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Lessons from a seasoned juggler

Hello, fellow Melburnian and fellow unqualified stand-in teacher. Thanks for your question.

For a long time I’ve considered teachers to be underpaid and under-appreciated, but I didn’t understand just how difficult their job was until we were asked to do schooling from home.

Actually, that’s a preposterous thing to say. For a few weeks, my wife and I shared the responsibility for teaching a single student. That hasn’t given me a profound insight into teaching − it’s just given me a slightly longer glimpse than what I’ve had previously. And what an eye-opening glimpse it was!

I’m not surprised you found it hard.

Now, I’ll be totally honest: I’m not sure if I’m the best person to give you advice on this matter. Back in March I remember there were a lot of tears, a lot of sulking, a lot of stomping out of the room and declarations of this being the “worst day of my life”, a lot of screaming “I’ll never get this right!” and “I hate maths!” And that was just me doing my invoices. Things got really bad when I had to start teaching in April.

Illustration: John Shakespeare

Illustration: John Shakespeare Credit:

Anyway, I’ll give it a try.

I think one of the mistakes I made in the first teaching period was thinking I needed to strictly follow the excellent plans our school sent through. I felt I might have been letting down my daughter’s teacher − and my daughter − if we didn’t spend a full hour on reading and then another full hour on maths, and so on.

So, the first piece of advice would be to play the whole thing by ear. If reading isn’t working at 9am, move on to art. If music is listed as a 45-minute session but it takes only 15 minutes (or it turns into an epic jam session), so be it.

That’s not to say I think we should throw our hands up in the air and say “Oh, just watch YouTube. This is a disaster.” But we should be comfortable deviating from the script and doing a bit of ad libbing.

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In short, it’s OK to fly by the seat of your pants. There is a but, however. That expression comes from the early days of plane flight, and even aviators in the 1930s had flight plans. My second suggestion is you can be adaptable and strategic. If you need to get some work done at a certain time of the day − maybe attend an online meeting or finish an important task − try to make it coincide with the school sessions that require the least amount of supervision and encouragement.

The last point I’ll make is that “we’re all in this together” has become something of an overused banality during this period, but beneath the beige exterior is something meaningful. While it’s true that not all Australians are teaching kids, everyone has been affected by the COVID-19 restrictions. What we share is an experience of dramatic change and that brings about empathy, or at the very least understanding.

No sensible boss expects employees to produce the same level of work as they did before the virus. No school expects parents to strictly abide by their instructions. Nobody’s a perfectionist − or expecting perfection − in the world of schooling during coronavirus.

“Better” is always a relative term, and the reference points are all out of whack at the moment. Perhaps, instead of thinking about improving your performance as a teacher and employee this time around, concentrate on how you can make the whole thing easier for yourself.

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