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From Gestetner to Zoom

When I started teaching in the latter half of the last century (I love saying that), about the only bit of technology I had to master was the gestetner machine. For those of you who don’t remember, the gestetner machine was used for duplicating materials we needed to hand out to our students. When I was duplicating something I usually ended up with purple ink all over my hands. I quickly made friends with the office staff who took pity on me and did the duplicating for me.


Fast forward to today and I have a plethora of technology at my disposal. There are photocopiers, computers, lap tops and all sorts of technological whizz-bangery. I confess I’m not exactly an expert on all things computers as my students will willingly attest but I can download and share things and I’m learning to use Canvas and Engage and Google Docs and other stuff.


In fact, until Covid struck I was feeling pretty pleased with myself and my mastery (sort of) of all things technological. Hell, I can almost work out how to do a Power Point (with help from IT).


But teaching by Zoom is a whole other universe.


First of all is the challenge of mastering Zoom itself. This is relatively simple when Zooming friends or small groups. But try Zooming 25 teenagers, all at once.

First of all, you have to get on Zoom. Then you invite your class to join you, then you admit them to the “room”. Once they are there, you have to call the roll which requires you to go to whatever roll calling facility you have while the class stare blankly at their screens waiting for some inspiration. I can see some people asking why I don’t call the roll while the students are working. Put it this way, if I go outside a real, live classroom and leave the students to work while I mark the roll, there is a better than even chance that a few of them might start misbehaving. And I might have to spend a good ten minutes settling them down after I’ve finished the roll.


By nature, and I’m not being overly judgemental here, it would be fair to say that most teenagers are pretty energetic. So, asking them to sit quietly staring at their screens while you rabbit on for anything from forty to eighty minutes is unlikely to be an easy call. Some will find the temptation to add emoji’s to the conversation irresistible. Others will find other on screen ways to amuse their friends. Unless you are particularly careful, you might even find yourself being trolled as happened to me last time we were Zooming in lockdown.


The other little variable is that your connection might suddenly start playing up and you may literally lose the class. While this might not be as bad as losing a class on an excursion, it is pretty stressful just the same. Once (hopefully) your connection has been restored you can continue the lesson without a hitch. Until one of your 25 freezes or loses their connection. Connectivity is vital to Zooming. It’s also a word that didn’t exist way back in the gestetner days.


Teaching is a fine art. It requires an appreciation of the range of abilities of the students in a particular class. It also requires an appreciation of each member of the class’s attention span. In a live setting this is relatively easy to manage. On Zoom it is very challenging. Particularly when students require individual attention. There are “breakout rooms” where you can send students to “work quietly amongst themselves” while you help someone. Trouble is, sometimes these breakout rooms live up to their names and the students take it on face value and break out.


Teaching on Zoom removes the individual, human connections that make the job so special. You don’t move around the classroom, you don’t enjoy the thrill of someone “getting it” and nodding agreement, quite often you don’t get any response at all. Students have to “unmute” to respond to a simple “does that make sense?” I suspect they get a little tired of my asking them to wave or give me a “thumbs up”.


I’ve commented before on how some students, freed from social pressures, seem to find their voice on Zoom. What has been made abundantly clear this time around is how much they clearly value the contact, as impersonal as it is. On one level this is reassuring, on another it is deeply distressing to see how much they miss the human contact that makes schools such vibrant places.


I miss the student’s banter in the playground and the corridors. I miss my colleagues. I miss the whole school community.


I don’t miss the purple ink on my flares though.





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