As of Monday 1 February, most teachers were back in the classroom cautiously prepping for 15 February when their learners will return to what has become an unfamiliar learning environment — school.
There is no wonder that an air of trepidation circles as the date nears when the unsung heroes of the pandemic will largely be responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation’s children, as an Op-Ed published in Daily Maverick pointed out.
“I have mixed feelings. I am excited to go back to work and hopeful that we will be able to cope — the learners and other teachers,” says Grade 3 teacher, Nolitha Sikuni.
Sikuni teaches at Homba Primary School in Khayelitsha where she describes teaching under Covid-19 conditions as tense and exhausting, both physically and emotionally and she cannot remember what ‘normal’ feels like anymore. “It is not easy even now, you’re constantly wondering whether you’re safe,” Sikuni says.
With an enormous amount of pressure to plough through the notoriously content-heavy National Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) syllabus taught across most public schools in South Africa, the heat was turned up to boiling point when Covid-19 forced schools to reassess how they were going to get their learners through the academic year as safely as possible.
When intermediate phase teacher at Alfonso Arries Primary School in Port Elizabeth, Jessica Rennie graduated with her teacher’s degree in 2019, 2020 held exciting new prospects. However, it was far from the career kick-starter Rennie had hoped for.
“It all started on my first day at school after the lockdown restrictions were eased. All my past experiences in schools and what I had learnt while I was studying were almost useless when going into a school and trying to deal with the pandemic effects. I had to completely re-adjust and adapt to the new situation without any preparation or forethought,” says Rennie.
“I felt extremely helpless as a new, first-year educator starting my career in the middle of a pandemic. I had the challenge of learning how the school works on top of adapting to the new Covid nightmare. I also felt stressed because of all the responsibility that was put on my shoulders. I felt lonely in the beginning because I had not had the opportunity, before, to get to know my colleagues. It was hard not to bring the emotions I had at work into my home,” she adds.
Teachers had to adapt traditional teaching and learning methods and implement alternative systems like rotational learning and, in some instances, online learning to help get their learners through the year.
“A day at school was often chaos. There would always be changes to the teaching content, timetable, or teacher responsibilities. There was not enough time to teach the work that was required each day. The learners were unfocused and disruptive, it was a struggle to discipline the learners and encourage them to do their work. The learners were also not allowed to play outside to release their energy, which made it difficult for me to teach them,” she explains.
Rennie says each day was a drain on her physical and emotional wellbeing and struggled to work through the day’s challenges because she felt like there were not as many guidelines to help teachers cope under Covid conditions.
“It was difficult to prepare because I did not have any content model to work from, from any previous teacher. I would have to create my own notes and worksheets that fitted with the new teaching guide, sent by the Education Department. The learners did not have textbooks, so a lot of the notes had to be printed or written out on our boards. A lot of the time I did not feel prepared,” Rennie says.
If schools were equipped, the switch — from the previous routine to a new way of hybrid or remote teaching — happened within a matter of weeks like at Port Elizabeth-based independent school, St Dominic’s Priory where high school teacher Heather Roth works.
Still, out of approximately 500 students in the school, Roth teaches maths and design to Grades 10 and 11 and explains that flipping a traditionally hands-on, location- and interaction-dependent system to cater to social distance-learning was daunting and frustrating.
“I think ‘frustration’ was the word of the year. When students’ wifi knocks out in the middle of a lesson or they say they can’t see or hear you, lockdown teaching got to be very demoralising and demotivating. As a teacher you are trying to take responsibility for your students and their enthusiasm and achievement for and in your subject and the mediation of the internet takes away a lot of that,” says Roth.
Roth expresses that she found it challenging not having a sense of whether the students were coping or understanding the lessons. “A lot of the time students wouldn’t have their cameras nor their microphones on so you couldn’t gauge whether they were understanding what you were teaching,” Roth says.
“I believe that the Covid-19 pandemic was a big wake-up call for education in South Africa. We as school management must use this opportunity to look at the way we deliver the curriculum and use creative and innovative methods that suit both the school and the school community.”
However, Roth says there were flickers of silver linings: “The school I teach at has benefited in that we have recognised the benefit of having longer lessons but fewer in a day. We have actually revised our entire timetable to cater towards this thinking and instead of an eight-lesson day, we have a six-lesson day. I will also continue using Google Classroom long after the pandemic is over — it is such a valuable platform and backup to have,” she says.
One of Sikuni’s biggest anxieties was her learners’ mental wellness. “We tried our best not to scare them. The strategy I used was to hear from them how much they know about the pandemic and take it from there. It was tough, they looked confused, not knowing how to interact with each other. I tried to make them comfortable and we had sessions where we reminded them about the golden rules like keeping their masks on and washing or sanitising their hands regularly,” she explains, adding that, despite the challenges being manifold, there were positive moments.
“It was challenging but on a lighter note, this time brought me closer to the learners, mostly those who needed individual assistance. We were helping each other getting used to the ‘new normal’.”
“When we were in the thick of the lockdown, there was a huge sense of disconnection whereas now, the sense is that everyone is thrilled to be back at school. I think there is no substitute for real-life teaching. You can get a lot more quality teaching done when you’re facing someone in real life,” Roth adds.
Aristea Primary School in Kraaifontein in the Western Cape was a little less prepared to work remotely. Acting deputy principal of the public school that caters to 1,200 learners, Francois Fouche said that no one anticipated the return to school after term one to be so delayed.
“Most of the learners and many of the teachers did not have any study materials or textbooks with them at home. We were not prepared to communicate with many of the households because of challenges with devices, data and up-to-date contact information,” says Fouche.
He notes that communication became a crucial element for teaching under Covid-19 conditions. Aristea set up a weekly newsletter system for the parents. Newsletters were placed on all the school communication platforms to ensure the repetition of information.
“During the lockdown, we used Facebook as a starting block to provide opportunities for learning at home, but it was only partially successful. The first thing the teachers did when we were allowed back at school was to set up better communication channels through the d6 Communicator, email and class WhatsApp groups. We also opened the school for the parents to collect their children’s books in a Covid-19 compliant manner,” he adds.
Aristea followed the alternating day timetable where learners in each class were divided into two groups. Fouche says that siblings were kept in the same group and timetables were adapted to ensure that every grade had a lunch break at different times, as well as finished the school day at different times to enforce social distancing.
Towards the end of July 2020, when the grade five learners came back to school, the last group to return, Fouche met with them.
“… Because the classes were small and we did classroom teaching, it only took a short time for me and the learners to get to know one another. We also spent break times together. There was a feeling of respect in the classroom and we had very few problems with undisciplined learners because we were not only teaching the curriculum, but we were looking out for one another’s health and well-being by following all the rules of sanitising, social distancing and the wearing of masks,” says Fouche.
He adds, “I was always worried about my family at home, but I followed the guidelines to keep myself safe.”
Fouche echoes Roth’s thoughts on real-life teaching.
“We had an informal parent evening at the end of October last year and 95% of the parents attended. This reminded me that we are social creatures and need personal contact. I soon realised that the children must be at school to have a routine and the familiarity of the classroom and their friends around them to socialise. Learning was not as effective as being at school daily, but if we work creatively with the curriculum this can be overcome.
“I believe that the Covid-19 pandemic was a big wake-up call for education in South Africa. We as school management must use this opportunity to look at the way we deliver the curriculum and use creative and innovative methods that suit both the school and the school community.
“Not all schools can follow the same methods of curriculum delivery, but we can all achieve the same end results if teachers, learners and parents work together. This is an exciting time with many opportunities to change education for the better in our beautiful country,” Fouche adds. DM/ ML
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