Navigating Isolation with your Students

My name is Wren Gillett. I am a first-year university student and student voice advocate. I myself, am experiencing first hand the foreign world of remote learning. I haven’t even had a class on Campus yet, so everything about this transition has been a major learning curve for me. I understand that while I am transitioning to self-guided learning in the tertiary sense, most young people across the world are having to self-direct and learn mostly autonomously for the first time. Many students are struggling, as are a lot of educators, but that is what is so significant about this shift – we are all learning about these changes at the same rate, and growing together.

Over the past several weeks I have contributed to the future of education discussion. I have loved talking through the challenges and prospects with educators and researchers, and most significantly, students. We are living through such a pivotal point in history, and are navigating best practice as a collective. Although, I believe the student’s perspective has been significantly left out of these discussions. 

Experts and educators have been coming together to discuss student engagement, but I raise the question, are the students themselves not the real professionals in this case? The answers students provide aren’t theoretical, they are based on personal experiences and performance – Young people know how they learn best. Thus, I find it interesting that this perspective has been partially overlooked. 

Pivot’s recent whitepaper, ‘Educators’ perspective of the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning in Australia and New Zealand’, explicitly demonstrates that teachers want what is best for their students and are most concerned about “meeting student needs from a distance” (Flack et al, 2020, p.12). We know that teachers truly care about their students and their learning efficiencies, so what better way to improve the learning environment than to work alongside these young people. This is a critical step for educators, and while this may sound like old news for some, the student’s voice has been undeniably overlooked in the midst of all the external chaos. How many schools truly worked alongside their students when structuring the virtual classroom, or even asked these young people which online format would be most engaging? 

These partnerships between students and teachers are what will improve the virtual classroom and ease the transition back to whatever the new version of ‘normal’ becomes. 

The Boma New Zealand campfire discussion for Youth Voices on the 5th May 2020, addressed the transition back to school. This campfire created an open dialogue for young people, aged 16-20 from New Zealand and Australia, to speak about the state of education. Students expressed that there is a lot of pressure to “get up to speed” so that teaching can continue as per usual once on-campus education resumes. Pivot found that about 80% of educators, in both Australia and New Zealand, agreed that their students will need additional support once everyone is back in the regular classroom (Flack et al, 2020, p.12). However, while there is cause for concern around the disruption to student learning capabilities, it is important that our education system pathway to bring students back “up to speed”, doesn’t create a culture of ongoing stress for students, especially after what has already been an incredibly stressful start to the year.

Many young people have shared that their wellbeing has decreased since the isolation restrictions were enforced, and there has undoubtedly been a heightened vulnerability to all demographics and professions over this difficult period. Most young people aren’t feeling their best at the moment, myself included. We need to counter the idea that we must quickly compensate for missed learning opportunities with extra work, as a lot of students are already feeling overwhelmed – without even taking their education into consideration. The limits that define what students can mentally handle at the moment are critically subjective, so what better way to navigate this new pathway than to speak with the students themselves.

Pivot’s research shows that teachers care about their student’s wellbeing. When teachers were asked to pick their top three concerns about distance learning for students, the most common responses were students’ social isolation, a decrease in student well-being, and potential learning loss (Flack et al, 2020, P.15). The volume of learning loss is significant and needs to be addressed. However, this cannot be handled effectively by young people if they are already feeling mentally overwhelmed – they need the support of their educators. 

Before additional changes can transpire, students need to feel as though their teachers understand them, and are there to support them. An open dialogue between teachers and students should be encouraged, as this will reduce the feelings of isolation that many young people are currently experiencing. Additionally, working alongside students to improve the classroom through meaningful feedback and partnerships, will help cultivate engagement. When students meaningfully contribute to the classroom structure and formation, they consequently feel accountable for its success.

Feeling heard during this isolating time could make all the difference. So, encourage your students to speak up, and when they do, don’t just listen to them – hear them.

Wren Gillett.



More about Wren…

Wren is Pivot’s student voice advocate. She was part of VicSRC’s executive committee for close to three years, and chaired the executive team within this time. She has a been a youth champion for charitable organisations such as the Alannah and Madeline Foundation and Dolly’s Dream, and has spoken at multiple conferences and events across Australia about the power and significance of student voice, agency and empowerment. Wren is currently in her first year of university majoring in journalism, and continues to be a passionate spokesperson for young people.