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Atomi Brainwaves Special Edition: Engaging with students online during COVID-19

By Danielle Barakat on 6 May 2020NSWstaffroomUKstaffroomAtomi Brainwaves PodcastCOVID-19

In our latest special edition coronavirus episode, Su walks us through what elements of student engagement can and cannot be replicated in the online setting, before taking a deep dive into the strategies and resources available to make this online engagement as constructive and human as possible.

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Atomi Brainwaves Special Edition: Engaging with students online during COVID-19

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Hey everybody, thanks for tuning in to another episode of Atomi Brainwaves, our podcast on education for educators.

Brainwaves is produced by our wonderful team here at Atomi.

What is Atomi?

It’s an online teaching and learning platform for secondary education.  We provide engaging, curriculum-specific video and text lessons for over 190 subjects, as well as matching quizzes and exam practice that can be used for both learning and formative assessment.

We also provide powerful analytics that can help teachers diagnose how their students are progressing and zero-in on who might need a little bit of extra help.  Our goal is to help make life easier for our teachers, give them more time to work on the most important things and ultimately help to generate better outcomes.  If you want to find out more about Atomi, head over to our main site at and feel free to try it out, for free.

Today’s episode is a special edition and comes as our response to the global pandemic caused by Coronavirus.  Several schools have had full or partial closures due to coronavirus scares, and we’d like to help where we can.  If your school has to take drastic action, we’re extending complimentary access to our platform.  This will provide teachers with an online library of curriculum-specific Stage 6 content and assessments to minimise any disruption to student learning.

If you’d like to explore this, don’t hesitate to email us.

For this episode, our resident teaching expert, former Head of English and Director of Curriculum, Su Temlett, joined me to discuss engaging with students online during the pandemic.  We broke down what can and cannot be replicated from the classroom, discussed different strategies and resources to encourage positive engagement, and explored how schools can assist their teachers in making this engagement possible.  If that sounds like your kind of thing, make sure to subscribe to us on Spotify, Apple Podcast or whatever your platform of choice is, and while you’re at it, feel free to leave us a 5-star review.

In the meantime, give this a listen and enjoy...

[Music playing]

Simon: Hello and welcome back to Atomi Brainwaves to a very special COVID edition of Atomi Brainwaves.  I am your host Simon and I’m joined today by Su.  Hello Su.

Su: Hi Simon.

Simon: You’ve been feeling a little bit under the weather yourself these past couple of few days, I believe we’ve had to push our podcast recording back, but you’re feeling better now, that’s most important?

Su: Yes I am.  Just got a little bit sick.

Simon: It happens, it happens.  But thankfully you’re on the way up and hopefully we are too with the info that we can provide to everybody out there.  This is another coronavirus special edition episode just trying to address some of the particular difficulties and issues that are arising for teachers for schools for students in light of the current situation.  And our topic for today is “Engaging with students online” and how teachers can achieve that engagement as best they can in the new kind of space of online teaching as opposed to in the classroom.  So straight off the bat, obviously we’re gonna be... the main thrust of the conversation is going to be about what can be done, what teachers can do in the situation.  But I thought it might be a good idea if, rather than go straight into that, we took off the table what can’t be done because a big part of the problem is trying to replicate certain parts of the classroom dynamic that just can’t be replicated in an online space, so why don’t we get the negative side out of the way first.  And Su, can you talk to us about those parts of the classroom interaction that unfortunately in this moment of time cannot be replicated?

