we have certainly experienced the impact of community transmission of the virus which is akin to a second wave with the result of a second lockdown in our city.

School leaders have overwhelmingly responded in a remarkable fashion as witnessed in many schools. Multiple stakeholders with varying degrees of anxiety and the uncertainty of how the pandemic will pan out within one’s own school community has brought about a sense conviction by leadership teams. Indeed teaching and non-teaching staff have ensured that COVID-19 protocols established have been supported and implemented. These protocols have assisted to promote calmness, dialogue, understanding and empathy for our students and parents – the notion that their school does really care and the sense of being in it together has been palpable.

The opportunities and resultant outcomes of those opportunities for a school’s core business of teaching and learning cannot be underestimated.

At Oakleigh Grammar I have and continue to acknowledge all teachers for contributing to vital Professional Development dialogue which has transformed our Teaching and Learning Model in record time from ‘face to face’ to ‘remote learning’ facilitation.

Oakleigh Grammar Principal, Mark Robertson.

Our non–teaching staff have also risen to the occasion and I have and continue to thank them for their support in assisting our Leadership team and teachers in order to best cater for our students in such different and difficult times. The establishment of an Oakleigh Grammar Remote Learning Model which continues to be refined and improved, is testament to the efforts of our collective staff; this would be a similar story in most Independent, Catholic and Government Schools in our country.

When people describe teachers who had the greatest influence on them they invariably describe teachers who were caring, passionate about their subject, present for them, and good at stimulating their desire to learn – I am confident our teachers subscribe to these attributes and our challenge at this time has been to maintain them and be creative in our awareness of them within a ‘remote learning’ environment. 

It is also noted that some of our staff have had some challenging personal issues yet still manage to care and be present for our students with the support of colleagues. Shame on the ‘naysayers’ who pop up with the assertion that schools are not transformational environments for their students and staff – I welcome any of these people to visit my school and hear the stories of inspiration at a time when many for good reason would argue is a time of despair.

Our own accountability at any time is essentially tied to our improvement agenda which schools strive to build capacity to make a positive difference to outcomes for our students. We know it is important to set high expectations for our students [and even better to involve our students in setting these expectations]. We also know the importance of clear and regular communication with our students and focus on review and effective feedback is instrumental to overall student progression in their learning journey. 

During a pandemic these school improvement attributes should not be put to the side but rather they should come to the fore so that there is meaning and connection in our students learning – whether on campus or at home.

A significant challenge for all school leadership teams has been in relation to cyber-safety within the remote learning sphere. This challenge can and has quickly turned into an opportunity as we have noted significant up-skilling by students and staff in their technology skill set. All schools have a responsibility to ensure our students are presented with meaningful and positive experiences. These experiences often morph into ‘good news’ stories that should be celebrated to ensure our students maintain a positive mindset in spite of the pandemic reality around them.

Oakleigh Grammar students with principal Mark Robertson, Monday, May 25. Supplied: Oakleigh Grammar.

As school leaders navigate the challenges and opportunities inherent in this global pandemic we should not be distracted by ‘the speculation of doom’ and focus on our sphere of control and deal with the reality of the circumstances we find ourselves in. Important for all of us is our obligation to comply with COVID – 19 Community protocols as advised by our Nation’s key Medical advisors. Inherent in this at this point in time, in our city, is the goal of reducing community transmission which means restricting movement in the broader community as much as possible. 

During this world wide crisis many people choose to practice mindfulness and take time to stop, breathe and reflect which helps to ensure one’s actions are more mindful, deliberate and helpful and not so much reactive.  Others will turn to the Bible which may challenge and cheer us on as we walk our own difficult path of faith. Others will exercise by walking, running or riding in their immediate neighborhood.

Whatever we choose to do please know that we all share the sorrow of illness and in some cases resultant death from this pandemic but equally we share the notion of Hope and aspiration for our Future.

Stay Well. Stay Safe. God Bless.

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