The disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has left no part of society untouched, with education being no exception. With schools across the country remaining closed, teachers are having to come up with creative ways to engage their students.
One such school is the European School of Helsinki, a private, international school in the city centre which teaches children from a wide variety of backgrounds. We spoke with Josette Wolters, the after-school activity coordinator for the school, to find out exactly how one of Helsinki's schools is helping students and parents during these extraordinary times.
Can you describe, in your own words, how teaching at ESH has been affected by the COVID-19 outbreak?
Just like Finnish schools, we have been following the guidelines issued by the Finnish Government and have been distance learning from the 17th of March, with all our lessons being taught online via Microsoft Teams or Zoom meetings.
The Covid-19 outbreak has had a big impact on our teaching. Teaching virtually has been a new phenomenon for everyone during this crisis. Although we are lucky that we have quite a sophisticated IT system in school and are well equipped for digital learning, teaching this way has been intense – developing video lessons, introducing new materials, leading efficient meetings, keep track of all the students’ attendance, and performance. A lot of our teaching year planning has had to be adapted, like European Baccalaureate Exams, test weeks, celebrations, end-of-year-shows, and class trips in Finland and abroad.
Besides these more practical consequences, the emotional consequences for the students missing being in school have been big. Being isolated from school, friends and familiar routines can cause adverse effects on mental health. Prolonged stress caused by the situation can become a developmental risk factor too. Age-related developmental challenges and big unexpected changes together will put some pupils’ coping-skills and resilience to the test more than others.
As teachers, we need to keep up the good quality of teaching online and keep our eyes and ears open for the psychological, emotional risks this online learning brings. Us teachers get support with this from among others, our pupil welfare committee and a psychologist, who follow the students closely.
What kinds of extra-curricular activities are you offering your students remotely?
Every day we offer a variety of activities that are easily accessible at home. These include physical activities like karate, gymnastics, multi-sport, dance; creative and game-based activities like drama, music, art, storytelling, Dungeons & Dragons, Pokémon, science, GameGo, Origami, Asian culture; as well as Finnish language lessons and yoga for relaxation.
Where relevant, our usual after-school activities program includes official exams and competitions and we will be continuing these online. For example, the official Karate belt exams will soon take place online, and Pokémon and GameGo competitions are currently running or underway.
What kind of outcomes for students do you hope to achieve with these activities?
We strive to offer a balanced activity program for the school week from which the students can choose. After a long and busy day of concentrating in the classroom, we think that relaxing, having fun and some physical activity are very important during the hours of after-school activities that follow, especially now they are at home.
The afterschool activities are an important part of the school day where students from different classes and language sections can interact, play, and socialise together. 90% of our students participate in after-school activities.
We started to do this also online for several reasons. It gives parents with smaller children, often also working at home, the opportunity to have some time for themselves while the children are with us. Another even more important reason is that the children stay in contact with each other and with us, socialise, have fun together, stay healthy and fit and keep up their acquired level. Without continuing their activities they will lose at least some of their motor skills, flexibility, and knowledge.
Another reason is that we had planned to have our yearly Afterschool Show at the beginning of May in which all the students participate in one or another way – performers, organisers, decor builder - everything you need to set up a good show. It was meant to take place in the Aleksanteri Theatre this year and the theme would have been The Tempest from Shakespeare, performed in a children’s dream world. We hope to now perform this show in the Autumn if we can go back to normal school life then, and that’s why it is also good to see the students in afterschool online to still work with them on this big project.
Finding their friends back online, keeping up their acquired level of skills, socializing, being physically active; we hope this contributes to a memorable school day for them.
What kind of feedback have you received from parents since launching these remote activities?
The students are very happy to continue online, to see each other and us. They are very focused and attentive during the activities. We see happy faces on the screen, and even more happy faces from the parents! We have received very nice and thankful reactions from parents, not only for offering these activities to see their children so happy, but also lots of appreciation for the teaching itself. Most of the compliments address the professionalism of the afterschool team, their creativity, the patience with which they work, and the fun they bring to their children in these times. Parents have been amazed at how much is possible in this online afterschool teaching world.
How are teachers feeling at the moment? Has the adjustment been difficult?
Afterschool teachers are very happy to contribute to the Covid-19 school situation in a positive way. Teaching online is challenging but being able to contribute to the children’s hobbies online, to give them a valuable filling of their free time, to contribute to the creative process of learning, has been very rewarding.
Of course there is some disappointment as some activities require specific materials and help from the teacher, like screenprinting, textile sewing. Theses one we aren’t able to offer online.
What elements of remote learning would you say are the most challenging?
I would say the most challenging aspect of remote learning is not being physically present. Contact with the students is via a screen and that simply doesn’t work as efficiently as in real life.
In addition, the boundaries between work and life balance are more blurred. Being available 24/7 can be stressful at times. The computer is always there and working times become a bit more flexible. As a teacher you can feel as though you need to be on standby the whole day in case if there is a request.
How have students responded to these activities? Do you have any anecdotes or stories you would like to share with us?
It has been nice to see that not only our students participate in online activities but also parents and siblings. Sometimes it is very crowded in front of their screens! Also lovely to see that the students are chatting with each other, showing things to each other during the activity – they are interested in each other. Showing their house, garden, toys. In some families, we see multiple children participating in different activities at the same time. Sometimes it occurs that the teachers can see each other on different computers and hear each other talking and while that may seem distracting, it also creates a sense of closeness.
How do you feel about teaching in the coming weeks and months?
Of course, we all hope that this stage of life will go over as soon as possible and see the students in real life again. However, for the moment, with the knowledge that we have to do things this way; it works well for us. We are happy to be in contact with the students every day, being appreciated by them for this good work and contributing in a positive way to the challenges of life at the moment.
Adam Oliver Smith - HT