by Dr. Samiramis Sarkardei, teacher of IB Biology at PASB International School in Salvador, Brazil.
That familiar phrase from one of my favorite stories plays in my head over and over again since virtual learning began at my school. With the exception that in my head the sir is replaced with me, and the student is not referring to a plate full of hot food, but rather a virtual folder full of activities.
All school year this year, I have been struggling with encouraging my students to pursue student-led learning. I have been trying to provide them with opportunities that will encourage their independence, flourish them as inquirers, and boost their thirst for wanting to learn more, by simply asking more questions. Most of the time I was faced with resistance from my students either in grade 10 or grade 11 and the usual “you are the teacher and you should be teaching in front of the whiteboard´´ kept being thrown at me like sharp daggers. Sometimes I didn´t know what to do with them but to give into “spoon-feeding´´ them, which made me cringe just at the thought of it. I kept asking myself how do I teach these teenagers time-management, self-control, responsibility, accountability, and work ethic. How do I teach them to be independent? How do I teach them skills that will allow them to write an email, open a bank account, ask for directions on their first day at their university or college or job, communicate and network to land their favorite occupation. It wasn’t really until my recent zoom meeting with my grade 11 students when they asked me if I thought they will have enough time to learn the content they need to learn for IB HL Biology, that I realized, this unusual time we are going through is not about teaching content, but it is about teaching SKILLS. Those very same skills that could help a student take CARE of themselves.
I was an OK student at school with average grades, nothing above ordinary, but I made it to University, worked in the field of science for 15 years which entailed working in academia, industry, hospital, NGOs and the UN before I decided to become a high school teacher in sciences. And all this time, what rescued me wasn´t how much content I knew, but it was the skills I picked up along the way, often the hard way. So you see teaching for me is not just about teaching the content of my subject. I often wish I had teachers who taught me skills as well as content and perhaps that would have made me feel more confident when I had to renew my visa, ask for help or “professionally stalk´´ that one project manager who was leading a group at my dream job!
But reflecting months later during the coronavirus closures on how my semester began at my school, I have some surprising stories which make those challenges I spoke of above, seem like a distant memory. My hyperactive kids, shy kids, and creative kids, are doing incredibly well managing their distractions and focusing on work. I appreciate that there are fewer distractions around the students when studying at home rather than being at school, but that is not a guarantee for every student, right? Those very same students who often struggled with independent thinking and learning and self-discipline are thriving during virtual learning caused by the Covid19 pandemic of 2020. Believe it or not, these kids are learning skills that we have been trying to teach them for a very long time.
My students are able to communicate with me in a constructive way, either by writing a professional email or by scheduling a meeting using a calendar – which is an example of a skill I was so desperately trying to teach them at the beginning of the year. They are demonstrating how self-pacing has been beneficial and advantageous to them in their learning. It is allowing them to get a taste of self-independence and to take ownership more because they are not under the micromanagement of the school day and are not bound to a physical space. Virtual learning is creating a world of trust for the students and teachers. My very same grade 11 student who told me once at the beginning of this semester that she doesn’t trust me, is now reaching out to me to ask for advice and she is managing her time and her learning. What these students are learning now as a result of virtual learning will benefit them immensely in their future education, jobs, relationships, and lives.
I am excited for the time when this pandemic is resolved – my scientific side doesn´t believe that it will be completely over, but that it will become a part of our new lives. I am excited that a new norm will begin, and I don’t only mean in regards to our social interactions, taking care of each other and the environment, but I mean in regards to a new “generation´´ of students that will arise as PROBLEM SOLVERS!, something that our world is in desperate need of! Upon their return to the classroom, these students would be the new thinkers, initiators, inquirers, explorers, and educators, for they have gone through something unique and their experiences are worth sharing and learning from.
In the past, it always bothered me why my students would ask only of me to change the deadline of an assignment and they would never ask the same question from other teachers. I used to make all kinds of assumptions – such as they undermine me, or that they don´t take me seriously. I didn’t even consider asking the students, I guess because I didn’t feel safe. So last week, I finally asked why. And the response was that I am one teacher that students don’t feel intimidated by. Imagine how much uncertainties I could have saved myself if I had only asked that question sooner! So it is not only the students who are learning skills, but it is also us, the teachers. We are becoming better communicators because of these unusual circumstances and we are feeling safer and asking more questions. How many times did we ask for more time? More time to give constructive feedback on assignments and to have one on one consultation with our students. The world of virtual learning has provided me with exactly that, more time to talk to my students.
I want to end this with the same phrase I used to start this note and that is: Please sir, I want some more….and that more for me during this experience has been more help, more tasks, more skills, more responsibilities, more advice, more suggestions, etc. I am thrilled that my students are beginning to ask for more. Perhaps virtual learning has also shown students that despite their beliefs that teachers are mind readers or that they have a crystal bowl under their desks, that teachers actually need to know from the student when they need something. This notion of asking for more, of course, comes from a place of trust that has been built between the student and the teacher and it is wonderful to see that these students can feel secure to ask for more.
This picture was taken during a zoom meeting with grade 11 IB Biology students discussing cystic fibrosis. My partner (Mr. TP) and I were pregnant and we were consulting our genetic counselors (Students) about what would be the probability of us having a child with cystic fibrosis since we each had one parent with cystic fibrosis. The world of virtual learning has provided me with the greatest gift and that is the opportunity to have one on one consultation with my students.
Dr. Samiramis Sarkardei, is currently a teacher of IB Biology at PASB international school in Salvador, Brazil. She has a PhD in Food Safety from the University of Surrey, UK. She has been working in the field of science since 2000 and has been a teacher in Biology and Chemistry since 2015. firstname.lastname@example.org (FB: https://www.facebook.com/sarah.spamkins)