Su: Yes, I think that’s been all over the internet at the moment about how teachers are really missing their students, the schools are empty, they feel really bereft and that’s absolutely true.  If you’ve ever been around a school when like parents evening and it’s late at night, you can really image what people are feeling like...empty corridors, empty playgrounds, the whole thing does not feel right.  It would be very eerie and I think for the teachers who are still going into their schools to do their teaching and a small number of kids are going it, that’s going to be more apparent as well.  But there are so many things that you cannot replicate online, just like the bouncing off each other, the ideas, the rapport, there’s no way of copying those.  You can have online conversations, but they’re more still tilted...they’re not the same in many ways.  So I think that kind of energy, like teaching high school, opening the classroom door to 24 Year 12 students piling in with all their energy, smells, bagging each other out, their social hues and all that humour, you just can’t replicate that in the same way.  I think one of the things really missing for teachers is a sense of how students are going...their mood, their body language, just hearing them talk to each other and the little (laughing) just their conversations and seeing them interact with each other, you’re gonna miss all of that.  And I think lastly, I guess, just going out.  You can spend the whole day, apart from a bit of exercise, you’re just in your space and I think for kids who are used to getting their bus to school or riding their bikes to school, and then moving in secondary schools obviously from classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher, different people within different rooms, different visual stimulus in different rooms as well, and instead of that they’ve just got their four walls of wherever they’re doing their study from.  Everything’s shrunk and I think even that, you can’t replicate what it’s like to just be out and about.

Simon: Would it be fair to say as well that beyond merely recognising the things that you’ve lost in the classroom so as not to try and achieve them, it’s also important to recognise and identify what can’t be replicated in order to figure out how best to compensate for those things?  You talk about how, just one of the things you mentioned there, picking up on how students are doing is something that you can’t do in the same way online, so do you think it’s important for teachers to pinpoint exactly what it is that has been lost from the classroom in the move online so as to pick up the slack for that to compensate in different ways?

Su: Yeah, I think like making sure that online interactions are not only about learning, for example.  I heard of a school in Melbourne who is still using their LMS over the weekends for example, posting pictures of your pets, checking/telling us what you’re doing on your exercise, but having that kind of social aspect of school life because all sports stopped, all competitions stopped.  It’s not just in the classroom, it’s all of those extracurricular things that kids would be doing...they’ve all stopped.  So replicating those too.

Simon: Which probably doesn’t get the attention that it deserves because as much as, with all of the focus on the educational side of things, what this means for exams, what this means for curriculum, what this means for assignments and assessments, what gets lost is for so many of us when we look back on our school years, I certainly notice it’s the case for me, a lot of what stands out is the extracurricular elements, the sports as you were saying, or maybe it’s music, it’s drama or it’s some sort of club or some sort of extracurricular activity provided in the school.  As you say, those elements have been lost almost entirely, I guess recognising that fact and finding some way of replicating at least the very least the social element of those is so important.

Su: Yeah.  We’ve got an oval near us, there’s a girl who is like a sort of professional dancer within her school, and so she’s on the oval pretty much every afternoon trying to keep her fitness level us and she uses a weird scooter that goes from side to side as she scoots.

Simon: I know what you mean.

Su: Yeah, I’ve never seen one before, that’s what she’s out doing.  And those people who would have been looking towards the school musical, big events on the school calendar, and I know in the States for example, all of their graduation ceremonies and things like that, because they’re going to miss those cause their end of school years is June/July, same in the UK, people are trying to replicate that having like drive-in movies and stuff, so you stay in your car.  Really trying to think creatively about what to do about these social events as well.  So there’s a lot lost, I really feel for kids and teachers right now.

Simon:’s not all doom and gloom.  We’re not going to spend the entire episode just lamenting all of the things that have been lost.

Su: Of course not, cause you’ve got to get on with it.

Simon: Exactly, you’ve got to get on with life and you’ve got to figure out what you can do, and that is what we’re going to dive into next.  So I was hoping you could talk us through a few different strategies that teachers could maybe take to make their online interaction with students as, I guess, simultaneously productive in a studying sort of preparing students working through the curriculum sense, but also just as, if not more importantly, to make it as human as possible an interaction.  What strategies are out there and available for teachers to do that?

