Teaching in Covid-era: Students are now listening, engaged as classmates sit a metre away

The Secret Teacher: Silence in classrooms this year is of the most productive kind with an unnerving aura of tuned-in-ness

“If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” This Turkish proverb captures the essence of why I am enjoying teaching so much this year. I have a sneaky suspicion that many of my students are enjoying learning more than they ever have before – some have even dared say so.

I’m speaking a lot less, they are listening more actively, and this combination creates a powerful air of industriousness. Age doesn’t have lower or upper limits when it comes to the feel-good benefits of engaging fully in a task and enjoying the satisfaction of a job well done. Challenging though the Covid measures in schools are, there are unexpected positive effects which must be named and celebrated.

How school-goers have responded to this crisis is admirable, and it is important that we tell them we have noticed and that we are proud of them.

Since the volume and quality of the listening in my classes has rocketed, my students are now the epitome of attentiveness. The impact that has had is staggering to witness.


My speaking time is now largely unbroken, after years of trying to explain things while constantly interrupting myself to correct their behaviour. I seem to do my teaching and get my points across in a fraction of the time – and yet far more effectively. So far my data is qualitative and based on my intuition and observations, but I am confident that students’ results in Christmas assessment.

Our school has an active extracurricular programme, and while students don’t miss school for training there is always some cohort or other gone to a match. Catching up on work missed has never been their strong point, so progress through the curriculum has always been slowed by having to attend to the needs of whoever was most recently missing.

For the first time in my career there are no notes to intercept due to the risk of contamination

When we return to normality (whatever exactly that will look like), there is no reason for this problem to return if schools maintain active use of whatever digital platform they have put in place. Students learning how to use that properly now will serve us all well in the post-Covid learning environment too.

Silence in classrooms this academic year is of the most productive kind. Because the nearest neighbour is a whole metre away, quiet time in class is unhindered by the person fidgeting in the next seat or looking to engage in conversation. For the first time in my career there are no notes to intercept due to the risk of contamination.

Now, in many classrooms while the teacher is speaking, students are fully tuned in. This is the first crucial step in engaging with the content of the lesson. When the quiet time comes, students are now embracing it to really grapple with the task at hand. Where previously there was an irritating hum of other things happening on the sly while I spoke, there is now an almost unnerving aura of tuned-in-ness. It’s akin to the satisfaction of finally getting clear sound on a radio station after a painstaking struggle with the tuning. This apparently small shift has completely transformed student engagement.

In classes in the past, before starting any period of quiet time for students to work independently, there was a need for some students to check exactly what it was they had to do. This inevitably delayed the start of the task for everyone, and kept the teacher very much in the frame when the students should have been demonstrating their ability to apply what had just been taught.

Clarifying questions at this stage were generally of a very basic kind, and quite frankly hard to respond to politely.

From a basic perspective of professionalism and preserving student dignity in schools, it is important that students feel comfortable asking questions. They must, therefore, never sense that we feel their question is a stupid one. And yet, over the years, I have witnessed many classes collectively judge a peer for asking a question that completely betrayed their inattentiveness. Classes do this through atmosphere, very often simply a collective intake of breath which leaves nobody in the room under any illusions about the inappropriateness of the question. By and large, such questions have already been answered. It is always possible to highlight the needlessness of the question by getting a classmate to answer, but the sheer fact of it, and the time-wasting accrued, have by then already tested the patience of both teacher and class.

We must acknowledge and applaud their efforts now, to incentivise and motivate them

Today students get started on such tasks immediately, and so it is evident that they have really listened, and therefore heard better. This generates quality questions at a later stage in the task and ones which are related to the content. Such questions drive the learning forward and raise the bar for everyone in the room.

The very many students who in the past had been on the fence regarding whether to comply and risk appearing overly studious, or rebel and risk underperforming, have now been liberated from the burden of choice. Diligence is higher than it has ever been before, and those who were easily led hold a free pass to compliance and engagement via the strength of the public health message.

Those who were fully committed to disengagement remain a challenge of course, but the large cohort who were just easily led have merrily joined the masses who are fully immersed in classroom life. Again, if we play our cards right, there is no reason why we shouldn’t keep them with us when this is all over.

In order to ensure we do so, we must acknowledge and applaud their efforts now, to incentivise and motivate them. In terms of feedback for our students, speaking this aloud will be pure gold.