“Teachers can’t be left behind”

Karin Smak (55) is a primary school teacher in Den Helder, Netherlands. Mari Cruz Cascudo (55) teaches at the Kueto public elementary school in Spain. Recently, due to the coronavirus, both women had to switch to online classes from March until May. A challenge for all, teachers and students, whether in The Netherlands or in Spain.

Interviews by Asier Herrero and Marije de Boer

How do you feel about teaching from home?

Karin Smak:  “Teaching from home is quite hard when you teach young kids, because you can only reach them through their parents or possible older siblings. They can’t type messages themselves or put on the webcam to speak to me. Keeping them entertained and concentrated was tough but giving them small assignments helped a lot. For example, I asked them to sing a song, talk about their favourite stuffed animal, guess the animal sounds I was making, or tell me a story. I’m glad it worked out well, because contact with your students is really important. They also loved to see each other during Teams meetings, which I think is great. It was a challenge, but it was also very rewarding to see them smile and still enjoying class.”

Mari Cruz Cascudo: “I feel a mixture of stress and sadness. The first few days we had a lot of stress because we had to do a lot of paperwork, prepare classes and enough material for our students. When you see students struggling while trying to adapt to the new situation because they don’t have enough resources to do so, you feel sadness.”

Karin Smak has been working at home, since schools got closed due the coronavirus outbreak in The Netherlands. Picture: Private

What did you miss most about not being able to see your students every day?

“The real contact: talking to them, playing with them, seeing them grow. Also, something you can’t do online is see them playing and learning together because they’re not together.” 

“When you’re a teacher, one of the best things is to be in constant contact with your students. In this profession, we train students to be good people. What I miss most is talking with them about their lives and asking them how they are, which is what matters in the end. Now, my students need me more than ever, but I can’t be with them.”

How did your students adapt to studying from home?

“They loved the video calling, they told me they really liked seeing me and each other on the computer. It kind of felt like I was visiting their home. However, they are very glad we’re slowly going back to physical classes. They missed their friends and the structure of a normal school day a lot.”

“I believe that they were not ready to study from home. During this confinement, I have discovered that, although we expect that young people can perfectly control new technologies, it is not like that at all. While teaching, I am not being asked things related to the subjects. Everything is: “How can I enter the questionnaire?” and “The program gives me an error…”. A lot of students lack digital knowledge.”

For over two months, Mari Cruz Cascudo had to teach from her home in Spain. The only contact she had with her students was through the computer. Picture: Private

Were the teachers prepared to use technology with their pupils?

“No, we haven’t received any proper training. We learned it on our own through handouts and instruction videos. In a very short amount of time we learned a lot, simply because we had to; we had no choice. Thankfully all my colleagues and I went through it together, so we also helped each other a lot.”

“In recent years, teachers have started to use technology more and more, but there are still many teachers who are “old-school” and prefer to continue using regular slate boards and chalk. I think that, with the generational shift that is going to happen in education, the change will go with leaps and bounds.” 

What was the biggest challenge of teaching from home? 

“The biggest problem we had was that a lot of our students did not own a laptop, so we couldn’t reach some children. We tried to eliminate that problem by lending laptops to the students and visiting them at home, from a safe distance, twice. However, some parents don’t have enough computer skills to help their children with their schoolwork, lack a good Wifi connection, or don’t have time to help their kids because they work vital jobs. Above that, they learn in a very different way than students from higher grades do. They learn by playing, working together and trial-and-error; this is really hard to do when you’re online.“

“The main problem that teachers have is the increased workload. We are working more than ever and this work is not rewarded. We work three more hours a day than we do normally. For the students, I think the problem is the lack of concentration. Many students are not used to studying at home because, in normal times, students would go to libraries and study rooms to do their work. Now they get easily distracted by their surroundings.”

Did you get support by the government recently?

“We didn’t receive any proper help from the government, it all felt extremely forced. I would’ve preferred to have more space, as a school, to arrange things such as when the children can come to school and when we open again for all children. After all, we know what’s best for our children. Every school is different.” 

“I think the government could help us a lot more than they are doing right now. They see this situation as a problem and not as an opportunity. Currently, we don’t have any information on what’s going to happen next year. They are letting the schools decide too many things. For example, if our lessons from this year should be reviewed for next year and how we get computers for our students. That is very difficult for schools because we don’t have enough resources to do this.”

Can you imagine the future of education is going to be studying from home?

“Nothing beats meeting in a class and being together physically, but there is still a teacher shortage and we have found that teaching from home somewhat works. So, in that case, even after the corona crisis is over, I think we will still have online classes every once in a while. Maybe if a teacher is sick but still able to teach from home. I obviously hope we can go back to full-time physical classes soon.“

“I think that in elementary levels this is impossible because students are so young that they do not have enough skills to work via a computer at home.” 

What are your hopes for the future?

“In the future, I would love to have a way of education that is a lot more child-focused instead of age-focused. Every kid works at a different speed and I believe we don’t take that into account at all. Smaller classes, more focus on the individual, that is my dream.” 

“I hope that the future will be normal, that we can touch each other again as before. Technology is and will be very important in education. In the future, a teacher will be more a guide of a student. Instead of teaching them things, we will be their advisers. In the end, technology will change everything and teachers can’t be left behind.”