I’ve seen lots of fantastic posts recently from teachers about the last year of teaching online and all the challenges it has thrown up. Freeed have dedicated March to being the anniversary of remote learning with lots of insightful articles and lesson ideas about teaching during the last year. So, as I settle down to spend a second Easter in lockdown during the third wave here in Italy, I think it’s only right to pause for a moment, catch my breath and reflect on how my teaching has changed over the past twelve months.
When I think about how I feel about the past year, I’m hit by a rush of emotions. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, regretful for what I got wrong, but overall, I’m left with a feeling of blind amazement when I think how, on both a professional and personal level, these last twelve months have panned out.
For me, last year was intended to be a year of challenges, particularly where my CPD journey was concerned. I set up a blog, joined Twitter (possibly the best move I made in terms of growing as a teacher), applied for (and was fortunate to win) a scholarship for IATEFL and was coming to the end of my DipTESOL to finally consolidate over a decade of experience and reignite my spark for learning. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that international pandemic or not this year was always going to be a challenge, especially with two small children who vie for and almost always win my attention at every opportunity. This meant that I had bizarre is-this-really-happening moments more regularly than I had envisaged throughout the year, like the strange combination of reading about Sociolinguistics while housed in a lovingly-built cushion fortress fending off dragons.
I was buzzing, fuelled on adrenalin, my brain in overdrive balancing studying with plans for my IATEFL workshop (courtesy of the C Group), bookmarking fascinating links from Twitter and seeing every lesson as a potential experiment in ELT. And despite the sleepless nights, the mounting stress, and the constant neck ache from looking upwards so as not to drop the many plates I had in the air, I absolutely LOVED it. It’s amazing really how one decision can refresh, rejuvenate, and reignite passions that you don’t realise need reigniting. I have been humbled beyond belief, connecting with edutwitter has opened my eyes to all of my shortcomings and, more excitedly presented a plethora of possibilities of directions to develop in. There is nothing more exciting a prospect than knowing that there are countless areas I want to read about, my biggest challenge now is trying to figure out how to squeeze them into my ever-increasing packed agenda.
And then Corona hit and the rug was pulled from under us all. The first few months of remote teaching were possibly some of the most stressful I have ever experienced. Trying to keep things going, support my teachers, still deliver decent lessons, keep my kids entertained and manage the rollercoaster of emotions was tough. I think everyone can relate to that rabbit-in-headlights stance that so many of us adopted last year. But it got easier. The summer break was a much needed time for rejuvenation and the new socially distanced school year wasn’t nearly as daunting, well, until hybrid lessons started on day 3!
And so, looking back over the past twelve months of moving online I’ve been thinking about all the things I have learned along my journey so far.
- When something goes wrong; stop, pause, and take a step backwards. When I first heard we were moving online I was petrified. Questions shot through my mind: How can I make my lessons interactive? How can I replicate classroom banter online? What on earth does an online lesson with a 4-year-old look like? And I reacted predictably by trying to match like for like – in my mind, I equated the move online to a requirement for making my lessons as technological as possible. I scoured the internet for techno-tools, I pored over powerpoints, ok I admit it most of my time was spent trying to choose the prettiest theme but powerpoints became my crutch. Needless to say, two weeks later I was suffering from serious burnout. Frazzled, I realised I was looking at this all wrong so I stopped. I stripped myself of technology and went back to basics. And of course you know what happened, my lessons and my outlook were transformed. I became a teacher again not a presentation tool. This was a painful lesson in realising that the added value is always the teacher and not the bells or whistles, or in this case the beeps and slide transitions (though they were beautiful)
- There is nobody more resilient than a teacher in a crisis! I am very blessed to have an incredibly hard-working, enthusiastic and dedicated team of teachers but I am utterly amazed by how well they have coped and continued throughout the last year. Living in a foreign country can be daunting at the best of times, being locked down, with travel restrictions stumping travel plans and opportunities to see family is enough to wobble even the strongest of characters but everyone has done a fantastic job at keeping things going. Particularly during the first lockdown, emotions were high and many of our young learners saw our lessons as one of the only ways of seeing their friends. The care that everyone put in to ensuring learner well-being, adapting to the ever-changing restrictions and tackling on the energy-sapping hybrid classroom, was second-to-none.
- The ELT community are an amazingly warm and generous bunch. When the pandemic kicked in, teachers and institutions reacted. Lesson plans were shared, subscription charges were scrapped, webinars started springing up on all different aspects of online teaching and this cushioned the painful transition that we all found ourselves in. I was floored by the generosity of educators online, particularly on social media. I would still be scratching my head were it not for the support I received online.
- Flipped learning enhances the learner experience. I had never really exploited flipped learning before the pandemic but now it is an essential part of how I plan my lessons. I love how it allows students to work at their pace, encourages more learner autonomy and allows more lesson time for language production. It also allows for that key ingredient of process time which is a rarity in the classroom. I’ve found my learners come to lessons with more questions, more curiosity and engagement is higher than it’s ever been. I think I always used to believe that surprising learners with the lesson content was the way to keep them engaged but by giving them the heads up before the lesson it actually allows them to gather their thoughts on the subject making the lessons more productive and actually more meaningful.
- Connections are fundamental. I’ve written before about the power of connections, they are fundamental in any teaching context and the last year has underlined that once again. One thing I noticed was that going through this together really brought classes together. Our online bubble was a safe space for sharing how we were doing, escaping the mundane boredom of lockdown and motivating each other by working toward a shared goal. Starting courses online where students didn’t know each other and hadn’t met in person meant that establishing that connection, both between teacher and student and between students, was even more crucial. I also believe that online you can do this perhaps even easier than you can in the classroom thanks to the chat facility allowing a dialogue with each student without them feeling inhibited by their peers.
- Gamification and staged repetition is great for retrieval practice. I’ve noticed a huge difference, particularly in my YLs from using sites such as wordwall, kahoot, quizlet, baamboozle and quizziz. They help lessons change pace, appeal to the competitive nature of some of my young teens and are having a great effect on language learning by helping with memory retrieval. The fact that many of these sites also allow you to assign tasks to Google Classroom means I can use them again and again as staged practice. Brilliant!
What has the last year taught you? Have you noticed a difference in your teaching? Let me know in the comments below.