Su: I think really simply to start, most of the online learning tools that teachers use have the opportunity for teachers to use a profile picture and I think it’s a very simple thing, but rather than have an avatar or just your name, actually put your picture on there so it does feel a little bit more’s you replying to a comment, it’s you weighing in on their assessment task, for example, so just really simple.  With whatever kind of online system you’re using, have a welcome page, have a “welcome to our class” or a weekly discussion port that’s not specifically content related but is about anything and everything, things that interest them.  Even get the students to pick up topics, like a pet board, siblings antics, or crazy things that have happened this week.  And be real yourself, share back and forth as well.  Like, for example, today I was on a Zoom meeting for an hour and I could hear my 6 year old playing with the dog in the bedroom, and when I opened the bedroom door, they’d been having a pillow fight and she had ripped all the stuffing out of the pillow, rip the pillow case and he was throwing stuffing at her, their faces were just like “Oh my gosh, I’ve been caught out”.  I took a photo and put it on Facebook because it was just like “Oh my gosh, what has just happened?”  But that’s the sort of thing that everyone’s juggling with, no one’s having the perfect time right now, so just be real.  You’re kids gonna walk in on your Zoom call, it’s kind of gonna happen.  Just be real.

Simon: It might sound almost like an almost even trivial thing but I guess even what you’re talking about in that fantastic example in a broader sense would be acknowledgement of the kind of bizarreness of the external environment around all of us as we’re touching base here and I guess rather than...I know the sort of for want of a better word...the “professionalism” that a lot of schools within schools try to achieve, the sense of everyone’s in uniform and there’s quite a lot of rules to be respected and all the rest, but in the context of what’s happening now, it’s to try and maintain exactly that while everybody’s calling in from different locations.  And as you say, there’s going to be stuff happening in the background of people’s houses cause there’s other people sharing the space.  Sometimes small children are having pillow fights...

Su: Yes, or a dog barking...

Simon: Exactly.

Su: There’s lots of things.

Simon: I guess not just acknowledging that but almost kind of bringing it in when it does overlap and saying this is happening because it humanises the whole experience and it probably makes it easier for students who themselves are coming to terms with this kind of strange new online interaction to try to relax into it and be more at ease!

Su: Yeah and I think relaxing into it is a key about making it as human as possible.  It is difficult to read faces in a Zoom call, for example, particularly if you’re in a gallery view and there’s 30 people on the call, everyone’s small, you can’t pick up the sort of facial expressions and signals that you normally would do.  So I think it’s quite mentally taxing as well.  So one of the things that I kind of would encourage people to do around that is if you can avoid talking to your whole class at once, I would do, like pick up small groups.  I was talking to a Year 12 teacher in the holidays who was saying that on her Zoom calls, the kids just were not talking to each other, it was like silent.  And she was saying “Please share your ideas”.  She’s an English teacher and they just weren’t interacting so she’s like “How can I engage them?”  So we were talking about grouping them either by attainment...maybe by attainment if it was a particular difficult concept etc., but instead she said “You know what, I’ll just group them according to where they sit in class”, and she doesn’t have a seating plan, they sit wherever they want in the class and she’s like “I’ll have four groups, that table, that table, there’s two pairs...”, I think five groups on the table as well, but that way it’s like her on the call with 4 or 5, or her with 1 or 2, and that way she’s like “I’m sure they’ll talk to each other cause they’ve not got that awkwardness and it’s just with their groups”.  She might find that she’s, I guess, repeating herself, like in one period she’s having multiple Zoom calls, but more productive and more engaging.  So that was something that she...I need to check in with her cause she was doing it this week as we went back...but that was something she was gonna go to.  So I guess keeping it probably small helps with keeping it more human and real and helping that kind of discussion.  My own kid this morning had his first ever Zoom call with his teacher, now he’s in kindergarten, and she had them for 15 minutes, she had my child and four others, and he had his headphones on and she had this little class and I saw him on screen, I sat next to him, but she went through the rules.  So when he wanted to speak, he had to put his hand up and he did exactly that, so I’m just like sat next to this focussed little boy and his hand will go up, he was super cute.  But it was working for them, and this time...

