Interview with Elaine Purves, Head of School at St. John’s International School
Thursday, 21 May 2020
Elaine Purves talks about the impact of COVID-19 on the school and the way the school has adapted to the current reality, while making sure their students remain engaged. She also shares some of the challenges and opportunities they have encountered along the way.
What new teaching methods have you implemented in order to adapt to the current reality and to make remote learning as effective as possible?
Just the same as for many businesses and organisations, adapting our technology to suit this new way of interacting has been key. Fortunately, our infrastructure was already in place. Hence, as the pandemic moved closer, we were able to fine-tune our technology, deliver in-house training, and create a Remote Learning Plan before the national lockdown began.
For senior students, we have made greater use of the Microsoft Teams environment, including video conferencing and OneNote class notebook, as well as Forms for formative and summative assessment. As an International Baccalaureate all-through school, the IB Managebac platform has really come into its own during remote learning as an organised, structured space for each individual student’s learning programme.
At the Primary and Early Learning School, we have already used the Seesaw educational application for home/school communication as well as to share photos and video of students’ work with parents. This has now become the perfect teaching platform! Our teachers create and post teaching videos and activities for students to carry on learning from home, then students can respond via the SeeSaw app. Teachers are also using Zoom to connect with students via live lessons and Microsoft Teams for our Grade 5 students.
How are students reacting? How have you continued to engage with them during this period of time?
Students have been extremely positive and have already learned a huge amount above and beyond the usual curriculum – new IT skills, enhanced adaptability, communication, and resilience, to name just a few! We know that this is a challenging time for everyone, and it is hard for the students who miss their friends and teachers, so we provide as much opportunity as possible for interaction during the school day, starting the day with their friends in their Advisory or Homeroom class. We keep to our daily schedules as far as possible and keep the expectations that we usually have in our school day, but online.
Were there any specific challenges in implementing new teaching methods and remote learning?
Transitioning younger students to an online learning platform was somewhat of a challenge because of the many safety and security measures we have to put in place to protect students. Without the use of emails and individual logins to our platforms, we had to get creative to ensure students could access everything they needed to.
The parents have been amazing in ensuring the students are connected and online when they need to be, and we could not have done this without their ongoing support of the Primary school students.
Another big challenge has been implementing the Grade 5 PYP Exhibition; this culminating experience is a collaborative research-based project that all students look forward to at the end of Grade 5. We have had to adjust the nature of this project to be more individualised and focused on student passions in order to allow all students to participate successfully. They will be sharing their learning with the global community online in June!
At the Middle and High School level, we gave much consideration to the completion of external and internal exams. For our final year students, they had the challenge of completing coursework elements of their IB qualification post-lockdown, including language orals, the final Art Exhibition, and drama solo performances. As a school, we followed guidance from the IB organisation coupled with tremendous professionalism from our teachers to ensure that the exams were completed with integrity.
Our Grade 11 students will also be taking the US Advanced Placement (AP) exams next week, which we now also conduct online. We are planning to run our end-of-year school examinations online, mirroring the approach that many universities take around the world.
Any fun/inspiring anecdotes/stories you’d like to share with us?
We have had many opportunities to see different sides of our learners. It’s great to see them working with their families and seeing them being creative thinkers in their own space. We have had father-daughter singing duets shared, family-created Rube Goldberg Machines, at-home sporting challenges with other international schools, and many fun and creative family interactions.
Are there any new initiatives you’ve started that you think you’ll continue even after the crisis?
We will, no doubt, continue to use our online platforms more often to enhance our teaching and learning once we are back to face-to-face teaching and learning. Hopefully, this growth in technology skills, by both the teachers and students, will open the doors to more meaningful technology use in the classrooms moving forward.
Many of the families looking into our school for next year are keenly aware of this and when they book a virtual visit while we tour our campus remotely this is a big part of the conversation. Of course, we hope that confinement will not be a recurring feature of modern life, but, certainly, we would be even more ready to manage a period of lockdown, should it happen again.
Elaine Purves is Head of School at St John’s International School. In her first international headship, following two previous headships in the UK, one in a traditional British boarding school and the other at a high-achieving girls’ school, she has been transforming the school since her arrival. A linguist by background, Elaine is passionate about the transformative power of education and possesses a deep acumen in both developing and growing schools. She leads with commitment, dedication and vision while warmly embracing the foundational principles of the school.