Janet Dutton is a lecturer in Secondary English in the School of Education. Her postgraduate students in the Master of Teaching were impressed with the way she went “above and beyond expectations in providing resources, effective learning and equitable assessment tasks and alterations” and how she “opened up learning forums and organised contact times that are beyond her obligations to make sure students are on track.”

Here, Janet shares how the move to online learning changed some of her teaching practices forever. As told to Kylie Coaldrake and Karina Luzia.

Deciding what is core

My daughter was starting university for the first time this year, so the two of us were at home together, experiencing the shift to online. Her university shifted a week or two before we did so I was able to journey that with her and that was illuminating for me. I learnt a lot from her experiences, and we started – and continue – to talk to our own students about what the particular roadblocks are; what are the things that we can do to help make this better. At the same time, we weren’t prepared to shift our expectations and the quality of the work we wanted our students to be able to produce – it’s really important to maintain that – sometimes we had to modify the systems or the approaches that we asked them to employ.  

So, my underlying beliefs about effective teaching were unchanged but we certainly changed some of the ways we organised the units and moved from f2f to online zoom tutorials. My units in the Master of Teaching are practical units, about learning to be a classroom teacher and behaviour management, and a particular challenge was how to create authentic classroom situations. 

We had to decide what the core things were that we wanted to keep and make work and then we reshaped things for the online environment, to make sure that we could keep true to those things and continue that learning.  

We acknowledged that there were some things that we just weren’t able to do and that we had to accept were not going to work in this new environment. So, we would do them in a completely different way and we flagged that with the students upfront. 

Screenshot from an EDST8237 student microteaching task – once face to face, now online.

Collegial team-teaching is the way forward

I was really fortunate in that in my units I was working with amazing sessional academics, Susan Caldis, Jessica Chiltern and Rose Garofano, and we really emphasised and amplified how we worked collegially. Previously we had 3 separate tutorials, but we changed that and put the students into one large group (40-50 students) and used our individual strengths in creative ways. For example, Jess and I facilitated a larger group activity where the students had to design a scenario pretending they were a teacher working in a remote learning situation. The students worked in groups, they came backwards and forwards to us for feedback and help before posting a video of themselves using a classroom management strategy into the forum. While we went on with other activities, Susan viewed the videos and gave them feedback so by the time they left the tutorial, they all had feedback. Normally in the f2f classroom you can walk past and give that feedback – so that was one way that we tried to work in a team to get around that.

Continuing to model reflexivity

I would say the thing that made a difference to what we did was the element of reflexivity. As teachers we are continually engaged reflexively in our work – it’s one of the 5 R’s that we use in the logic of the School of Education courses. We know we want our teacher education students to develop that – but we actually want everybody to develop that in a university environment so they can go out into every workplace and be reflexive workplace participants. As the teaching team, we maintained communication during tutorials and when the students went off into the breakout rooms, we would communicate amongst ourselves by text or phone, and we would reflect on what we’d just done, what was working, what wasn’t working. We never used the actual Zoom meeting space to discuss this because we know that students can come suddenly come back out of a breakout room. That is something that we don’t normally get the opportunity to do as easily in a f2f classroom, as we are not team teaching as often.

So, after every tutorial we stayed back and we would evaluate. We agreed implicitly that we needed to be honest and humble as we worked through this space because we had to be able to say “that didn’t work”, “that did work,” “I think we spent too long there” etc. We modelled that explicitly to our students by reflecting on an activity in the moment. For our teacher education students, it showed that you sometimes have successes, and you sometimes have quite abject failures, and it is not about the failure, it’s about what you do to remedy it, so we turned them into teaching moments.

Valuing the student contribution

Knowing what I now know, I think in lots of ways we initially undervalued and didn’t maximse what the students could bring to the learning process and that is something I would do differently in future.

Increasingly we realised that our students have incredible skills, let’s use them and maximise them – make them leaders of learning in our units.

Even though they are trainee teachers, I can still get them to lead learning of their peers and that is something that we moved progressively towards across the session and by the end of the session we actually had really effective groups. For example, there were students who couldn’t attend a tutorial time and they set up groups that were meeting outside of the tutorial to do a task – they set up a time that suited them and they worked through the task together. There were really rich things that emerged from this model – the confidence to give space – to innovate, to take risks – it’s a risk-taking enterprise when you hand it over, but the benefits are just enormous in learning.

An EDST8237 student practicing their own online teaching.

