50 (145) 2021

Lessons from the Pandemic

An International School’s Perspective

By Tom McGrath, Principal, British Primary School of Wilanow
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As a child in Ireland, I remember being fascinated by a pictorial book I found in the primary school library illustrating the life of children in a remote sheep station in Australia. There were no schools for hundreds of kilometres, thus the children engaged in learning by radio. The book described the children’s day, punctuated with radio interactions with teachers that they had never met. I recall being jealous of the freedom of these children who spent most of their day in the fresh air with exotic companions of kangaroos and other marsupials while the radio teacher briefly interrupted their idyllic existence.

This childhood fantasy became a reality for millions of children around the globe over the last 18 months; technology has added video to the radio teacher of Australian Distant Learning experience. I am aware via anecdote of teachers providing distant learning to pupils in different cities, countries, time zones and continents.

The first lesson of lockdown is that distance learning can work and, while not the ideal solution, it is a worthwhile endeavour when schools are forced to close due to external circumstances.

The second lesson is that schools got better at distant learning after the initial steep learning curve and many children had meaningful learning experiences. While initially, there was a reluctance to offer many live lessons on zoom or similar platforms, teachers and pupils found that recorded lessons had limited impact while live lessons allowed for some interaction, and were closer to the experience of the real classroom.

The next lesson was that the whole exercise was exhausting. Teachers were working harder than ever before and were often operating in an isolated environment that led to greater stress and anxiety. Many pupils also found that lengthy periods of distance learning and physical isolation from peers and teachers led to increased levels of withdrawal, mental health concerns and reduced performance. Teachers and pupils were so relieved to return to the classroom.

One of the unusual side effects of the pandemic was the increase in engagement in professional development among teachers. Not only were teachers polishing skills in technology to enhance distance learning provision but they were also availing of the many online courses for teachers to develop their educational prowess.

A further outcome was the realisation of the priority to focus on wellbeing as a key school performance indicator. This was true for teachers, parents and pupils. There were times when our school was closed to students, but we encouraged teachers to come in to work to get them out of their accommodation and set up routines. Schools that supported staff, that showed a commitment to staff welfare and a concern for well being built strong bonds and team work. Isolation is not conducive to learning.

Communication was also the key to success. Clear and transparent Covid policies, regular interactions with parents and thoughtful updates ensured that pupils, parents and teachers were working together.

The key outcomes for me are as follows:

  • The traditional school building will remain the core of primary education
  • Technology is now a crucial part of learning for all teachers and pupils and will play an increasingly significant and thoughtful role
  • Communication is the key to success when faced with an unexpected challenge and successful schools communicate well.
  • All schools must put a greater emphasis in developing the independent learning skills of its pupils so that when further disruptions challenge us, pupils have the tools to manage their own learning.


Tom McGrath has over 25 years’ experience in international education with successful headships in Poland, Portugal and the Caribbean. A graduate of University of Limerick and Trinity College Dublin, he has also completed advanced studies in Applied Linguistics, International Education and International Relations. Tom joined BSW in 2017.


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