Keelan Heesterman, age 17, Karuma High School, discusses why education through the pandemic has been an unexpected ‘free trial’ of adulthood for teenagers. 

For many teenagers, continuing our education through the pandemic has been an unexpected ‘free trial’ of adulthood, and all it demands.

COVID-19 will remain a trigger word in the cultural lexicon of our generation for many years to come, denoting a period of uncertainty, cancellations and extended periods of unanticipated family bonding.

For others who weren’t as lucky as us in NZ, it denotes an ongoing era of pain, death, loss and tragedy. Globally, COVID-19 continues to dismantle our weakened economies, health systems and social stability – one confirmed case at a time.

Aotearoa has been one of the most successful nations in eliminating the virus and we remain out of lockdown (touch wood, or hand sanitiser – whatever is safest). Our roughly seven-week lockdown was an extraordinarily mild experience in comparison to countries like Australia and the UK, who continue to fluctuate in and out of lockdown.

Having regained most of the freedoms we had before COVID, we now have the luxury of hindsight – an opportunity to take a look at what worked and what didn’t – and forge a new way forward in a world that has been rocked by a pandemic.

As much as hearing the trite term ‘new normal’ might make you want to shrivel up inside – the concept is spot on. Every industry, profession and domain of society has, and still is, undergoing a revolutionary review process – and the education sector should be no different.

When lockdown came for us, schools were forced to adapt and innovate as the entire ethos of classroom and lecture-style learning was flipped on its head. Some teachers used Zoom calls to maintain a vague sense of normality, attempting to preserve the face-to-face interaction that was central to pre-COVID learning.

Many, however, simply set tasks for their students each week, and others made videos that the pupils could watch in their own time. Regardless, the way in which we approached education, particularly teaching, had to change as lockdown came sweeping in.

More than normal, COVID-19 showed us the importance of independence and self-management. Productive online learning at home necessitated an incredible level of self-induced motivation. Not having the coffee tinged breath of an overworked teacher beating down on your neck meant that for a lot of people, finding the willpower to get things done was a struggle. It’s not that we didn’t already understand that once we hit adulthood self-management would become imperative, it’s just that we weren’t expecting a free trial of ‘real-life’ so soon.

For those living in homes with multiple people who all needed their own space to work, the experience could be compared to University flatting – multiple stressed individuals trying to be productive while consuming far too much instant coffee. Again, it was the free trial we didn’t ask for.

But whether we liked schooling from home or not, we undoubtedly learnt a lot about ourselves, the methods that help us learn best and the importance of removing distractions. School provides an environment where distractions are intentionally limited, teachers ensure we stay on task and device use is controlled – theoretically of course.

At home, however, finding a space both physically and mentally to study was a struggle for many. YouTube, social media, music, family members, among others, are all distractions that we now had to manage during ‘school time’. Schools have rules limiting those distractions, and suddenly they were gone.

For some, this was an opportunity to exercise a new level of autonomy and responsibility; for others, it simply deepened the socio-economic divide, resulting in their grades dropping through no fault of their own.

What many students, including myself, have learnt over this tumultuous period is how important human interaction is in education. Classrooms provide opportunities to have discussions, bounce ideas off of one another, watch demonstrations and get hands-on. For some, it’s their safe space, their social space. Online learning took that away. Learning, when done right, is an intimate process, and almost has a beauty about it.

I know you’re screwing up your faces reading that and thinking ‘this guy has clearly never been to my school’. But hear me out – if learning was simply reading words on a page and answering some textbook questions, then you wouldn’t go to school. It should be a dynamic, lively and interactive process, experienced alongside our friends – and that’s what was missing throughout lockdown.

This article is part of the student voices writing competition, presented by Education Perfect


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