“Every day, in 100 small ways, our children ask, ‘Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do I matter?’ Their behaviour often reflects our response.” ~ L.R. Knost
Today was rough.
As a teacher in the year 2020 and 2021, teaching virtually has become my norm and we are forever in this physical-virtual see-saw in how we bring education to the children in our care.
One of the things that I have felt acutely in my virtual teaching times is the element of human connection, shifts in how we read each other’s signals and body language, and the ability to see those moments of expression that might otherwise be lost in the normal classroom.
Placing a screen between a learner and their peers and their ‘normal’ learning environment is tough. The age-range I teach are most familiar with learning through play, interacting socially with their peers, and having teachers playing alongside them in bouts of sustained shared thinking, building and growing and scaffolding their learning by thoughtfully interacting when needed.
Remove that social element and place the child behind a screen. Add onto that a hovering parent just at the edge of the screen, expectant and, occasionally, competitive and comparing their child’s reactions and interactions to those of the other children on the screen. Mix into that the technical issues and frustrations of working with whatever shared platform you are introducing young children to. You are faced with a unique situation that is alien to the children in front of you and demands gentleness, patience, and a whole lot of love from the teacher.
Having already delivered virtual learning to large groups of young children for the majority of 2020, I am not new to the general feeling of exhaustion and despair that comes with it, but today’s sadness came from a different place.
I teach a mixed bag of abilities, particularly when it comes to proficiency in the English language, and on a normal daily basis, juggling this mixed bag is no problem. It is part of my daily routine and I have built up my own mountain of strategies to support these early language learners. Today, however, my mountain of strategies crumbled as I witnessed the silent body language of a child being pushed to speak before they were ready to speak, hearing a parent say that they can’t do it and internalising that thought, and slowly closing in on themself.
In language learning, understanding always comes before speaking. As someone who has learned (kind of!) other languages through immersion, I have always understood so much more than I have been able to speak. When I lived in Tanzania, my Tanzanian colleagues used to laugh at my ‘Sw-english’ because I would speak a weird hybrid of English and Kiswahili, or I would answer a Kiswahili question with an English answer. When I was in Prague, I would answer Czech questions with clearly understood English answers. Understanding always comes before speaking. Children understand more than they can express. They don’t only understand words. They understand gestures, tone, body language, facial expressions.
In my lesson today I could see that there was not that same recognition happening on the other side of the screen and I felt despair not being able to step through my screen and just sit with the child and let them know that it is okay. I could see the frustration of the parent as they desperately wanted their child to be vocal like some of the other children in the class, not necessarily realising that this environment is not the right environment for their child to feel confident in being vocal. This child is in those early stages of soaking up everything and, for a child to feel confident to speak out in an online class, there are so many elements that need to come into play, including feeling safe and secure, knowing it is okay to make mistakes, not feeling pressured and having space and time to speak if they want to, and knowing that is okay if they just want to listen.
Sweetheart, it’s okay if your voice just wants to be quiet for now. Don’t worry. I will still hear you when you are ready.
Our children are experiencing a new, unknown space and, no matter how many times they have used virtual school or remote learning in the past, every new transition is going to present its own challenges. Patience, support, grace and love should be our priorities as they navigate this learning space that is so very different from what they are used to.