Simon: That’s fantastic...

Su: Yeah, she didn’t actually do content today, it was more of a wellbeing check-in but it worked, she did a really good job of it.

Simon: Fantastic...I can see obviously, I was almost expecting to hear that something had gone horribly wrong when its small children involved.  I’m very glad to hear that it went well and I suppose we tend to talk about in the context of older students, but smaller online classrooms, it’s kind of an idea that holds water in any age level, maybe for different reasons, for a much younger group, it’s almost for reasons of discipline that it makes the most sense because otherwise the whole operation can become very chaotic whereas the older spectrum of things it’s more for the purposes of openness and people being comfortable to talk and share their ideas, but within it seems like a strategy in terms of the online classrooms, smaller classrooms definitely seems to make sense.

Su: I think working out your content delivery so you can do your contents in the asynchronous time and save that kind of going through the really crucial bits or the checking in or doing some group work and that’s application for that synchronous time, and then I think in that you can do the small group work.  Another part of your question was about productiveness online, in the first few weeks that everyone was using Zoom for classroom, there was obviously a lot on the news about people gate crashing Zoom and kids taking over shared screen and teachers tearing their hair out.  So there’s a lot of settings that have been updated in a whole suite of those video conferencing tools, but I think little simple things like turning off internal messaging so kids can’t message each other without you seeing it, there’s that private chat kind of thing, don’t have that on, only allow students to message you.  Obviously control the screen sharing, I wouldn’t ask somebody to share their screen unless you were confident with what they were going to share, and maybe that’s where you experiment in that smaller group cause if it fails it only fails with five.  I think there’s way in making sure the productivity can be increased, and I would do things as well in terms to create that provocative, ask difficult questions in discussion posts, get them into acting with...deliberately wind them up with something controversial and let them respond to each other, and let them weigh in on that response so that you actually breakdown those barriers cause kids like to express their opinions, so get their opinions and get them over that hurdle, get them used to it and then bring in expressing themselves about the work.  Start thinking of ways that can engage them.

Simon: Not too controversial now...don’t go throwing out anything that could get you into trouble, even if it is for the sake of a jovial debate...but some really smart strategies in there and it kind of ties in to what I wanted to ask you next.  You were talking a little bit about settings that could be tweaked and whatnot, kind of ties into this idea of resources.  I guess emphasis mainly on online but necessarily exclusively, but I wanted to get your thoughts with regards to the resources that are available to teachers to help them engage with students online or else the resources that teachers are using to interact with students online and the features within those resources which are particularly helpful in terms of student engagement...what are they, how best can they be used or experimented with to keep that level of teacher/student engagement as human and positive as possible?

Su: Well I think there’s different buckets that you’re looking at here.  So you’ve got kind of like the synchronous video conferencing style tools that you need, and there’s a whole range of them, like I’ve talked about Zoom, Microsoft Teams is another popular one, Google Meets or Handout, within Canvas very popular LMS conferencing tool called Big Blue Button which is very popular.  So all of those essentially do the same thing, its providing you that face-to-face synchronous time, but there are some tricks and tips within those different conferencing tools.  So do explore the settings of each one and explore...if you have the freedom to choose which one, most institutions will obviously choose, but make sure your institution is helping you with the set up so you’ve got everything switched on that can help you with that productivity.  And then within those conferencing tools, you’ll get more confident, but there’s things like Breakout Rooms, you can put students in group Breakout Rooms, you even use one Breakout room per student if they were doing say an online exam and you wanted to weigh in on what they were doing and check what they were doing.  So think about creative ways you can use Breakout Rooms within your lesson and then bring them back together.  They’re quite novel, we use Breakout Rooms at work, so it’s quite novel to even experience it when we’re kind of in a meeting, then we breakout and do something, and then come back together and feedback what we were working on.  I find it quite interesting.

