Our news
12 June 2020

Classroom experiences in the age of Covid-19

As the impacts of COVID-19 began to escalate, Teach For Australia ramped up support for Associates as they dealt with the rapid pivot to online classrooms and remote teaching models. With all schools around Australia now returning to classrooms, we reflect on how TFA and Associates responded to the massive disruption to face-to-face learning and what teachers might hold on to moving forward.

Every new teacher expects their first couple of years to be formative with challenges and left-field surprises.

But for Teach For Australia’s Associates this year, the disruptive global Coronavirus pandemic sent carefully planned lessons right out the window.

As school closures and social distancing requirements came into force at different levels, depending on state or territory health advice, TFA’s Associates quickly found themselves part of an unprecedented teaching experience no one saw coming.

“The new school year is absolutely always a challenge. We spend a lot of time setting up our expectations and routines for the year, but these were pulled out from underneath us all in a pretty dramatic way!” Jordana Zonaras (Cohort 2019) said.

Jordana is teaching Humanities and Media subjects in her second year of placement at Ulverstone Secondary College. The school is in Tasmania’s North West, where a localised coronavirus cluster kept the whole region on tight lockdown for several weeks.

For Jordana, one big challenge she saw from the outset was the need to keep students not just engaged in learning, but also socially connected and mentally well. She was heartened with how her school community came together to rapidly problem solve and address issues.

“We were presented with a problem, we came up with solutions creatively and collaboratively, and our senior staff moved barriers rapidly to support our grand plans. I felt incredibly lucky to be part of USC and very proud to work with the teachers around me.” 

In recent weeks, stories of innovative Associates and partner schools have been filtering back to Teach For Australia staff around Australia, including:

  • Associates who helped the wider school staff quickly shift to online platforms.
  • Associates who quickly turned the unfolding pandemic into subject matter for their classes (Science, Geography and even English!) to study and understand.
  • Associates who recognised internet or technology disadvantages among their students and spent extra hours making and delivering personalized work packs and talking through work over the phone to keep the learning going.
  • Associates who connected with parents and carers for daily well-being checks on the whole family, to understand the unique circumstances of each household.

The anecdotes are encouraging not just because it points to how our Associates helped their students and school communities through the crisis, but also because it points to the agility, resilience and leadership of the Associates themselves.

As the crisis began to unfold in February, TFA set to work ensuring support ramped up for Associates. 

“We recognised immediately that our Associates, both the new 2020 Cohort but also the 2019 Cohort going into their second year, would need extra assistance,” Francesca Pagani, Head of Program Operations said.

“TFA places a strong emphasis on Associate support and experience at all times, but our Teaching and Leadership Advisors (TLAs) knew we were going to have to step it up during the pandemic.”

With TFA operating in Victoria, Northern Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia, the response initiatives to support Associates were both national and regional.

At a local and regional level, online support activities were quickly organised. These included professional sessions to discuss teaching and virtual learning experiences as well as social and well-being sessions. Online ‘family dinners’, games nights, study sessions, and even a “COVID choir” event, as well as casual group catch-ups, kept Associates in touch with each other as well as TFA staff.

At a national level, twice-weekly contingency meetings were introduced by the Program Operations Leadership Team to identify and respond to emerging issues related to Covid-19. Mitigation and support strategies were actioned as required.

A virtual retreat was also quickly convened for the TLAs, with the agenda focused on how the team could respond to issues being identified in order to maintain Associate support and engagement.

A bank of resources was quickly developed to help TLAs pivot their own coaching and support to virtual platforms. It included guides to helping Associates stay on track with the Leadership Development Program, virtual coaching techniques, virtual teaching methods, and wellbeing checks.

“We focused on our coaching efforts and these sessions provided a valuable opportunity for TFA’s Teaching and Learning Advisors to join together nationally and explore ways to best support Associates,” Francesca said.

“We also organised for psychologist Dr Emma Little to conduct a session for Associates to help them manage their own wellbeing. It focused on identifying and managing the emotional stressors that teachers were facing, and provided practical strategies that Associates could take away for their own ‘self-care’ tool kit.”

In April, with COVID-restriction impacts now escalating over several weeks, TFA undertook a Pulse Check of Associates.

“It had been an absolutely unprecedented time and we understood stress would be elevated, but the Pulse Check told us that despite the strain, there was still a very high level of satisfaction among Associates. The results revealed that 90% of our Associates felt very well supported by their TLA and were empowered to play a part in our joint vision, and 90% also felt that TFA’s communications were timely and helpful. 

“We saw a lot of value in the dedicated and unwavering work of our TLAs in supporting Associates during those first few weeks of upheaval and uncertainty, and we also recognise the enormous support our partner schools were providing Associates too.

In Western Australia, schools remained open except for the final four days of term one. At Kiara College, Lucy Skillman (Cohort 2019) found one of the big challenges was balancing the needs of students who were attending the physical classroom with those who were staying home to learn.

“This put us in the unenviable position of teaching very small classes face to face, while at the same time trying to deliver adequate programs online using WebEx links, training younger students how to use software remotely and as many didn’t have (technology) access at home, preparing printed work packs in addition, effectively tripling the workload.”

Lucy, who teaches Science and Agriculture, observed parental support as extremely important for students in younger year groups, while for older students she saw regular videoconferencing for classes as well as individual catch ups vital for maintaining engagement.

“It was a steep learning curve for teachers, students and TFA but we all had to adapt rapidly, prioritise and most importantly keep on doing our best under the circumstances we were in, with what we had available,” Lucy said

“One definite upside was the collegiality of the other teaching staff, sharing of resources and division of labour where possible. Also, the wider support of the TFA community helped us feel connected to others, with regular check-ins from mentors as well as lovely gifts!”

Teach For Australia CEO Melodie Potts Rosevear said the stories coming in from schools and Associates in recent weeks had been inspiring.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our Associates right now, and of our TLAs and the Program Operations team who have provided such tremendous, ever-present support all the way through these unprecedented times.

“Our Associates are a key part of our efforts toward tackling the education disadvantage gap and our vision of every student attaining an excellent education. I’ve been genuinely moved hearing their stories of innovation and leadership in recent weeks.

“Some of our learnings here at TFA have been that while teacher appreciation has evolved, there is still more work to do to help people understand more fully the value of a great teacher. We also know that there is no stopping the digital transformation so how do we make sure our teachers and classrooms have the tools and the training necessary to ensure everyone has access to learning this way?”

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With all schools around Australia now getting back to on-campus classes, TFA Associates are among the thousands of teachers now taking lessons learned from the remote experience back into a classroom setting.

For Lucy, it is the experience that teaching remotely can still create close relationships between teacher and student.

“You talk with students in their home environment, often one on one or in smaller groups. This makes it easier to form closer relationships than in a classroom setting, for individual check-ins to that you know how students are feeling and coping with the work, if they have enough to do, what they need to prioritise,” Lucy said.

“Finding opportunities to continue nurturing students’ wellbeing in this way in the classroom will be a priority.”

For Jordana, she sees the take up of online learning platforms as “a game changer” for students as well as staff.

“Staff have worked collaboratively to provide one, well-differentiated program, freeing up time to provide timely feedback on students work,” Jordana said.

“We’ve only had one day back at school and already there’s a new classroom reality: 30 students sharing a space, working on different tasks, at their own pace, enjoying being in the presence of their friends again.

“We’ll all work hard to hold onto this new style of learning.”