05 October 2020

'The whole school banded together'

The job that teachers do has never been so valued. This World Teachers Day we hear from two UEA graduates, both now teaching abroad, to find out what they’ve learned, what challenges they’ve faced in recent months, and what tips they have for their fellow key workers.

I feel ready for anything that teaching throws at me

After two decades working as an accountant, a move abroad prompted Denise to make a career change – and she’d soon discover that teaching was where she’d always wanted to be.

I attended UEA to study history from 1978 to 1981, and my best memories include the wonderful concerts, swimming in the lake, being snowed in at Fifers Lane, sunny days lazing in the square, the Sainsbury Centre, living in Suffolk Terrace, an inspirational lecture by A.J.P. Taylor about life in Britain during World War II, and the beautiful city of Norwich. After UEA I worked as an accountant for 23 years, but when my husband’s job moved our family to Atlanta, Georgia in 2005, I went back to university for my teaching degree.

In 2009 I began teaching social studies and math to 7th grade pupils, and immediately loved it. For the first time in my whole career I finally felt that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Five years later I moved to high school where I still teach a college level course in human geography to the 9th grade (14-15 year-olds).

Last March our school began virtual teaching. With almost no training I was tasked with getting 175 students through their College Board exam in order to earn college credit. To motivate my students for nine weeks I held daily group and individual meetings and sent hundreds of messages to keep spirits high. I had to move away from project and discussion-based teaching to ensure the students were ready for the exam. This is literally the first time I taught to the test, and I hated it.

While virtual teaching definitely had a negative impact on relationships with many students, I was able to form some closer relationships with students that were struggling to complete work and had switched off. Through one-on-one virtual meetings they opened up and we formed bonds that would never have happened in a packed classroom.

We returned face to face in August, and while students were given the option to continue school virtually, teachers weren’t given the option – we do both.

And it turns out that some parents are fickle… In March we were hailed as heroes, but when August rolled around and COVID-19 was rampant in Georgia, the governor declared us essential workers, forcing our return to the classroom – we had little support from parents then. Teaching in classes of more than thirty pupils with no social distancing and one-third of students unmasked has turned me into a manic cleaner! On a positive note I am now so much more capable with technology than I ever dreamed, I can change lesson plans in an instant, and I feel ready for anything that teaching throws at me.

To my fellow teachers I would say: reach out to the quiet kids, those who haven’t logged on recently, and kids that aren’t doing the work, because they’re the ones that need you the most. Don’t ask them to switch on their cameras because you don’t know what their homes are like. Most importantly, be kind. These students are probably suffering much more than you realise.

And a word of advice to my student-teacher self: make teaching part of my life, not my whole life. So often teachers put our students ahead of our families, our friends, our health and our mental wellbeing. Clock off after eight hours and go do something else. Students need us at our best.

Denise studied history at UEA, graduating in 1981

Creative Writing graduate Kieran McMahon teaches in Tokyo. He shares what he’s learned, from a ‘traumatising’ start to adapting to changes as a result of COVID.

A teacher without a life and experiences outside of education cannot truly prepare students for life in the real world

Do you remember how you felt when you stood up in front of a classroom full of pupils for the first time?

Imagine the sweatiest man you’ve ever seen (‘It’s the humidity!’), with a bright pink face, rambling like Alan Partridge about Big Ben and fish and chips, to a group of bemused Japanese children in a local village junior school. I think we were all traumatised!

Where do you teach now?

I teach a course known as the Global Leaders Course at a high school for girls in Tokyo. It’s a kind of hybrid, halfway between IB and regular Japanese high school, for students who’ve lived abroad and returned to Japan. I mainly focus on “college prep” and English as a Foreign Language.

The challenges for schools during COVID have been huge. How has your school coped?

We’re a well-resourced private school, so we’ve coped quite well. We expanded existing digital infrastructure hugely, and had a full roster of classes up and running within two weeks of the March shutdown. I would say every teacher in the school made significant personal sacrifices to keep the school running, but it would have been impossible without the privileges our school enjoys. It helps enormously that we have very highly motivated students too. I think it would have been a starkly different story at the hard-pressed public schools I taught at previously.

How has it changed how you've taught?

I was more of a ‘content provider’ than a teacher at times. The face-to-face, relationship-building elements of teaching, which I view as fundamental to success or failure in the classroom, were much less of a factor in the online-only world. Language attrition is also a big concern for our school. Students must speak English constantly in order not to lose their ability, and we saw a big drop in fluency when students returned to school in August as a result of studying in isolation. I’ve since tilted heavily towards speech-based activities in the classroom.

On the plus side I am now much more able at employing online and in-person teaching strategies, using a dual approach, so I would say that it has actually made me a more rounded teacher, and bolstered my skills.

And how has it changed your relationship to your pupils?

The students genuinely cherish their school life now, and they are well aware of the efforts their teachers made to ensure their education was as uninterrupted as possible. I would say for the most part, at least for now, both the school and the teachers are more appreciated by the students. There is a general feeling that the whole faculty and student body banded together quite admirably to cope with a challenging and scary situation.

If you had one message to share with your fellow teachers, what would it be?

Here in Japan, teachers work longer hours than almost anywhere else in the world, and COVID hasn’t helped. I would say find ways to step back occasionally. A teacher without a life and experiences outside of education cannot truly prepare students for life in the real world.

And finally – what do you remember of your time at UEA?

I remember an incredibly fun and carefree first year, and then a steady shift towards seriousness and proper academia with each passing semester, culminating in 18 hour Tupperware-soup-and-thermos-coffee library marathons. Weirdly, I miss the library days as much as the fun ones.


Kieran studied English Literature with Creative Writing, graduating in 2012