Teachers are the Unsung Heroes of this Year’s COVID-19 Pandemic

airfocus/Unsplash
airfocus/Unsplash

School’s out! After a harrowing year of trying to figure out homework and not seeing their friends, it is finally time for kids to have a well-deserved break this November and December.

But what about our teachers, who have worked tirelessly this year, as they have had to adjust to demands by the Ministry of Education, their faculty, students, and parents?

What it was like teaching during circuit breaker

CC, who is a secondary school teacher, found that this year brought on challenges she had not anticipated. “The reduced interaction with the kids has been challenging, since that is one of the main motivations for me as a teacher,” she said.

Home-based learning (HBL) and safe-distancing measures greatly reduced her time with her students, which CC says contributed to her having a burnout this year. “I can deal with everything else, as along as I’m working for the kids, but [because] I’m not seeing the students I’m working for, it made everything so much more difficult,” she said.

Tang, a teacher at a junior college, agreed that the lack of interaction put a strain on teachers this year. As lessons at the junior college level often includes collaborative learning, she said that “some of [the teachers] had had to redesign entire modules within a very short timeframe to ensure adherence to safe management measures.”

Outside of the classroom, Tang also faced an issue many who have been working from home can relate to. “It was challenging refraining from a newfound 24/7 access to work,” she said. The hazy segregation between work and leisure made it mentally draining, as there were no set hours for work or rest, since most of her time was taken up working or being bothered by work.

Teaching in a new normal

Things have calmed down slightly now that schools have reopened, albeit with safe management measures put into place. This, of course, has brought on another set of challenges for the teachers – a lot of it on administrative tasks that take time away from teaching and interacting with their students.

Both CC and Tang said that they spend quite a fair bit of time on temperature taking and wiping down classrooms. They act as safe distancing ambassadors too, having to separate large groups of students (“many times, repeatedly,” said Tang), and ensuring everyone keeps their masks on after meals.

The safe distancing has spilt over within classrooms as well, such as with morning assembly, which has been relegated to the classrooms, and where students are not allowed to sing along to the national anthem or say the pledge out loud.

Group work is also highly regulated, which has translated into a less vibrant classroom, especially for CC. “The kids have to stay in their seats, and when they are energy laden and have nowhere to expend that energy, they get bored,” she said.

An outlet for this energy used to come also in the form of co-curricular activities (CCA), but this has also been taken away from the students. CCAs have now been deemed optional, and some activities are also considered “unnecessary” by schools.

Even with these new changes, the teachers are trying hard to maintain a sense of “old” normalcy for their students. Tang said that having lessons face-to-face is already a big part of maintaining what life used to be pre-COVID-19, while CC has been trying to engage with her students more by keeping her spirits up.

“No matter how bad things are outside, the teacher influences the tone and energy of the class,” explained CC. “If I can show them that I am able to have hope in this difficult time, I model for them that hope and resilience that they can have as well.”

An increased workload among other things

It is not an easy task when it sometimes feels like they are fighting a battle on their own. Both feel that there are just so many changes to adapt to on top of the regular tasks they have. For example, schools are transitioning into a Personalised Device Learning Programme as part of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) efforts to drive digital literacy among students under its new National Digital Literacy Programme.

“We have been reviewing and redesigning curriculum each year, but there is now a greater focus on more infusion of e-pedagogical tools,” said Tang.

But this is just one of many other programmes that are going to be run in the new school year. Full-time blended learning is a priority for many schools, should the country face another pandemic or fall back into circuit breaker mode. Then there are some that are moving into full subject-based banding, which is expected to roll out in full by 2024.

On CC’s side, she also must deal with new Humanities syllabi for her lower-secondary students. There are also preparations needed for the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF), which is expected to resume in 2021.

For Tang, on top of learning and adapting a new Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum, she has piled on administrative work brought on by changes to instructor contracts for CCAs, since CCAs were on pause for a long period of time.

A lack of communication from HQ

It does not help that there also seems to be a disconnect and a lack of communication from MOE and what is actually happening on the ground.

“There are way too many things going on at the same time and schools are definitely overwhelmed,” shared CC. Not only that, but MOE has also been releasing new policies and information on very short notice, which gives teachers very little time to adjust to new changes.

The changes haven’t just taken a toll on the teachers, students and parents are feeling the stress of adjusting to a new normal.

For one, CCAs have been greatly affected. Apart from it being optional, teachers still have a responsibility to ensure attendance accountability from students. Many teachers have had to design CCA to fit a virtual setting on their own, with no guidance or help from the ministry, so that students can still attend CCA for it to be reflected on their report cards.

The students’ expectations of what can and cannot be done have had to be managed also. CC shared an instance of a year-end camp her students had planned for their CCA, only to have it be completely rejected by the head of department because it was deemed an ‘unnecessary’ activity. She chalks it up to poor proper communication from faculty and had to change the students’ plans and reframe it as a ‘training session’ for it to be approved.

Parents are disappointed with the management of CCAs in schools as well. Tang shared feedback from parents who were worried about the students’ potential for direct school admission (DSA), which relies on attendance and performance in the student’s CCA to be eligible.

“How are students going to be sufficiently prepared for competitions and performances next year when training sessions now are so restricted?” asked Tang. She also said that parents and students alike are worried on how the DSA process is going to be fairly assessed when many of the students haven’t had the opportunity to properly train for the majority of the year.

Still a worth it profession through it all

It is clear that teachers are doing the most for their students, and that the whole COVID-19 situation has not helped at all. Both teachers are feeling the drain, especially when the end-of-year school holidays are usually a time for a short break for them. This year, with travel restrictions and the amount of schoolwork they have to prepare, CC and Tang are expecting to work through the rest of the year.

But for the time being, the added pressure is still worth it for these teachers who are passionate about their students and teaching.

“My students are resilient, and they are generally quite a positive bunch, and my best days in school are because of them,” stated CC. “They are understanding of the plight teachers are in as well, and they appreciate the effort we put in to still make their learning meaningful.”

It is a sentiment shared by Tang as well, who said that appreciative students have helped her cope with the many changes and added workload.

The role of teachers in shaping the future

If there is one thing, however, that CC has come to realise about teaching in a pandemic, is the importance of a role teachers play in it.

“Teachers have shown high levels of adaptability and flexibility in the face of uncertainty… whatever is thrown at us, we take it, because our kids are important and their education needs to continue, regardless,” she said. “Teachers continue to work, and work hard, because our students shouldn’t have to suffer.”

CC ended our conversation with a revision to an adage that gets loosely thrown around often. The saying “those who can’t, teach” is quite an insult after learning about the lengths teachers have gone through to ensure students are not short-changed.

“Perhaps a more complete saying might be, those who can’t sit still at a table all day, teach. Those who can’t live with routine and predictability, teach. Those who need their everyday to be an adventure, teach. Those who are resilient and long suffering, teach.”

And she’s right. To the teachers who have taken on the daunting task of educating our future, we are here to say, “thank you”.

 

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