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Teaching while wresting with a T-Rex

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MICAELA BROWDE

“Please be prepared,” it said, “to teach online, in person, both simultaneously, on a moving train, while juggling, in a burning building, under the sea, during a wrestling match with a T-Rex, as a hologram, and riding a unicorn. Also be safe, and we value you.’”

I laughed, stifled a sob, and shared it on my Instagram. (I’m a teacher, but I’m also a card-carrying millennial). I received many responses from fellow teachers who could, of course, relate.

My 2020 started off at a gallop. I was starting my second year as an English teacher at Redhill, and I was looking forward to tackling the teaching of middle school. I was the choreographer of the school play, and alongside Joseph Gerassi, our executive head and the director of the show, was spending busy days on campus, often until 21:00.

Between prepping for lessons, marking, syllabus planning, the school production, and a bit of a social life, life was moving fast, and I was loving it.

Then, all of a sudden, in early March, it all came to a grinding halt. School closed, the production was postponed (at that point to the end of April – let’s all laugh together), and we were suddenly all home-bound.

The school shifted the April holidays forward so that staff would have time to prepare for our distance learning programme, and so the first few weeks of lockdown were – except for the hours of planning and learning the ropes of G-Suite – slow.

The pace of my life decelerated so dramatically that, at first, I was at a total loss. I tried to create a routine of early wake-ups and exercise, but mostly I’d stay in bed until 10:00, rouse myself to get working by 11:00, and then climb onto the couch with a book by 15:00. It was by no means awful, but it was a strange and unwelcome turn of events.

In those weeks, our school’s management was communicative, decisive, and transparent. And so, after four weeks of anticipation and careful preparation, we started our distance learning programme. Our teaching cycles had been planned, the videos filmed, the lesson plans uploaded, and still I got into bed that night feeling like I was starting Grade 1 the next day.

The very first Google Meets call I had was with my group of Grade 8 mentees – the 15 students I had been assigned to mentor for the year.

The mentor/mentee system isn’t new at Redhill, but it took on a whole new meaning as we were tasked with guiding these children through a whole new system of learning. This first Meet calmed me as I connected with familiar faces and felt reassured and re-energised by them. When it ended, I felt braver – brave enough to tackle the rest of the day.

And that day, a day of trial and error; of “Ma’am, I think you’re on mute”; of “Sorry Ma’am my Wi-Fi is being glitchy, I’ve been logged off for the past twenty minutes, what did you say?” turned into a week, and then, pretty quickly, into seven weeks.

Those weeks felt weirdly long and short simultaneously. The timetable changed frequently. The number of students who turned on their cameras got smaller. But we kept pushing. There were frustrations, of course, but I remained fully cognisant of just how lucky our school community was that we all had Wi-Fi, full bellies, and roofs over our heads as we kept growing and learning through it all.

Once the government announced the introduction of Level 3 in June, our school made the decision to re-open its doors.

Going back to school was more difficult than I anticipated. The atmosphere was tense and with fewer than half the students coming in, campus felt ghostly quiet. After my first day, I was disorientated and exhausted.

In the first weeks back, we taught only students who were on campus and set “at-home” tasks for the rest. Those who chose to remain online were taught “in real time” on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Those Saturdays taught me that I can teach a full school day – six lessons back to back – without moving off my bed. That’s something to add to my CV.

It has changed again since then, and we now teach all students in real time, Monday to Friday, half in class and half online. That was a tricky balance to master (remember that relatable tweet?). But still, we keep pushing. Students, although feeling stifled by their masks, are slowly starting to find their rowdy selves again, and the familiar buzz on campus is making its return.

No one knows what the weeks and months ahead of us will look like. Will school stay open? Will the number of students and teachers testing positive for the virus become too many? Will the academic year remain intact? I don’t know.

I do know I have students who bring a smile to my face no matter what global cataclysm happens to be taking place at any given time. And I know that I can teach online, in person, both simultaneously, and, if need be, during a wrestling match with a T-Rex.

  • Micaela Browde is an English teacher at Redhill High School.

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