Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietySeptember 25, 2021

Learning to teach teens in a pandemic

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

From refereeing shots at the rubbish bin to instructing from his mum’s lounge, a new teacher looks back on his first year.

Between the wild passions and imbalances of puberty, the so often uninspired curriculum, the leaky (if not mouldy) buildings and toxic political discourse that pollutes education, learning to teach high school is a combat zone at the best times. If any further validation is needed just check the retention rates of beginning teachers here in the long white cloud. Now add to the mix a global pandemic and far-reaching digital inequities, let it sit for 18 months and every metaphor becomes a unique kind of euphemism. Each in one way or another failing to describe the madness of learning to teach a pack of teenagers on the job and over Zoom.

It is the passions and imbalances of high schoolers among a conspiracy of circumstances that drew me into teaching. There is an energy about them that is untrue about every other age group, an explosive combination of genius and silliness, of profound insight and myopic shallowness, of understanding themselves as persons boiling with beautiful potential and at the same time loathing any special attention. One can imagine how this manifests in the classroom. Every blue Bic pen a spring-loaded slingshot. Every brilliant piece of work concealed from their peers with all the cunning of a prison escape. Every genuine insight followed by an equally naive notion.

“I feel like so much of the world’s problems could be solved with just an extra ounce of compassion,” I recall one of my own classmates whispering to me a lifetime ago in history class. “If only everyone were just like me there’d be no more problems left.” Who else bar a teen could switch so quickly from Aunty “combat Covid with kindness” Jacinda to a poorly written 80s comic supervillain? So ticks the inner clock of the high school mind. 

It is how well you can swim through these idiosyncrasies that governs your success on the job, how well you can connect with your students on their level. Relationships, after all, are the currency of the 21st century classroom. Teaching is thrilling, exhausting and mystifying. I am not entirely sure how one is supposed to react to a student screaming “Kobe” in the middle of a test and shooting a paper ball from the back row of desks, but in my classroom it tends to get a nice-shot nod and a it’s-really-not-the-time-for-that frown. Moments like these, I assure you, are endless, occurring at least every 10 minutes. 

As my first year on the ground progressed, I was starting to get my head around it, finding a way to juggle the admin with the actual job of teaching. And then comes Covid out of the blue like the North Island out of the ocean. A worldwide pandemic transforming the way we must learn and teach and learn to teach. No more traditional classrooms. No more paper ball projectiles. No more subtle nods and admonitory looks intended only for Frankie down the back, burying his head in his laptop, feigning like he isn’t frothing with pride after having just sunk his shot. In their stead, it was tiny black squares and circular logos or students looking more at their own picture than the presented screen. It was becoming a guest in the house of every student who is blessed enough to possess the resources to join your virtual classroom and my own mother in the background dedicating herself to embarrassing me in front of them. (Yes, like any good millennial, I spent my lockdown at my parents’ house). And for many across the motu it was families of five sharing a single device on a shoddy internet connection or students without any device at all.

Given my infancy in the profession, connecting with the students on the right side of the digital divide was conveniently intuitive. It was an exercise in humility, not everything being ideal the first time around, then flexibility and responsiveness. Three traits being new on the job I had plenty of practice with. What it really came down to was simply doing what I did in the classroom, only online. In a word: differentiating. I adapted the skills I had to meet each of my student’s individual needs as best as one person could. I held a virtual classroom at scheduled times for those who appreciate working in real-time and I recorded the lessons for those who wanted to work on their own schedule and I assured all those who were not in the right space to learn right now that learning is a life long journey and there will be plenty of time to catch up with whatever they have missed. Some of my peers (beginning teachers also) went as far as posting their lessons on Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, really connecting their students on their level.

But here we come kanohi ki te kanohi with education’s real problem: What happened to those who lacked such resources?

You do not get very far into your training as a teacher before meeting the Ministry of Education and its central motto: excellent and equitable outcomes. Not a bad line in all honesty. Short and sharp and to the point. But what does it really look like when the waka hits the water? In response to Covid, my own kura, Spotswood College, was able to leverage its capital and partnerships with the local community to provide emergency internet connection and a device to all those who needed it. This meant, with few exceptions, my students had the technological tools to do what needed to be done over lockdown. But my position was a rarity. Many of my peers had no such luxury. Their students fell off the map completely, never seeing or hearing from them again until level two rolled around. And for a smaller group, students understandably anxious about returning to school while the virus was still about, their teachers didn’t see them again until a while after that. 

Then comes another lockdown and another and what had started as six weeks of missed school for the digitally deprived got uncomfortably close to six months. Students doing their part, bunking down like the rest of us, every day falling a little further behind. And a whole tribe of teachers practically powerless, unable to teach or awhi or assure their students in any meaningful way. And so it went for these silly geniuses without the resources to connect from home. An absence of education, neither excellent nor equitable.

As a soldier with his feet on the ground striving to make a difference, it has been a delightful grind. Every day in the classroom an exhibition in the wonders and curiosities of a new generation’s coming of age. But still, I am left wondering what the next 18 months might look like. Not for me, for the students on the wrong side of the digital divide, who have already lost the half in the last year and a half. 

Keep going!