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MDX trainee teachers hailed as 'unsung heroes' with challenges faced by COVID-19 pandemic

Trainees have faced severe disruption from starting their course as critical workers to now delivering remote learning in the third national lockdown

Students teachers from Middlesex University have been hailed as “unsung heroes” because of the intense challenges they have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 200 MDX students have been teaching in nurseries, primary and secondary schools across 26 different local authorities in Greater London and surrounding areas.

This academic year’s trainee teachers have faced severe disruption from starting their course in September as critical workers when schools remained open to now delivering remote learning in the third national lockdown.

Despite the challenging situation, course leaders have praised the trainee teachers for their professionalism, resilience and innovation.

Dr Victoria Brook, Head of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) at Middlesex University, said: “The trainees have coped brilliantly with periods of self-isolation, positive COVID tests, self-isolating  mentors, self-isolating pupils, virtual school provision, remote learning – and essentially really stepping up to the mark, supporting pupils to catch up, assuming their responsibilities as critical workers and helping to keep schools open and pupils learning

“We hear little about the important role that student teachers play, the risks they have taken and the gaps that they have been filling.

“You could say student teachers have been unsung heroes of the pandemic, supporting some of the most vulnerable children and their families whilst taking risks as critical workers.

“Our partner schools have been fantastic, really supportive of our students, always thinking creatively about ways to support their development despite the circumstances.”

Middlesex University offers a range of trainee teacher courses including one-year Early Years Teacher Status training working with children aged from 0 to 5-years-old, and BA Honours in Primary Education.

Many students are post-graduates on the one-year Primary and Secondary PGCE courses with a subject such as English, Mathematics, Science and Geography, while some are training through School Direct on a similar one-year course where they are employed by a school.

Since January, students have been “virtually attached” to schools, helping to run online lessons, preparing resources and teaching key worker and vulnerable children in school.

Catherine Walsh, Programme Leader for School–Led Training routes and Senior Lecturer in Education, said: “Our student teachers have just been trail blazing in terms of the remote learning.

“Not only have they been really innovative with how they are trying to engage their pupils online, but they have also been very resilient.

“This year I have been so inspired by the students teachers, they are upbeat and professional at all times.

“Teacher training courses are intense because you have lesson planning, marking and then the theoretical side where they are completing university level assignments and in school every day.

“It is such a tough year anyway, but now they are going above and beyond.”

Here, trainee teachers from Middlesex University tell us about their experience of teaching and studying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lucy Morrow, 24, from London, who studied a BA Honours in History at the University of Southampton, is on School Direct Programme teaching English at a secondary school in North West London where she's been a teaching assistant for two years.

She said: “It was a really odd experience in September to come into an environment that you know so well that’s been set up with one-way systems.

“There was something so strange about coming into the classroom wearing a mask, while the kids are wearing a mask and have to sanitise when they come in and especially with the Year 7s who are so young and you’re having to do a lot of re-teaching after they missed the end of Year 6 which you wouldn’t expect.

“It was a very different experience coming into school in September.

“I was worried about catching COVID because I’m asthmatic so it’s more of a risk but I did feel very safe in my environment and the school has done a fantastic job with all the COVID procedures.

“But there are students in classes you teach who have had it and you think ‘oh gosh I was teaching them’.

“I love Middlesex University and the school based training route, staff at my school and university tutors have been very supportive.

“I know many of my friends at university are doctors and nurses and what they are doing is just extraordinary, but I do think teachers have been doing a really fantastic job, firstly at having to adapt to this whole new world and system.

“With teaching online it can be very difficult to keep children engaged and their confidence levels up.

“Education is not just about teaching, it’s about them as a whole person. When we went back there were huge differences in the levels, some children have not accessed online learning at all so adapting your lessons to ensure every child can access what you’re doing is hard.

“I’m excited to go back in March, you do miss the classes you teach.

“It’s a combination of being excited and thinking what will it be like when we’re back? How are we going to catch up with the students who have inevitably have fallen behind and help them reclaim their space?

“Because they’ve been away for long, the school environment can feel alien so we have to get back that sense of community and there will also be mental health and other issues caused by the pandemic.”

Lucy won praise from her school and tutors for setting up an extra-curricular writing project about Anne Frank, which has had an “incredibly positive impact”. It also raised safeguarding and child protection issues for some children who have now been given extra support.

Her tutor said Lucy has been “leading on innovative ways of teaching remotely” with online formative assessments, breakout room tools and a special bonus challenge for pupils in her form group.

Kavita Maria Mahabir-Singh, 24, is in her second year of the BA Primary Education (QTS) programme and is on her second school placement in the Year 4 class of a North London Primary school.