Understanding the real experience of our external students

We’ve been led to believe the external students don’t really want the f2f, that they and are happy to do the online learning, but that wasn’t our experience at all. We ran full day Zoom meetings and there were students there at the very end! They weren’t sitting in the Zoom for 7 hours – they were working in a group, going away and doing a series of tasks, coming back, giving feedback. At the end of the day there would still be a full cohort of students sticking around to have a chat – so that need for connection was really profound.

Connecting and caring

The notion of connection and care is something that I base all my teaching on – it’s not the only thing I focus on – I focus on lots of other things, but that is really a core dimension of my work as a teacher. I found that was heighted in the shift to online learning – the students really needed that connection. In all the Master of Teaching units, the convenors ran Q&A sessions and recorded instructional videos about assessment tasks, and they ran drop-in meetings across the degree. We put all communications through the iLearn site so that all students could have access to communication about assessment tasks for reasons of equity. We didn’t want a situation where one student could gain information about something that other students didn’t. We decided that was really important. It was a new degree; these were postgraduate students in their first three weeks of university when they got thrown to go home.

I had a student who turned up do her Viva Voce assessment task, worth 40%, and I said “whereabouts are you” and she said “in the back of my car at soccer training.” I sent her to come back another day when she was in a more comfortable space and that’s the sort of accommodation we felt was really important to be able to make for our students because things happen that are complex – it’s still complex for our students.

The student reluctantly agreed to do her assessment at another time but only because the child she had in the front seat watching the iPad wasn’t so keen. I am in awe of the resilience of my students – I always am, but particularly so this year. All of the unit convenors and teaching staff commented on the resilience of our students and the fact that, despite what is an incredibly fragmented experience of their first session of learning to be a teacher, they were actually able to overcome quite significant situations.

Balancing equity and ‘reasonableness’

It isn’t normal times. Normally you would be quite strict with deadlines and whatever.

But we had to respond in ways that were equitable to the whole cohort but were reasonable to the circumstances.

It was always a balancing act – at the very human level, that was really important. I think it’s an important part of our work as academics and teachers and particularly if we want to model that for our students.

One of the things that the students said in our unit feedback is that they felt that we really modelled the way to work as teachers.

As a teaching team we are enormously proud of that because we actually take great pride in the fact that we demonstrated collegiality, we demonstrated ways to connect with our students, we demonstrated really rigorous work. Our students will tell you that they worked so hard in that session and they learnt so much. We ran a 10 min viva voce via Zoom with every student in EDST8200, about 80 of them, and when we watched them all we were really amazed at what they knew at the end that they didn’t know 10 weeks earlier.

We take great pride that some of them said “when we think about how we would like to teach; we have got some good models.” I think that’s a really rich outcome – given that we normally rely on our classroom practice to do that.

We also had fun – we have to find ways to make things fun and enjoyable so we spent our whole time working out ways we could get the content and package it in ways that were authentic classroom scenarios – we had a crazy hat day – just some things like that to make us laugh at ourselves and share our passion.

The new normal

An interesting thing for education is that in times like these where things are really difficult, teaching becomes more attractive. We’ve got an approaching teaching shortage as we have a generation that’s about to leave teaching in large numbers plus, teaching is a secure profession. So, all of those students who are doing Arts degrees and things like that are rightly starting to think that teaching might be a good idea. I am also fielding many enquiries for change of career graduates who have been pilots and engineers and working in IT for whom teaching is looking a very good career change.

We’re already looking forward to next year. This was the first year of the Primary and Secondary Master of Teaching at Macquarie and we started off with great numbers and whilst we lost a few students and some that were doing full time dropped back to part time – that was just a COVID shift. I’ve received applications from some of those who left and have reapplied to come back next year so that is great news. We always welcome more teachers – it’s a wonderful profession!

Janet Dutton is a lecturer in the School of Education. She has a passion for teaching and research that promotes creative pedagogy and student agency. Her research areas include English curriculum and HSC English, translanguaging in EAL/D contexts, literacy pedagogy for low SES students, preservice teacher identity, formation, and the impact of high stakes testing on teacher practice. View her Research Profile

In November Janet will be presenting “Reimagining a ‘Mantle of the Expert’ Viva Voce for the Zoom environment” as part of the Challenge accepted! Re-assessing assessment in 2020 session during the 2020 Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) online conference.

Janet Dutton. Photo by Mike Catabay for TECHE
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Posted by L&T Development

The Learning and Teaching Staff Development team works with staff across the University to ensure they are supported to facilitate quality learning for students. This includes offering professional development, contributing to curriculum and assessment design, recognising and rewarding good practice, supporting peer review of teaching, and leading scholarly reflection. Email professional.learning@mq.edu.au with questions or requests.

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