Simon: It’s almost something that would be harder to do in a physical sense, if you think about within the context of, ok, maybe in a classroom it is possible to have a breakout in the sense of students working on something separate and wanting people in the room or whatever, but because of that shared space you almost have the element of back and forth or volume issues or whatever can sometimes get in the way of that, but for all of the talk about how we’re trying to replicate engagement that would happen or keep levels of engagement up, it can almost be looked at as almost an opportunity for a new type of engagement that almost isn’t available in the classroom but now with a feature like that, Breakout Rooms where you can have a total separation from the main entity and then return, that’s almost like kind of something completely new which is quite exciting.

Su: Yeah, when classrooms have been redesigned or old spaces in schools have been remodelled, often they are remodelled with these glass cubed breakout rooms where kids can go in, close the door and it’s like for group work, but there’s obviously so many of those in any school space.  They become more popular but it’s still limited, whereas here you can actually do that unlimited and when they’re in that Breakout Room, it silent.  It’s just the kids there and I think that’s really cool.  There are things that I think are really important in terms of keeping that human element, but again across multiple platforms, and that’s things like using your voice for feedback or using a video for feedback.  So if you’re gonna type some feedback to an essay, just think maybe I’ll press that record button and do a short video explaining what was good giving that verbal confirmation, verbal encouragement.  They can see your facial expressions, they can feel the warmth of your answers, and because they’re reading an awful lot on screen, it provides them a different interface and I think that’s really nice.  It’s certainly working a lot for my 6 year old, he uses a platform called See-Saw and every morning his teacher posts a video message and so he plays it and it always cheers him up, boys him up, gets him ready for the day.  And I think it’s just a 2 minute video and it’s just “Good morning...” explains the work for the day, but I think that’s really good for keeping that human element.  I think that works for K through to 12.

Simon: Yeah, because so much can get lost in translation in written, can’t it?

Su: Yes.

Simon: You can read something in so many different ways and it can come across...this is in any walk of life...I think of, I don’t know, text messages which are taken completely out of context because of a wayward exclamation point or whereas...

Su: Yeah, I’ve sat with teachers...someone’s composed an email message and then we’ve all sat around reading it to make sure the tones right and then it’s still not received in the way it was meant.  So words on a page are not as easy to construe as it is if you’re talking, for sure.

[Music playing]

Simon: Hey folks, hope you’re enjoying the episode so far.  We’ve got more to come after this quick break.  Here at Atomi Brainwaves, we’re all about education, and not just for students, for ourselves too.  We would love to hear from you whether that’s feedback on one of our episodes or a question you’d like to see answered by one of our guests or by Su.  So, if you’ve got a comment or question, don’t hesitate to email us. Looking forward to hearing from you.  In the meantime, let’s get back to it.

[Music playing]

Simon: Yeah, and thankfully we do have that capability now, we do talked about recording a video message...that’s even an example.  In terms of the feedback, it’s a bit more time consuming if you have to compose separate video messages for every student or have that one-on-one interaction.  Even the example you gave of the teacher with your son, that is I’m assuming one video message for the start of a class that can be used for every student, but it still maintains that human element.

Su: Yeah, that’s one video for 19 kids.  Actually doing video of voice feedback, if you’re doing it sort of like a grading tool say within your LMS, it’s actually quicker than typing because it’s a built-in software function, you just press record, your little screen box comes up and you can just talk through the essay or whatever it is you’re marking and what you’re expressing is quicker to say than what it is to type and make sure you’ve spelt things correctly and put the correct punctuation in and that sort of stuff.  So it’s fairly fast, I think it’s just people feel quite reticent about it to get started.  Good when you go.

