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Being an NQT in a global pandemic

At Hopscotch, our thoughts are very much with all schools at this uncertain time and we are keen to support educators in light of the nationwide school closures. Each week we'll be posting a blog, direct from a teacher on the front line, about their experience and challenges they're facing. Below is the fourth in the series written by a secondary school Drama teacher in Brighton.

When I completed my PGCE last year, my initial teacher training (ITT) programme could never have provided any guidance on how to prepare for a global pandemic, resulting in the closure of schools and challenging me to switch to remote, online learning. I’m in the same position as thousands of NQTs, whose first year of teaching has been a particularly strange and challenging one.

Taking a break

In some ways, I’ve enjoyed the break from school. Behaviour management has taken a backseat and the long hours of keeping a bounding sense of energy within my Drama classroom is no longer needed. I feel well rested – something that teachers are not commonly familiar with! However, in many ways I’m missing it desperately. I miss the young, quirky, rebellious, energetic and intellectual people who make my job so interesting and unpredictable (to say the least). I miss the familiarity of a timetable, the like-minded teachers I work with and the students’ creative ideas which remind me why I love my specialist subject so much.

Switching to remote learning

As a secondary Drama teacher, the switch to remote learning has been a bizarre one. I teach in a classroom with no chairs or tables, where written work is rare and only occurs if I am absent. We work almost completely practically and often my lessons see me on my hands and knees alongside my students, challenging them to think and work together in new, problem-solving ways to create drama. It is with this energy that I can motivate my learners to see drama in a way that is fun, different from the rest of their subjects and requires them to use their entire mind and body.

I have set my classes creative, written and, where possible, practical work to do with no set deadlines. Initially there was no expectation for students to complete the work as being honest, there is little we can do right now in terms of sanctioning learners for incomplete work. To me, to do so would feel wrong when we don’t know each student’s individual circumstances.

Helping to motivate students

Since my school in Brighton closed in March, my main struggle has been to keep my students working and motivated. Having spoken to friends and family beyond the teaching realm lack of motivation is not uncommon for all adults, let alone young people.

I teach around 450 students. Since the closure, I’ve received around 100 pieces of completed work to mark. There have been some stunning pieces of work, and I’m pleased to see some students are using this as an opportunity to get creative. However, this only accounts for around a quarter of my students - so what about the rest?

Motivationally, I think a lot of students who initially struggled in school before the closure (behaviorally or academically), have taken this as an opportunity to take a break, particularly from non-core subjects such as Drama. Plus, we know that some homes may be lacking in resources or access to the internet.

As we enter the new term, I have set myself some clear goals to motivate my students and engage with the subject, which may prove useful for other teachers.

  1. Set clear deadlines. Guidance from SLT is now to ensure we set tasks with deadlines to make it easier for us to track actively engaged students, reward accordingly and touch base with those who miss them.
  2. Remember learning objectives. These have never been more important in my opinion. Telling students what they are going to be able to achieve and setting specific goals will provide a sense of purpose.
  3. Connect to previous learning. Simple phrases such as “Remember when I challenged you to…” can help students link what they already know to what you’re asking them to consider, providing a sense of academic continuity.
  4. Thinking long term. Setting long term goals and making students realise how this will help them in the future adds motivation. Using optimistic language such as “When we are back in the classroom…” reminds them that this isn’t permanent and that their teacher is looking forward to it, just as much as they are.
  5. Rewarding work. Recognition is important, especially when the circumstances are even more challenging than usual. My school operates an achievement points system that is still remotely operational, and I’m hopefully that by recognising their efforts it will motivate my students to keep it up.

Being there for students

Finally, our job as teachers is not only to educate, but also to care. I know that many of my students will be struggling at home, as school is sometimes one of the only places where learners have a safe, stable and welcome environment. Reminding students that you are still there for them is fundamental - just as you play a pastoral role in school, it is still required outside of it. In my role as a form tutor, I have been sending my students a weekly email which lets them know I am still around to help and chat, plus drawing their attention to some positive news or something motivating that I’ve spotted that week. It is these small gestures that could really lift a student’s mood, and in turn, increase their motivation and engagement.

As we continue in this uncertain period, there is one thing I hope my students take away from this unprecedented turn of events. Some subjects that are generally overlooked in school, or seen as non-essential, have become imperative during this period of lockdown in terms of our wellbeing. Art, music, drama and theatre are all ways in which we are staying entertained at home. It is my hope that once this is all over, students remember how essential these ‘non-essential’ subjects actually were, and that this mindset stays with them throughout their educational career.

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