Article Personal Experiences Returning to Work

Reflections Ahead Of Facing the Second Year Of IB DP Physics – Mid-Pandemic

Sarah Dowd
Written by Sarah Dowd

I’m about to start my second year in an NYC International School (and at this point I must confess, the article about the move and the first year is still sitting in my Google Drive, half written!). This time last year I had landed in JFK, swanned through arrivals with my six bags, thinking I was about to be the Irish Carrie Bradshaw. I had left the stress of a TLR and a full timetable behind in the UK. The honeymoon feeling didn’t last too long. 

On my second day of teaching I met my 12th Grade (Year 13) Higher Level IB Diploma Program Physics class. I knew they hadn’t had the best relationship with the teacher I was replacing so I went in positive. I told them my plan, what I was going to do when and what I thought was the best way of doing it. Then I asked how far they were with their coursework. (IBDP currently complete an individual assessment (IA) worth 20% of their overall grade, based on an experiment they have designed themselves.) There is no silence like the ‘Does she expect us to have this work done? ‘Coz we don’t’ silence. I took a deep breath. Set some deadlines. And we made it through. I have some very strong thoughts about the IB Results for this year’s cohort, but that’s another day’s writing. 

I also had an 11th Grade Standard Level class. (Outline with suggested teaching hours included below). All mine, from scratch. ‘I won’t make the mistakes my predecessor made.’ I told myself. ‘I will not be chasing them next January, jumping out at them from around corners, demanding coursework!’ I told myself. Then, COVID19 hit. I have not been with my 11th Grade class, in person, since March 6th. Their lab skills were developing, we had set a timeline for our IAs, and ideas were starting to blossom. We have been meeting through video conferencing software, but there really is no substitute for the real thing. I want to discuss where we are, as well as where we need to be and how I hope to get us there. 

SL Course OutlineSL Assessment Outline
1. Measurements and uncertainties 
2. Mechanics
3. Thermal physics
4. Waves
5. Electricity and magnetism
6. Circular motion and gravitation
7. Atomic, nuclear and particle physics
8. Energy production 

Plus one of four optional topics.
A. Relativity
B. Engineering physics
C. Imaging
D. Astrophysics 
Paper 1: 30 multiple-choice questions, duration 3/4 hour, weighing 20%, 30 marks.  

Paper 2: Short-answer and extended-response questions on core material, duration 1 ¼ hours, weighing 40%, marks 50. 

Paper 3: Questions on core and SL option material, duration 1 hour, weighing 20%, marks 35. 

Internal Assessment: Weighing 20%, marks 24. 

Challenges

We are returning face to face on September 7th. Our students will rotate between one day on-one day off, over a 10-day timetable. We will be operating at a 50% student capacity. On the day a student is working from home, they will join all classes via video conferencing software. This is our plan. Will it work? Your guess is as good as mine. But if I want to do a practical (which I don’t plan to do for quite some time, unless it’s a demonstration) or give an assessment I will need to do that twice. Once for Group A and again for Group B. I’ve tried to lay out what that will look like in my planning as best as I can, but we are building this plane as we try to fly it. So, I will only have half my class with me at a time. We do not know if there will be afterschool provision for completing lab work so I may have to give over some teaching time to getting IAs completed to a high quality. For the May 2020 exam series, the IA was a large part of the calculated grade. In case we are not out of the woods for the May 2021 series, I want to be ready and well prepared. 

Students are also required to complete the lab work for their IAs (although the IB has released guidelines on completing this portion of the subject with simulations and reliable secondary data in case lab work is not possible), 10 hours of which is supposed to be given over by the teacher from class time. 

I have lost 80 minutes of teaching per week with this class, since March. We shortened our hour long classes (period 1 was 70 minutes, of which I had one per week with this group) to 40 minutes to give students greater screen breaks between classes, going to 30 minutes on Wednesdays to allow for an early finish so the whole school community could have a midweek breather. I stand by this decision completely, but I am now behind. I decided to change my plan, and not teach electricity or waves during lockdown.