Simon: I guess that’s another part of it, the whole process that needs to be acknowledged.  It is the kind of, for want of a better term, getting over the “hump” of these sort of things.  I suppose there can be an alien feeling with regard to it, one could almost feel quite foolish sitting down to record a video of themselves and maybe say I can just revert to sending an email, or I’ll just revert to whatever is the closest thing to my conception of normal.  But I guess the reward is, when you get onto the other side of that, once you get over that and once you’ve done it and then see the feedback, see the response, see how much more positive that is, then it becomes apparent the benefit.  I guess within that, just as a little sidebar, what tips would you have for any teacher in terms of getting past the awkwardness or maybe the strangeness of that experience of using resources like this for the first time?

Su: That was going to be my top tip Simon (laughing).

Simon: Oh sorry, I jumped the gun.  Well you’ll have plenty of time to think of a new top tip between now and when we get to the end.

Su: I was going to say sort of later that actually we often say like “variety is the spice of life” and that is true with online teaching in that one of the ways to keep kids engaged is not do the same thing all the time, but when you’re first starting out with online teaching, it is also about doing small steps and manageable chunks and pushing yourself slightly out of your comfort zone, but not to the point where you feel like that was an epic fail and I never want to go near this again.  So I think if you are doing something out of your comfort zone, there’s no shame in downloading the guide that goes with that and having that printed out next to you as you’re doing the first time, and yes it’s feeling awkward and weird and it takes time to get used to, but you master that as you do with anything.  Like people who are not used to being an I-phone user don’t think twice about it, for example.  But you’ll master that and you’ll move onto maybe this week I’ll learn how to use annotation tools within my marking or something.  It’s something that you build on and build on and get better and better on, but just start small and have a go, is what I’d say.

Simon: It’s good advice, it would have been a really good top tip.

Su: Yeah it would, you ruined it.

Simon: I feel bad about jumping the gun.  Who knows, look when we get around to it, maybe you can just repeat it again.  Put it in new language and see if anyone notices.  We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but for now, I wanted to ask you...we’ve talk mostly so far about the individual teacher and what he or she can do within their classroom to achieve this online student engagement.  I wanted to ask you quickly about the bigger institute at play...the school, because obviously you know it goes without saying, it doesn’t need to be said, however, how important the roles the school plays.  We’ve already touched on how they will generally be the ones dictating what platform is being used and all the rest, so I wanted to just kind of ask you what you think it is that schools can do to assist teachers in this regard, what executive decisions can be made at the top level that filter down and make teacher/student online engagement as smooth and positive a process as possible?

Su: Yeah sure.  Well I realised I haven’t finished the buckets that I was talking about but I’ll use those within this question.  So the first bucket I was saying was about the video conferencing kind of tools, and then the next bucket would be assisting teachers with content making or delivery or that sort of thing.  And then the final bucket is whatever you packet them all in, so you’re learning management system or some people might have Google Classrooms or some people might have Edmodo or whatever it is that you’re using to get the content out to students.  Most people have got something and lower down in schools a lot of people are using See-Saw that I mentioned earlier.  So you’ve got those three buckets and I think when schools are thinking of teachers putting those altogether in a kind of coherent whole for those students to access, you’ve got to really think about that end user, that student in mind.  So the more that schools can build that all into one interface, the better it is in terms of students having that better experience with that online engagement.  Again, referencing this school in Melbourne, they did a survey where 1,000 students answered their survey before the end of the holiday of term 1 to say what was working for them and what wasn’t working for them and they took the feedback on board, but one of the things that came across in that feedback is they wanted one place to go, the kids didn’t want to be logging on here, finding this link, different places, so having one consistent place is helpful for both the teacher, the student and the parent, cause don’t forget there’s parents very much involved in this at the other end as well.  

