Substitute for Love – teaching during a pandemic

November 3, 2020

Marie-Clare Kelly shares her experiences teaching during a pandemic.  

Substitute for Love – teaching during a pandemic

I think I can confidently say that none of us ever envisaged that we would be teaching during a global pandemic. None of us thought that school buildings would be closed, exams would be cancelled, and evidence would replace examinations. Most of all, not even edtech’s biggest cheerleaders could have predicted that technology would become our only way to deliver learning.

As a secondary school English teacher and digital learning coordinator, I knew that technology enhanced what I was doing in the classroom, and I made it my specialism. Yet even for me, remote learning was a steep learning curve.

At the time, we all tried to adapt our resources, our pedagogy, and our delivery methods to suit a “class” who were disparate – and desperate. Some were unable to attend virtual lessons. Some had limited web or tech access. Some were sitting at the dining table following a school day as closely as possible. Some were ill. Some were disengaged. We attacked the remote teaching scenario with all guns blazing, offering synchronous live lessons, asynchronous recorded lessons, adapted resources, interactive resources, rejigged timetables, standardised submission dates…it was exhausting, but thrilling in many ways. I finally had a chance to throw all of that technology know-how into practice.

Many educational technology specialists will be aware of Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s “SAMR” model of technology integration in teaching. It suggests that, when technology is introduced to learning, teachers will substitute their existing classroom practice with the same practice using technology, with no functional change. It also suggests that as staff become more confident and training is applied, teachers will “work up” to redefinition by creating tasks that would previously have been inconceivable without the technology. I will openly admit that I use this model frequently when training staff and discussing technology use in the classroom. I’ve had countless management meetings about how massive investments in technology would not be worthwhile if staff got “stuck” at the substitution stage, and that a digital learning strategy should aim for transformational use of tech in the classroom – because what’s the point of tech just to be an expensive substitute, right?

SAMR Model

But something happened just a few weeks into this term that changed my mind. Remember that I’m an English teacher, so I love a good anecdote.

Due to social distancing one of my largest classes was being taught in the hall instead of my classroom, which would allow for them to sit the appropriate distance apart. The hall is well equipped with a computer and projector, and our pupils had just received their 1 to 1 devices. This would have been ideal…but we were sharing the hall with another large class, who were studying entirely different texts, and whose teacher needed the projector and PC. After a few lessons of hit and miss, my class and I discovered we could recreate a perfectly good lesson by starting a Teams meeting which they could all join by sharing my screen. Then, we used OneNote to annotate together, and to do jotter work, in a world where I could no longer collect jotters. It was working well, albeit it was a little bit bizarre having a virtual meeting with everyone in the room…

And then, one of our class had to self-isolate. The class were finishing a starter task and some catch up work from the day before, and I got a little Teams message:

Message sent via Teams

As well as this, another classmate was unwell. I tagged her in a post, and both joined us from home. There it was: my very first experience of a truly hybrid model, or blended learning.

And do you know something? It worked. We read a scene from a play together as a class. The students with parts turned on their mics. We answered questions on the play to demonstrate learning. The pupils at home wrote in their OneNote at exactly the same time as the pupils in front of me. They asked verbal questions when they were stuck.

Taking notes

Did we do anything transformational? Well, no. It was straight substitution: a Teams meeting for classroom talk; screen sharing for a PowerPoint; OneNote as a jotter. However, it made me realise: right now, when we have a cohort of pupils who did not choose online learning, and who are not used to asynchronous, impersonal approaches. They need to hear their classmates laugh at the lines of a play or be able to show me their understanding in real time. What we really need to be doing is substituting as much of our normal, familiar, everyday teaching practice with technology to make it deliverable in these times.

Covid means we can’t hand out resources without quarantining books and breaking social distancing. We can substitute paper documents with electronic ones.

Our pupils can’t sit in groups and make discussion posters with flipcharts and sticky notes, but we can substitute group tasks and discussions with socially distanced discussions, or even breakout rooms, and collaborative documents.

I can’t go and sit with a pupil to discuss how to improve a particular part of their essay, but I can hit record in OneNote and give my verbal feedback at the click of a button.

If a number of my class are unable to physically join us, I can share a screen in a Teams meeting so that they are as good as present.

Having gone from a position where substitution was the lowest common denominator, and the bare minimum of what I would expect from a technology investment, I now think it’s the most important thing we can be doing right now for our pupils. It might be at one end of a spectrum when the technology is an enhancement: in an educational environment where teachers are trying to master blended learning, substitution in itself becomes transformational to the learning experience.

By replicating our existing pedagogy, we tell our pupils that they are “in the classroom” even when they physically cannot be. They have the opportunity to access the resources, complete tasks to demonstrate their mastery, and receive feedback, just as they would if they were in the room. They continue to be a member of a group, and a class, and to contribute socially and academically. Most importantly of all, they know that even when the whole world seems to have gone crazy, the learning is reliable, and present, and familiar. What better way for a teacher to show their love for their role and their pupils than to give them that reassurance?

So, substitution, I take it all back. I promise that I will get on to the transformational, redefining practice soon, when we’ve firmly established that our current model works. For now, I’m more than happy to substitute some technology to recreate my regular, everyday classroom practice in an irregular, extraordinary world.


  1. Iain Hallahan

    I’ve always had a wee bit of a soft spot for Substitution & Augmentation, but I think you have hit the nail on the head with this post. In the current situation, if we are able to provide a digital substitute that is functionally as close as possible to our actual classroom, then I reckon that is just about the best thing we could do for our pupils. A bit of the Old Normal in amongst the New Normal. Great post.

  2. Al Kingsley

    Great post and a really good balance.


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