An Interview with Sonya Papps, Headteacher of the British Secondary and High School Taipei

Sonya Papps has led her school community through three extended school closure periods in Taipei this year. In this article, she shares her reflections and learning in the hope that other school principals in other parts of the world might benefit, as well as help prepare colleagues if the C-19 pandemic requires more prolonged school closure.

The British Secondary and High School is part of Taipei European School and has over 600 secondary age international students on roll.


How did you support expectations about digital/remote learning with staff, including the delivery of training and guidance to ensure staff were competent to deliver?

'We were clear about the minimum expectations for everyone, and encouraged a spirit of experimentation in which it was OK to make mistakes. Everything about this situation is new and it was important that colleagues felt supported. We applied the same philosophy that exists in our classrooms to teaching practice during the closure.

Sticking to the usual timetable and having face-to-face time (via video conferencing) has been important, particularly for students who lack self-management skills. We first did an audit of teachers’ equipment to ensure that they could teach effectively from home, and we were fortunate to have funding available to purchase additional items for teachers who wanted to take their online teaching to the next level. The items purchased included webcams, tripods, podcasting microphones, and document cameras to provide greater instructional flexibility whilst accommodating various styles of teaching. Zoom was new to us all, but was very quickly adopted as our main platform. We felt that a robust, scalable communication and collaboration platform was an essential element of our online learning strategy.

To provide SLT with a baseline, teachers were asked to assess themselves using a Google Form. This feedback allowed teachers to choose the right CPD sessions for them and was useful for their HODs too. Teachers were then quickly trained so that they were equipped with the appropriate knowledge of how to use different tools. Teachers were definitely able to capitalise on the experience and skills gained during the first closure, and we have expected them to be proactive in addressing their own professional development needs, utilising all available support.The majority of CPD sessions were developed inhouse based on the instructional skills and experiences identified in the learning continuity plan.'


How much flexibility did you give different curriculum areas to use different platforms?

'Zoom and Google Classroom are our main platforms. To streamline the students’ experience, we learnt from their feedback that consistency is very important. Initially, for example, we were also using Google Hangouts Meet, but soon replaced this with Zoom, but teachers have also used Google Forms, Screencastify, Premium Kahoot! Sir-Links-ALot, Doctopus, EdPuzzle, Myimaths, Manga High, Simple Audio Recorder, Vocaroo, Padlet, Flipgrid, Quizlet and BrainPop.'

How did you make use of digital platforms for maintaining staff communications, e.g. staff briefings?

'We have had the luxury of being able to continue having face-to-face meetings, (now following social distancing guidance) but in case the campus is closed to students and teachers again for a prolonged period, we have trialed meetings on Zoom, which have been a success. We have sent the minutes to colleagues afterwards.'

Can you talk us through the systems that you set up for maintaining high quality pastoral care, for the most vulnerable and also for the school community in general?*

 'Our learning assistants have been having weekly check-in calls with specific families (sometimes more). They have been in regular contact with teachers to coordinate the work for key students, as well as keeping up communication with parents. Our Heads of Year have been similarly proactive with vulnerable students, and have followed up on absences and/or incomplete work with parents. To begin with, teachers were over reporting problems (to SLT and to Heads of Department) and so by allowing the HOY to be more selective about when and how to follow up on concerns, teachers have also followed suit by being more selective about what constitutes a real concern. In reality, not everyone can keep up with digital learning, and every student’s home situation is different. Students who were disengaged at school are generally also those who are disengaged at home. The Senior Leadership Team have had regular online learning conversations with targeted small groups of students (via Zoom) and their feedback has been used to adapt our approach. The students have also appreciated this very personalised approach to learning. This is in addition to a social media campaign we have ran on Facebook (“Learn With Us From Home”) and a dedicated section on the school website to provide the school community with a centralised reference for all Covid-19 communications. All students in PSHCE have been developing their personal portfolios and reflecting on the experience of digital learning. KS3 students have been completing daily learning logs, monitored by their Heads of Year.'

How did the first closure period prepare you for the second?

'For the second closure we introduced more structure, more face to face time and targeted CPD for teachers. We have enhanced our digital infrastructure to support remote learning. Moving forwards, and when life returns to normal, the challenge for educators is to identify what we should continue to provide for our learners, equipping them with the skills necessary to flourish and cater for these newly evolved skills.'

How did you help manage any parental anxiety?

'With staff, parents and students, one of the reasons we have had success with our communications is because we have been 100% honest. We have not kept secrets and we have not put a spin on things. We have tried to give people confidence that we are with them: our mantra has always been, we can’t control the situation, but we can control our response. We have been very clear with teachers about how they should respond to questions from students and parents and, in relation to queries about the cancellation of examinations. We have reminded teachers that we need to be confident and reassuring, and not transfer our anxieties on to the students. '

What existing school practices did you make best use of to support staff wellbeing, and what new ones evolved?

 'The CPD and tech support has been the biggest thing. We have scaffolded our expectations and talked openly about the fact that this is a steep learning curve for everyone. It is OK for teachers to be at different levels. We have made available our trained coaches (who had an online session with with a coaching provider during the first closure) for teachers who have found it difficult to adapt. We have begun meetings at school with mindfulness practice to model how we value taking care of our wellbeing. We have also invited teachers and Heads of Department to come forward to SLT if they are finding things personally difficult, which they have taken us up on, making us aware of issues that we would not otherwise have known about. We have also allocated teachers with tech buddies (another colleague) to help with their teaching practice, and we have made available a list of places providing social and emotional support locally (this is important as most of our teachers do not speak Chinese). We are regularly checking in with teachers, and taking things day by day

How have you assessed the pupil and parent experience to inform your teaching approach?

'Yes, we have conducted surveys with both parents and students. The SLT have also had video conferences with a large cross-section of groups of students (at different points during our closure), to ask for their feedback about our approach and their learning. These conversations also supported academic intervention work that was/is happening remotely. '

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