I think then from an executive level, if I was I guess still in my old job, I would be pushing very much to keep what tasks to a minimum so by all means set content for kids to do and to learn, but don’t expect something to be handed in lesson per lesson.  I would look at sort of 80% rule you’re your asynchronous time, 20% rule for synchronous, and then when you want something handed in, like the weekly notes or whatever the crux of the learning of that’s week’s learning was, that’s the thing to hand in.  Otherwise you’re gonna be overrun with marking from the teacher’s point of view, from every subject if you’re setting like a hand-in at the end of every class, you’re never gonna be able to keep up with that which means the students will gradually stop doing it because they feel it’s not being checked, their work’s not being valued.  The teacher’s gonna feel worse and worse that this is building up, building up and obviously the days just keep rolling on and I think for both the teacher’s mental wellbeing and the kids’ mental wellbeing I would keep that to a minimum.  So I think keepings tasks to a level that’s not too difficult and you can keep up with is super important, but I think it is really important that teachers are also able to just frequently check in but not have frequent hand-ins, so there’s a difference.  And then as a school leader, I would really be encouraging people to praise the good work, so encourage them by a note to their parents or like a private message/email just to really flag the kids that are doing the right thing, that you’re encouraging that.  And then I’d also from an IT point of view look at what technology you have at your fingertips that can really assist school teachers in the job that they’re doing, so there’s multiple content platforms that can supply content, but one of the things with Atomi that I really, really love that

I’ve been going on about so much to teachers who have Atomi, is we have this thing called a “personalised vision tool” and it’s called a “strength score” and basically it’s AI powered revision which helps students track the retention of information and shows how it decays over time and it provides a banner comes up in the platform whenever they should revise their content and it serves them the quiz to do again.  And I think in this particular climate, anything like that that uses the technology that kids are using everyday now to actually power and support what they are doing needs flagging to teachers, so if you’ve got something in your schools or you’re an IT person listening to this and you know of things that your school platforms do that you don’t think your schools know of or your teachers know of, like make them aware of it because things like how big data can power revision is something that can’t be replicated face-to-face without a teacher going through old quiz results and then serving them up, it’s impossible.  When we talked earlier about sort of benefits, there are things that are hugely beneficial in this space, but I think they just need the awareness level raising about what they are and how to do it.  If you’re in that school executive space, I think the education of your teachers around what’s at their fingertips, what they can best use to help students is really, really important.

Simon: Absolutely, and obviously some of the examples there that you mentioned to address engagement directly but even the ones that don’t, that deal more with content or syllabus or working through the syllabus, the flip side of that in terms of engagement is it takes that load off the teacher’s hands and it frees up more time, more effort, more energy that can go into all of the other strategies that we talked about which are geared towards engaging with the student and figuring out the best most human way to do that.  On that kind of higher school level, it all kind of facilitates the same end goal.  The last thing I wanted to ask you about kind of, I guess again on this higher executive level of thinking, but also it does filter down and applies to teachers and even parents and students, is we can kind of get lost amongst the trees a little bit with the details of the online world, and it’s obviously the thrust of the help we’re trying to provide here, but it does have to be thought about and acknowledged the bigger picture and the kind of broader level priorities at play here.  So I wanted to ask you, where do you think the priority level, the priority balance rather, should lie at the moment for teachers, for school executives, when it comes to working through syllabus contents versus student engagement right now?

Su: And student mental health and...

Simon: It’s almost a leading question and it almost seems like a simple answer but I do think it is worth saying.

