The lack of personal contact between teachers and secondary school students during the COVID-19 pandemic has had a major negative impact on teaching and learning, a new survey has found.
The COVID-19 Teacher Survey was carried out by Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and its findings show that issues relating to the closure of schools were particularly prevalent in DEIS schools.
According to teachers, after schools closed on March 12, the main barriers to teaching were a lack of interest from students, a lack of support from home and limited access to devices.
These issues were especially prevalent in DEIS schools, where the lack of personal contact between teachers and students had a major negative impact on teaching and learning once they left the classroom environment.
Around 20% of teachers said they did not foster collaboration among students during lockdown, while over 50% reported a decrease in this kind of collaboration since March 12.
"I feel the lack of personal connection with students places a barrier in the way of motivation, engagement, collaboration, and all else in teaching. Technology has helped me to organise lessons and information, but places a large obstacle for teaching and learning, especially for disadvantaged students," one teacher commented.
The survey found that 79% of teachers reported engagement with more than 30% of their students. However teachers in DEIS schools were almost three times more likely to report low engagement, i.e. less than 30% of students engaging.
Overall, teachers expressed particular concern about students with disabilities
Student engagement tended to be higher when a whole-school coordinated approach had been taken. It tended to be lower in schools that did not have a dedicated IT infrastructure.
Meanwhile, teachers' self-confidence to work remotely consistently emerged as a big factor in levels of engagement, with one teacher stating that they felt "very behind with the online stuff".
For some, the move online led to an increase in creativity, with some teachers using a wide range of technology to connect with their students. Useful sources of information for them were in-school supports and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
Support from colleagues was also important, however support from the Department of Education and Skills was criticised, with over one-third of teachers rating its support as "poor" or "terrible".
When it came to teaching overall, many teachers spoke about feelings of loss and missing out on important aspects of the learning experience.
"There is definitely a feeling of loss - loss of control over student development, loss of routine, loss of friendship and collaboration that a school environment brings, loss of connection, eye contact, touch. The community connection between student, teacher and all school staff are what I miss most. I have become very upset over this throughout the past few weeks," one teacher said.
Another spoke about missing "the social side of seeing each other in person".
"A lot of learning in my subject is done through real life demonstration, so the students are missing out on this," they noted.
According to Dr Ann Devitt, director of research at the School of Education in TCD, the findings show that the mode of delivery of teaching and learning affected students' levels of engagement, "with more interactive and collaborative approaches impacting positively".
"However, nearly 20% of teachers reported never fostering collaboration during school closures. Our findings show that there is a need for teachers to foster relationships with students when they return to the classroom.
"But there is also a need for teachers to be ready in case such a shutdown happens again and we believe CPD (continuing professional development) is needed for teachers on how to provide collaborative learning online," she said.
A report on the survey findings can be viewed here.
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