What I Had PlannedWhat We Completed
1. Measurements and uncertainties 
2. Mechanics
3. Thermal physics

4. Waves
5. Electricity and magnetism
6. Circular motion and gravitation

7. Atomic, nuclear and particle physics
8. Energy production
1. Measurements and uncertainties 
2. Mechanics
3. Thermal physics

4. Waves
5. Electricity and magnetism
6. Circular motion and gravitation
7. Atomic, nuclear and particle physics
8. Energy production

Digital fatigue hit hard come May for both students and teachers. I decided to teach Topic 8 in lieu of topic 6 as it could be done partially asynchronously (my new favourite word – more on that later) through group work and projects. Students had some freedom to complete the work outside of set class time provided all deadlines were met. Students will be working on their IAs as well as their Extended Essay (EE) over the summer, so even if I wanted to, I was instructed not to set mandatory work over the summer. 

How will I try to sequence my teaching when we return in September? I am going to start with Particle Physics and hope we are able to do practical work by the time that is over. I can only wait so long to decide what to do. If we are not able to ease in-class restrictions, I will cover Waves with as many demonstrations as possible. I want students to be able to complete electricity practicals themselves as they can all have their own set of equipment (because of the day on-day off schedule), but at the moment I feel like this is a pipe dream. The aim is to have finished ‘Core’ content before February break to allow for a two-paper trial exam. We will then have the month of March to complete our option module (suggested teaching hours for SL – 15.)

The biggest challenge to learning will be if we need to revert to 100% teaching from home due to another lockdown. I fear the International Baccalaureate Organization will not be as flexible with schools the second time around when or if it comes. Although the amount of work we do does not decrease when working from home, the integrity of the work done is compromised. 

Positives 

I have embraced technology like never before. I refused to use the out of date Smart Board in my old school because it was more hassle than it was worth. I had been using a visualiser for about two and a half years, before lockdown hit. And then I found myself at home with no visualiser, no space to use one (Have you been in a Brooklyn apartment? I’m surviving with the smallest closet I’ve ever had.) and teaching online for the very first time. I decided to treat myself to an iPad and Apple Pencil, and I will never go back. I’ve been using a note taking app which is mirrored to the video conference with my class and they can watch me work as if I was live at the whiteboard or on the visualiser. Why am I so enamoured with my new toys you might ask? Surely a visualiser does the same thing and the classic overhead projector before that. With this, I can save and send my work as a PDF as well as a recording of me which can be timed to play in time with the notes being ‘rewritten’ – all of this on top of being able to record and store lessons on our LMS from the video conferencing software. Should a student be ill, have internet problems, or be unsure about work completed C3B4ME becomes ‘C3DigitalMesB4ME’. (Ok, the name needs work. Leave it with me.)

Grafoproyektor, Kodoskop, Overhead projector projector – TOO "Ak ...

If you’re of a certain age, the functions of this piece of equipment might go over your head.

Students have also had to become more independent. With reduced class time, as well as the need to schedule one-on-one time with a teacher, students have had to work on solving more problems themselves. Although the guidance and support that comes from teachers and other classmates was not absent while our classes were digital, it was less readily available in the way that we were used to. I also had to try, to problem solve more independently and creatively. I can’t just nip next door to ask another teacher a question. I don’t have the hundreds of books we have on hand to find more practice questions or an alternative diagram. I’ve been forces to expand the digital element of my classes, and now my aim moving forward is to cut down on my paper use by about 75%. I have a large bank of digital resources – why do I spend my time stood in front of a photocopier using reams upon reams of paper every year? I finished secondary school in 2009, it’s time to step away from the comfort of having a piece of paper in my hand.

I’m also glad that students had time out of the classroom where learning had to continue. My biggest failure when leaving school was that I was not prepared for college. While I had an amazing support network in school, there was never any point where I was told to sink or swim. To be independent, and in charge of my own learning. Teachers were no longer able to hover or harass. Everyone (myself included) was working purely under their own steam. I have a fear of children falling behind because of work undone, but I realised early on that asynchronous work was the way to go. Letting go of the reigns and allowing students the freedom to exercise their self-discipline and manage their workload on their own schedules. And funnily enough, the sky didn’t fall down.  