Su: It isn’t because there’s mixed messages.  If you’re a New South Wales listener, obviously the HSC is still going on, Stage 6 contents you’ve got to get through it basically, yes there’s been adjustments made within schools about assessment tasks that students need to do.  The Director of Curriculum or the Director of Studies can make a call on that, but ultimately they’re still doing the same HSC.  So that would make it seem like obviously syllabus content is super important but then if you’re teaching K-10 in New South Wales, NESA released an update to the curriculum at the start of this week saying that they’ve temporarily updated the New South Wales curriculum requirements for Kindergarten to Year 10, so teachers have the flexibility to determine essential learning and this means, and I quote, “Teachers do not need to cover all the outcomes in the K-10 syllabus this year”.  If you’re a K-10 teacher or an 11 and 12 teachers in New South Wales, you’ve got very different messages there.  I think it would sound very simple that we’re sort of thinking strip back, prioritise student mental health, etc. and that all sort of stands true until you hit the HSC which is really difficult and I know a lot of Stage 6 teachers and students are really struggling to work out what to do right now.  And I think in my own teaching and learning programs, and I think most teachers would be able to do this, to think of the same sort of thing, I can think of extra activities we would have in the program that are designed to really consolidate content knowledge, and I think at this time you’d be stripping all of those out as a censure of what is absolutely essential and not kind of like the icing on the cake activities.  But those icing on the cake activities were there for a purpose of consolidation, so that’s where I come back to looking at other ways of doing consolidation.  But I think it’s a time to sacrifice the additional material just to prioritise those essentials and make sure that’s gone in as best as you can, but if you get presented with a student whose mental health is really declining, of course that’s the priority.  It’s not about turning things in and keeping up in this, it’s about we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s about supporting that student and making sure that they live to fight another day, not go under with the pressure.  It’s a very complex question, but I think the answer is ultimately mental health is going to win.

Simon: I guess it is a complex question but well-handled and well-articulated this idea that at the end of the day that is the most important thing and it can get lost in amongst all of this pandering and wrangling over how to handle this in the best way to reach X and Y outcome, but of course the human level remains even now more so than ever the most important thing and within that student engagement and finding the right way to engage to provide that support is so important at a time like this.  So that is all we have time for with regards to our main topic, engaging with students online, today.  I know that I jumped the gun when it came to your hot tip Su.  I know that I kind of drew that one far too early but I think I’m right in saying that you may have, in the interim, somehow managed to conjure up a new hot tip for today.

Su: Well I think technology has done that for me.

Simon: The technology certainly has, you’re being kind by saying “the technology”, more accurate when describing, it will come across due to editing but my technology has failed us multiple times on this recording.  So why don’t I stop sharing those details and you tell us about your hot tip.

Su: I think my hot tip based on our experience, we’ve stopped and started this recording multiple times, is that don’t set your bar too high, accept that during your online teaching there are going to be times of small fails, epic fails, fails where you just want to face plant into the table but can’t because you’re on camera.  I actually had to leave a meeting on Wednesday because I vomited and had to run off the camera to do that, so I’ve never done that before.  But I think you just accept there is going to be, without fail, going to be things that go wrong.  But at the end of it, you’re still going to come out on top.  You’re still going to be back face-to-face with those kids and hopefully you’re all gonna be stronger for it, and you would have picked up a whole heap of skills on the way that will help you to teach and blend into your teaching technology in ways that you probably never imagined before.   So none of this is wasted time, all of this is very powerful time that will really revolutionise some aspects of your teaching and you’ll take the best from this and the best from what you did before and you’ll come out with a beautiful new blended at the end.  So I think that’s my poetic top tip.

Simon: Yes, very poetic.  None of it is wasted time, even the time spent, in the case of Su, sitting patiently while I try and reassemble, in Ireland, trying to fix my mic and computer while apologising profusely into a microphone that’s not even connected...

Su: So there you go...

Simon: But we’re here which means we got somehow to the end.

Su: And so we did...

Simon: Thank you very much Su for all of your wisdom today.

Su: Thank you for having me today.

Simon: No worries.  Everybody out there look after yourselves, wash your hands, maintain your social distance and keep your eyes at the end of the road, we will come out at the end of this eventually.  In the meantime, if you want to catch any of our other episodes, you can find us on whatever platform you are listening to this on, and you can also check us at our main site at  For the time being, it is goodbye from Su.

Su: Bye.

Simon: And goodbye from me.  See ya.

[Music playing]

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