She said: “Our school is using Google Classrooms without any live video sessions so teaching involves uploading work, marking work and, more recently uploading videos of ourselves teaching.

“It’s definitely been very different. Working in a remote classroom is completely different to teaching children face to face and it’s been difficult to monitor pupils’ progress and make sure they keep up with work and to make sure all have access to Google Classroom

“We get to come into school once a week (following taking a COVID test that tests negative)  and then you have to call up parents about children which again can be difficult if English is not their first language. Then some children don’t have laptops.

“Teachers when they teach lessons in normal circumstances have lots of planning and power points from the years before, but nothing is applicable now. You have to adapt every single resource for Google Classrooms.

“We were thrown in the deep end just like children and we’re hoping they get it in time which hasn’t always been the case.

“You have to find the positive in everything, because we’re all going through this. The positive I take is that I have had time to focus carefully on the planning and resourcing.

“That for me has been a huge benefit because I’ve had experience teaching in schools. For students who haven’t and come straight to a degree without any work experience, I imagine it’s been tough for them.

“Some of the children are far behind and every time there’s another lockdown they come back and it’s back to square one which is frustrating.

“We have bubbles so one bubble can’t mix with another one and my class would have to be a bubble and we manoeuvre around the school making sure there’s no one else around.

“I’m not so worried about going back for a third placement at school, more excited.

“It’s just going to be a lot of work for them and us, catching up and getting us back on track.

“When we go back it will probably be two days a week of online learning, rather than four days a week.

“We’ve been hanging on Boris’ words and bless the teachers who have just put plans in place and then there’s an announcement and everything has to change.

“The worst part has been this uncertainty and changes constantly throughout the course.

“You plan something one day and the next day it’s like ‘scrap that, we won’t have time’.

“This has been the most difficult aspect; not knowing what will happen in the next week.

“Middlesex have been really supportive, setting up mindfulness and yoga sessions to relax everyone. They have done the best they can in unforeseen circumstances.

“The best thing about this period has been everyone pulling together, the parents, the children, the teachers, the schools and the university, to get on the same page and give all the children and us as students what we need. The sense of community has grown throughout the pandemic.”

Desislava Zhekova, 35, qualified as a Primary teacher in Bulgaria and is now on the Early Years ITT graduate-employment based course, while working at a nursery in West London where she has been employed for six years.

She said: “The EYITT programme - the practice based route, enables me to continue to develop my knowledge and apply this knowledge in practice, and continue developing personally and professionally.

“I am extremely grateful that the programme has continued despite COVID-19.

“I found it really motivating and inspiring, being able to communicate with other Early Years trainee teachers who show really a huge passion about their practice.

“My link tutors are always very supportive, their calm manner and approach they have towards us in these uncertain times has been extraordinary.

“COVID-19 brought the need of implementation of bubble groups, which means there is no mixing of children and teachers as a health and safety measure.

“Despite this I support my colleagues, parents and most importantly children to go through different transitions as smoothly as possible.

“One of the challenges that I faced is when we had to close the nursery for ten days because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“Also with online home schooling it can be difficult for our younger children to focus on the screen as their attention span is still developing.

“Despite this we continue to plan those home schooling activities, work and communicate with parents and give suggestions and ideas how to support children.

“I even staged a yoga lesson during the virtual homes schooling which the children were participating in and enjoying.

“With the support of my management team I established a supervised dry tooth brushing programme in the nursery which followed the Government COVID-19 guidance and my settings risk assessment.

“Promoting children's oral health and healthy habits is extremely important especially during a pandemic.

“COVID 19 is just another challenge that we are overcoming by finding alternative arrangements, adaptations and different teaching strategies which support each child, as well as ensuring this does not affect children's learning and developing but just benefits it.

“I believe it so important to keeping early years settings open.

“We provide a significant support to those very young children. “Teaching children about feelings and how to overcome anxiety and challenging moments they face is of significant importance for their well-being.”

Dilys Wilson, Early Years ITT Programme leader, said: “Although the government say children are low risk, it does mean with babies and very small children, you can’t wear masks and there’s no protective equipment.

“You have to carry on pretty much as normal so it’s been a stressful experience for those working in the sector.

“There’s all sorts of different hygiene requirements and minimal contact with parents.

“There are increased risks when educating small children because they also have a carer’s role as they have to change nappies and help children who are crying.

“But the thing about Early Years teachers is they are very resilient and have a real passion for their work with children and the care, education and support.

“They really value their role with those small children.”

Find out more about teacher training courses at Middlesex University:

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