What I’ve Learned 

Speaking of working under my own steam, the last few months have taught me I can never work from home long term. Not only do I need to be surrounded by my colleagues, I enjoy being on the move all day. I moan about having to move classrooms, cart equipment around, I always forget things and leave a trail of destruction. But I need that break and change of scenery. Walking around a tiny NYC apartment doesn’t satisfy the desire to stretch your legs quite like trying to dash from Lab 421 to Room 451 while trying to not drop my computer, gather up the kids I meet on the way trying to loiter and not become hallway roadkill. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that changing classrooms when you’re about 6 inches shorter than the average high school senior isn’t an extreme sport. 

I also made the grave mistake of working on a table for three months that was about the size of an A3 piece of paper. I was counting down the days until I was able to get a chiropractor appointment. I used my computer and was typing more than ever before and ended up with an RSI in my dominant wrist. My screen time sky-rocketed, and my eyes were getting tired more easily. If we end up working from home again (and even if we don’t) I will be taking my occupational health more seriously. 

Recommendations

This list will probably be added to and rewritten on a daily basis in the lead up to our return to the school. I’ve accepted that I don’t really have any answers to what people really want to know. What will school look like? Will we end up back at home? Will we get everything done in time? I don’t have answers, but I can prepare a flexible plan built around personal resolutions so I can continue being a successful teacher. 

  1. Don’t dump the best parts of online learning once we return to the classroom. I’ve learned some new skills during lockdown, I don’t want to fall back into old habits once I’m back in the classroom and no longer a tiny digital square in a video conference.
  2. Deadlines are deadlines and that’s it. Unless we have to work from home again, time in school must be spent wisely to ensure coursework is complete. Data collection will be a priority to ensure that write-ups can be completed at home, if needs be. 
  3. Decide what is really necessary. SLOP? Yes. Printed for every student SLOP? No. I am going to make all of my resources available digitally and I will print selectively. 
  4. Put more effort into building my in-person relationship with students who are new to me. A lot of teachers I know who weren’t teaching live lessons said they thought it would feel really impersonal. I didn’t find that with most of my classes. I finally got to see some of the pets I’d heard so much about, we still had the same silly conversations we would have in person. But I took over two new classes at the end of January (because some of our classes only run for 1 semester) and I had spent minimal ‘in person’ time with these students and it just wasn’t the same. 
  5. Do not carry the weight of the world on my own shoulders. I had daily phone calls with my work bestie (sometimes more than one a day), my boss and I sent each other stupid stuff we saw online and my partner teacher and I greet each other in a very particular way and hearing that greeting from him in voice notes was almost as good as the real thing. 

I’ve realised that my motto for the 2020-2021 school year is no different to the last seven Septembers I’ve walked into a classroom as ‘Ms.Dowd’ – Hope for the best. But prepare for the worst. Before this year, worst might mean bad exams results or having to teach ‘that’ class. This year we don’t need to hypothesise what worst would look like. We’ve seen the figures on the news. We all know someone working in healthcare. We all know someone who has been affected by COVID19. It’s inescapable. But this also means we get to re-examine what the best looks like. I can’t wait to see heads popping around my office door to ask me a question or the laughs from the first ridiculous thing we end up arguing about in a department meeting. Hopefully the joy of being together can motivate everyone to take reasonable and respectful measures to stop the spread of the virus – we all have a lot more living to do.

About the author

Sarah Dowd

Sarah Dowd

Sarah has a B.Sc.Ed from the University of Limerick in Ireland. She spent the first six years of her career in a North London Academy where she was Head of Physics. In summer 2019 Sarah made the move to teaching internationally. She is currently part of the Tutorial House section of The United Nations International School in New York City. Her favourite topics to teach are radioactivity and particle physics. She aims to promote the visibility of female, queer and non-binary scientists to her students and has previously worked with the charity Stonewall to support the integration of LGBTQ+ training for teachers in schools.

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