The Malta Independent 25 May 2020, Monday

Reflections on teaching amidst COVID-19

Monday, 6 April 2020, 09:24 Last update: about 3 months ago

Joseph Pellicano

It was the 12th of March at noon. The Prime Minister of Malta together with the Minister for Education and Employment announced that all educational establishments would be closed the following day. It was one of the preventive measures the authorities took to control the spread of COVID-19 in the Maltese islands. All the teaching staff, together with the students, packed up their belongings and left the premises. Although this measure may have initially come across as “free” holidays to the students, their eyes expressed uncertainty and uneasiness. Things changed so suddenly, and without knowing they were asking questions; “What is happening exactly?” and “Are we going to meet again?”. As teachers, we did not have answers to these questions and felt helpless in this situation. 

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I constantly reflect on our situation as well as the abrupt changes we all endured, and seek to offer a different perspective on teaching and learning. This is a new situation which the country is facing and fosters reflection on the following issues; What is our understanding of education? What are the expectations of society and parents on teachers? What new horizons, if any, does this new situation open for us?

Many are fascinated by Miss Honey, a fictitious literary figure portrayed by Roald Dahl in his classic book ‘Matilda’. Miss Honey can be idolised in the education sector as a teacher who skilfully adapts to the children’s diverse needs, and communicates with them. The element of fun is a paramount ingredient during her lessons, which she delivers through individual attention, yet engaging the whole class. 

Love and belonging are two other indispensable elements in teaching. However, keeping in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, psychological needs are the basic necessities which are vital to our endurance.

 A post which recently went viral on social media states: “[All jokes aside] let’s all pray for those kids who are stuck home with no food, have abusive parents, friends and family and their only safe place was school.”

This highlights a tough reality, which sheds light on the invaluable roles our schools play in not only ensuring academic service, but also providing fundamental needs to our students. For some, this takes priority over curriculum subjects. In fact, it has been reported that about 500 students who usually do not take lunch with them from home have been referred to their respective parishes so that the school lunch service can be maintained. 

Schooling promotes stability and safety. It involves the same daily routine, and gives structure to our students. They know that in an allocated time and place, they are going to meet with a particular teacher. This structure gives the student a sense of loyalty, security, and assurance. Unfortunately, there are instances where teachers become the secure base for a number of students who may not have significant others and/or stable adult figures who can meet their need for security, calmness, and understanding. According to Ainsworth and Bowlby, (1991) the absence of a secure attachment with parents can impede the child’s brain development for optimal organization. It can also restrain mental, emotional, and physical development.

 I think that as time passed by, the school establishment has taken up responsibilities which may not necessarily be theirs. Two posts which have been circulating on social media during this challenging time are,

If the schools are closed for too long, the parents are going to [gonna] find a vaccine before the scientists”.

Another popular post is,

“Many parents are just about to discover the teacher was not the problem”.

Although the posts may bring a smile to one’s face, there is an underlying truth. The fact that many parents are spending more time with their children at home might be a challenge to some.

As the COVID-19 began to spread across the island, measures were taken to contain the virus. While public services shut their doors to prevent crowds from gathering in closed spaces, online services began to crop up from different entities. Priests live streaming holy mass on Facebook; restaurants, supermarkets, and household goods businesses setting up online bookings while promising delivery service to the client’s door; as well as counsellors and psychotherapists promoting online support to reach out to their clients. 

The day after the closing of the schools, teachers began to ponder and discuss new ways of teaching and learning to reach out to their students; to ensure continuous education.

 Teaching, the way we knew it, had to change. Teachers are now behind their laptops at home, venturing into academic cyberspace; uploading videos, tasks and presentations, hoping that students are absorbing the utmost in these situations where limitations are numerous.

Tasks like distributing hand-outs, assigning homework and delivering lessons were transferred to the virtual realm. One should appreciate the quick initiatives taken by various teachers who set up online services from scratch, all in the interest of students.

However, I think that such initiatives were also driven by the expectations that society and education itself have imposed on teachers to keep up with the curriculum. On the other hand, one should keep in mind that these times are not ‘business as usual’, and students are experiencing these weird times in their own, individual way. Hence, while one can continue to support the students academically, one has to take into consideration the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the students.

 This highlights the importance for teachers to also be supported by management, while also working within an ethical framework, particularly in how to communicate with minors using online tools, to ensure that both the students and the professionals are safeguarded. Remote teaching is a tool which has to be explored in much greater depth. It carries out various advantages and with wide appropriate vigilance, it can be applied more in our education system.

As soon as schools shut their doors, many teachers and parents were concerned that they will not manage to meet syllabi deadlines and the students would not finish the textbooks till the last page. Therefore, it may appear that schools only offer that which is academic. For a moment it seemed that many forgot what our schools offer besides the hours of academic material.

To highlight a few; a safe environment that the school provides, far away from traffic congestion, where the students can release their highly-spirited energy; a space where students can socialize with their friends, far away from gadgets which cage them in their rooms; an opportunity where the students can learn from their mistakes, far away from the judgement of society which gave them the sentence that they are too young and they cannot know any better; the chance to sprout their abilities and talents, to be creative, to pursue for solutions, far away from ready-made solutions which are given from adults who do not have ample time to discuss with them; the occasion to enrich their character through non-formal activities, far away from the game controller which took control of their free time.. 

Education promotes a holistic experience. The major benefit of a holistic approach is not just about intellectual development, rather it also includes psychological, social and emotional growth. As Shariq (2018) stated, “Teaching our children to be great human beings could be the investment that depolarizes our politics, reduces hate, enfranchises the disenfranchised, and creates a sense of belonging that can make our world a better place.” We must push for an education reform that is not just focused on test scores, graduation rates and enrolment numbers. It is essential to focus on critical thinking and developing mind-sets. Cultivating students’ moral and social development contributes to the wellbeing of today’s and the future’s society. 

In this midst of COVID-19 saga, let us appreciate the power that education has. Although that education system has been overhauled, it is still a learning experience for all the stakeholders responsible for the well-being for our students. It is time for reflection on how we can enrich our system, invest in the educational professions, engage more the students and bring parents on board. While we are advised to isolate ourselves to combat the COVID-19, let us bring together the resources and talents we have in the education realm, to work towards a better society.

 

Joseph Pellicano teacher who has worked in the profession for the past 10 years. He is a teacher of Religion at the Archbishop’s Seminary. He is also a qualified counsellor.

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