Breda Coleman shares her experience of school placement visits during COVID-19.
Flash back to March 2020
On 9 March, I was visiting our PME students on Advanced School Placement in two schools in Waterford City. In the first school, their attitude was that this virus would all blow over in a few weeks. In the second school, I saw hand sanitiser at the entrance for the first time. The principal joked that it was a lot less hassle than the footpaths we dealt with during the foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001. Hopefully, the coronavirus would be as short-lived. By Wednesday of that week, I was politely avoiding the proffered hand of school principals and students as I entered schools. When a friend who works in medical research proclaimed that the coronavirus would travel around the world at least twice, I was alarmed. While I dismissed his predictions as hysterical speculation, nonetheless, for the first time in my life, I was genuinely afraid to be in the company of people, and this included being in schools.
On Thursday, 12 March, I arrived at a school on the outskirts of Limerick. The conversation that morning was that schools might close early for Easter on St Patrick’s Day. Before I went into the student teacher’s class, I asked if I might use the bathroom so that I would know where to go afterwards to wash my hands very thoroughly.
I observed an English lesson in a senior class and there was a lot of COVID talk among the pupils. Afterward, I had the usual feedback meeting with the student teacher and then popped by the office to report that all was well and that I’d be back in the next two weeks.
‘Indeed and you won’t’, responded the principal. ‘Joe McHugh has just announced that all schools are closing this evening’.
As I made my way home, I was numb. This was serious. What was going to happen? There was a palpable sense of impending doom. In all my years of teaching, I had never seen schools closed on medical grounds. As we know, the rest is history. School placement was adapted and we got on with a new way of doing things; alternative assessment, virtual visits and recorded lessons became the norm.
Fast forward to April 2021
The Department of Education recommended that in-school supervision of student teachers should resume. After 13 months of not being in a classroom, I was giddy with excitement and anticipation. It was back to checking timetables and scheduling school visits again. I rang the schools I intended to visit over the coming weeks, and the majority were more than happy to facilitate in-school visits.
On Tuesday, 12 April, I was pulling out clothes and shoes that hadn’t seen the light of day in more than 12 months, quietly pleased that they still fit. Gone were the days of throwing everything into the bag. I did a checklist of the essentials I would need: ID badge, notebook, students’ timetables, biro, disposable masks, fabric masks, glasses, phone and hand sanitiser. Everything was put into a clear plastic folder for easy access. There was no need for handbags or fancy portfolios.
I arrived at the first school as the principal and a few other staff members were supervising assembly. Before getting out of the car, I donned my disposable mask and then put on a fabric mask as well — there appears to be some evidence that double-masking offers more protection. Hopefully, it does, but even if it doesn’t, it did seem to prevent my glasses from fogging up.
Masked parents dropped pupils at a specific point and the pupils went straight to the classroom. Everything was orderly and organised, and I felt safe and secure. Though the visit was pre-arranged, the principal and I still looked at each other for a few moments before we were confident enough to know who the other was. We all look different with masks, and short, well-groomed hair styles have gradually turned into dishevelled bobs. As the principal escorted me to the classroom, we chatted about restrictions and it was very reassuring to hear that teachers are adapting and getting on with the business of teaching and learning.
The New Normal
From the moment I entered the classroom, it was immediately apparent that this was a working environment; the cooperating teacher and the pupils were delighted to be back in school. The only difference I observed was that the door to the corridor was open, and it was quite noisy because other classroom doors were also open. Observing the student teacher and her attentive and engaged Senior Infant pupils, it soon became clear that I was the only one who was distracted. It had become the new normal. The student teacher taught a Maths lesson and used a wide range of concrete materials. It would have been nice if the pupils could also have used the resources, but in COVID times, this is another aspect of the new normal.
I sanitised my hands at the outset, observed the student teacher, inspected the School Placement folder and the assessment notebook, and made some notes. Then, I sanitised my hands again, giving them an extra squirt to be doubly safe. At the end of the lesson, the student teacher transitioned to the next lesson, at which point I indicated that I would be leaving soon. I had a short chat with the class teacher who reported that everything was going well. Before leaving, I spoke with the student teacher for approximately 10 minutes near an open window on the landing. We continued the conversation as she walked with me to the car park, and I once again sanitised my hands in the car. I was glad to remove the mask for the short drive, and I gained a new respect for the teachers and others who must wear masks all day at work.
I made my way to the second school, which was less than a 10-minute drive away. Before I left the car, I checked that I had the school phone number to hand to gain access. Open door policies are no more in schools and all visits are by prior arrangement. As I approached the school (once again double-masked), I was delighted to hear the happy voices of children at play in the yard. The Fifth Class were on a break at 10.30 a.m. and the student teacher was outside with them. She was expecting me, so she approached me immediately.
As her pupils returned to class, the student teacher showed me where the other Hibernia College student teacher I was visiting that day was working. On the way, we met the principal whose only concern was that the school placement had significantly reduced his pool of substitute teachers.
By now the Fifth Class were settled back in the classroom, so I went through the same routine of sanitising, inspecting the paperwork, making a few notes and sanitising again. As this was a float visit, the post-observation chat was much shorter and was, once again, conducted in a quiet corner of the corridor.
Quality Education Continues
The final visit of the day was an assessed visit in a Senior Infant Class. I was privileged to observe an enthusiastic, dynamic and energetic student teacher who led an engaging Gaeilge lesson where the children asked for permission to go to four different ‘siopaí’ set up around the room. She then moved on to an equally well-thought-out Aistear session.
I can’t go into a classroom without speaking to the pupils. When one little guy told me he hoped that there would be another lockdown again soon, I naturally enquired why he felt that way. His response was, ‘Every time we come back to school, there’s a new cool place to play and we can even do lessons there’. The school had covered a courtyard with brightly coloured artificial grass and the student teacher had used it for Maths, Art and story time lessons. At the end of the lesson, the student teacher brought me outside to one of their timber tables where we had a productive, professional conversation in glorious sunshine.
All the stakeholders in school communities have responded and adapted to ensure that our pupils continue to receive a quality education. Schools are happy to accommodate student teachers, and school placement tutors are warmly welcomed with little fuss. Did I feel apprehensive? The short answer is no. I was responsible, careful and prudent. I was delighted to be back in schools observing and supporting students. There was one challenge however, and that was getting used to slower pace of walking in high heels.