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Teachers courageously confront challenge of teaching during COVID-19 pandemic
Author: Aslam Fataar
Published: 24/06/2020

​Through a pedagogy of care, teachers are courageously confronting the challenge of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Aslam Fataar from the Department of Education Policy Studies in an article for Daily Maverick (22 June).

  • Read the article below or click here for the piece as published.

Aslam Fataar*

The “new normal" in schools during the Covid-19 pandemic raises many challenges for teachers. They have misgivings about the rush to open schools in circumstances where sanitation, deep cleaning and physical distancing are difficult to guarantee. They are especially nervous about infection spikes among those teachers with immunocompromised health profiles. Yet, they are also anxious and eager to figure how best to deliver the curriculum to their learners.

In our capacity as education academics, we have been involved in ongoing processes to support teachers and curriculum advisers to adapt their curricula and teaching to address the Covid-19 circumstances. Our interaction with them has shown that many teachers are going the extra mile to adjust their teaching under these constrained conditions.

Teachers cautioned about an online learning approach to curriculum. They felt that such an approach favours learning in middle-class schools which seemed seamlessly to move their syllabi online.

The problems associated with online learning are amplified in more marginalised schools. The teachers we work with in these schools report having to attend to rising challenges in health, hunger and psychosocial conditions among their learners. Understandably, the teachers' caring practices have become a significant part of their professional commitment during these pandemic times.

They are struggling to focus on the delivery of the curriculum in a context where the government has insisted on “rescuing the school year". Nonetheless, they are devoting attention to adjusting their teaching.

The reality and limitations of online learning

Under lockdown, delivering the curriculum online – more accurately referred to as emergency remote learning – has become the default teaching mode. Governments, educational managers and IT companies have strongly punted online learning.

While online learning has been posited as an effective way to cover the curriculum, the approach is questionable. Teachers tend to base their online teaching on transfer-type instruction, which leads to surface rote learning. The curriculum is being stripped down to bare-bones content, while feedback and assessment are challenging. Our conversations with various groups of teachers in working-class schools via the Teams and Zoom platforms have raised concern about online learning and the call for self-directed learning.

Teachers report exhaustion as they struggle to keep up with the need for continuous online interaction with their learners and parents. They are anxious about whether the work their learners cover at home is sufficient and appropriate.

The dominant complaint about online teaching is its perpetuation of educational inequality, which is particularly pertinent in South Africa with its enormous gap between rich and poor. The teachers reminded me that only 15% of households have adequate computer devices and the internet connectivity necessary for accessing online content. While middle-class schools have been frantically busy teaching their learners via online platforms, accounts from other teachers indicate that their experiences of teaching online have been very uneven.

Working-class schools are attempting to teach via online platforms. But online learning in these schools is extremely difficult because of the lack of devices and connectivity. An example of this became evident in our work with teachers in a primary school. We helped the school to package learning resources such as worksheets and reading texts into shareable online content. We worked with the teachers to share these resources via WhatsApp, which is the only technology widely available among working-class parents.

As they developed more experience with multi-modal teaching and learning, the teachers developed a rationale and a set of techniques for engaging their learners in curricular learning that is based on teaching during classroom time in school.

While the parents received and opened the WhatsApp messages, the teachers quickly realised that parents did not have the necessary data to download the resources. The teachers then settled on a fall-back position of printing the materials and asking parents to collect them at school. In some instances, the teachers were able to explain to the parents how to use these materials to aid their children's learning.

Teachers have begun to develop a teaching approach based on the interactive use of classroom teaching time, WhatsApp messaging, WhatsApp chat time, limited use of online platforms, material shared via flash disks, and the production of printed material.

What has emerged is a combination of contact teaching, the use of online platforms and shareable teaching content that enables teachers in working-class communities to effectively keep on teaching. Teachers are working out how to use these different formats in the context of reduced classroom teaching time and where learning at home has become crucial.

Teacher-directed multimodal learning

What remains central to these teachers' work during the pandemic is the recognition that the multiple modes of teaching and learning are there to support the teachers and sustain their central relationship with learners. The teachers are adamant that classroom contact time needs to remain the cornerstone of learning. Teachers and the social learning that occurs in classrooms cannot be replaced by digital connections.

Teachers were perplexed when some department officials presented the notion of “self-regulated student learning" as the mainstay of learning in the current context. They refused to accept a view of teaching that implied that learners would be individually and personally responsible for their own learning at home and via online interactions.

As they developed more experience with multi-modal teaching and learning, the teachers developed a rationale and a set of techniques for engaging their learners in curricular learning that is based on teaching during classroom time in school.

Teachers regard contact teaching time as essential for presenting and explaining new content and concepts, and for providing clear instructions to learners to guide their learning at home. It also provides and nurtures social connections among learners in their interactions with others, which can also be built on using digital modalities.

The teachers view learning at home as an opportunity for learners to reinforce and deepen their understanding of curriculum content. The teachers are not only preparing expository notes to guide learners at home, but also provide explicit instructions and learning texts to guide learners' engagement with the material. These texts are sent to learners via WhatsApp, or hard copies are given to those who cannot access them online.

With contact teaching time reduced, the teachers are also considering ways of organising how learning should take place at home. A big challenge is to ensure that learners adopt routines during the day for doing their school work.

Our conversations with the teachers generated an approach to managing the learners' time on the days when they learn from home, such as experimenting with providing set time-slots for specific subjects. The learners are being encouraged to work on subjects during set times. The teachers are making themselves available for consultation at set times via WhatsApp chat groups for them and their class. This leads to very productive interactions between the teacher and the class group.

Teachers are motivating learners to develop the discipline and commitment necessary for effective home-based learning. They are giving them tips for learning and self-study, and for managing their home circumstances to enhance self-study. They are persuading their learners to set themselves learning goals, a crucial tactic for remaining on course. Assessment of content acquisition during home learning takes place back in the classroom under the direction of the teacher. Some teachers indicated that their current interaction with their learners has actually increased, in itself a positive outcome, while others are concerned about the large number of learners who do not or cannot participate.

The teachers are soliciting WhatsApp messages from their learners about content and providing answers, explanations and guidance for working through the learning materials. They reported that they get rapid feedback from their learners about how they are grappling with their learning, which in turn allows the teachers to use the classroom contact time for addressing learning gaps and faulty understanding before moving on to introduce new content.

Teachers have also encouraged their learners to set up their WhatsApp chat groups to support each other in peer communication and support.

In sum, a pedagogy of care has taken centre stage among the teachers with whom we are working. Teachers are courageously confronting the challenge of teaching under pandemic conditions. They are developing multi-modal ways of teaching under these new circumstances in which the fear of becoming infected has forced them to adapt their teaching arrangements in often profoundly compromised situations.

These are precarious times. Keeping themselves and their learners safe remains central to teachers' work. Their teaching adaptations are motivated by the need to address what would amount to a considerable loss of learning among their already disadvantaged learners, if learning were to stop for long periods. Many teachers have been nothing short of heroic during these pandemic times.

*Aslam Fataar is a professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University.