The beginning of the unknown.
Let’s see, where should I start? Corona sounds good, don’t you agree? Obviously, I don’t mean the beer. I’m talking about what has been on the lips of everyone going on almost half-a-year now. It sure has been a turbulent journey, which started in the middle of March here in Spain, when-due to Covid19-we closed the doors of Mobile English, without knowing when, or if we would ever be able to open them again.
That same weekend I found myself with five teachers on my payroll, two academies, company contracts which still needed fulfilling and over 350 students of whom I still owed three months of language classes. The aforementioned doesn’t even begin to factor in rental agreements, leases, and bills associated with running a small business. Yes, and thank you Spain, a ridiculously high self-employment tax that would make your head spin.
That Friday, in the middle of March as I went home in utter disbelief of what was happening, I began to scratch my head, and scratch it hard I did. After all, I needed to save my business. What do I do? I heard myself cry out for help, but I only listened to that same hollow cry echo my words back to me. No support, no organisation and above all, I felt utterly alone in this battle. This has to be a joke I thought, nope, it wasn’t. It was the sick, and twisted reality of what we now know has come to be called Corona Virus, COVID-19, Captain Tripps (if you have read Stephen King’s The Stand) or whatever name you decide to christen it, it’s all the same. COVID was the hand that life dealt, and I had to play it.
I got my teachers together and concluded we would bring whatever classes we could online, and they would teach from home. My choice for all of this was the platform ZOOM. Wow, were we in for a big surprise. Murphy’s Law, right? Well, Murphy was alive and well and doing his job. I don’t know if you know what ZOOM is, but it’s a video platform where you can have all your students logged on, see them and by using some new, innovative software you can deliver virtual classes online while all the while following the book as kind of a virtual classroom. You think it’d be easy, well easy couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Most everything was a complete disaster for the first couple of weeks. Bad connections. Slow internet, students who didn’t have the proper equipment to log on to their classes online and unfortunately-in my case a lackadaisical disinterested teacher who couldn’t be bothered-but I’ll get to that person later. Thankfully I had some exceptionally phenomenal teachers as well, and they couldn’t do enough to help. Thank goodness for dedicated professionals, right?
The command centre
Okey, distance learning in the comfort of your own home, sounds like the perfect blend. Hmm, well you’d think so, wouldn’t you? The students took to it-once they overcame the technical difficulties-like a duck to water, this was the first week; however, we had a plan.
You see, I set up sort of a command centre at my kitchen table, two laptops, one iPad and two mobile phones, all established to monitor three ongoing classes at the same time, genius I thought. It looked like something out of a Jason Bourne film.
My wife, who is also my business partner took straight to her customer service skills. She got straight to making phone calls to the students who were having problems connecting. She phoned concerned parents whose children were having difficulties. Keeping in touch with everyone in real-time, making sure everything ran smoothly; she even went out in the middle of a complete lockdown quarantine to deliver one of our spare computers to one of our teachers who needed it to teach. We also donated an iPad to a student who had no way or means to attend classes! We care about our students and teachers, and in these times of crisis, this makes all the difference. We refused to close our virtual doors!
Distance learning is distant, very distant.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I start to notice some odd things with the students. The majority of our students are teens and pre-teens. You see, at first, they were paying close attention; cameras turned on and generally doing very well. After a few weeks had passed, these very same students started to become distant, unsociable and very reserved during class, and some even looked somewhat depressed. Mind you these were same students that only one month ago were happy-go-lucky kids, laughing and having fun in their ESL classes. Now, all that I saw on the computer monitors were blank stares. I started to worry. What happened to my cheerful students? Where did they go?
They went the way of the reality of lockdown, and it began to show.
The teacher makes all the difference
Remember I said I would tell you a bit more about my lackadaisical disinterested teacher who couldn’t be bothered? We have all had one at some point in our career; you know the one, do as little as possible and run for the door at 9:01 PM after work—the one who never volunteers and never does anything extra. Yup, you guessed it, I had one and right in the middle of lockdown.
You see, Spanish Law forbade an employer from sacking any employee during the state of emergency caused by the pandemic. So, you guessed it; I was stuck with her. She knew I couldn’t sack her, and she made the classes, the students’ lives and my life a living Hell. However, on the bright side, I had two absolutely incredible counterweight teachers. Still to this day, I feel so sorry for her students, she had zero empathy with them, stared blankly and trudged on as if teaching these kids was the worst thing in the world. I cannot for the life of me understand why some people become teachers if they dislike their job.
Teaching in the classroom again
As a school owner, our bills never stop, so to cover the necessary costs of running an academy every year, I teach intensive courses during July, August and half of September. That plus if I didn’t teach, I’d be bored to death. I love teaching.
This year has been a very different, 1.5 metres of separation in the classroom; all students must wear masks, use of hydroalcoholic gel, and infrared body temperature is taken upon entry. As I sit here writing this article, we are currently starting week six of a ten-week course with zero incidences. When I say zero occurrences, I mean zero health-related concerns. There are, in fact, plenty of other issues with teaching in this new environment.
The classroom, face masks and learning to read the students.
I’ve learned quite a few things teaching masked students while being masked myself. It’s not easy! No, it’s downright strange, bizarre, weird or any other crazy adjective you’d like to insert. You have to completely re-learn how you read your students, and they have to re-learn how to read you.
Now, I’ve always said teaching is part acting and part teaching but most importantly, building a strong rapport with your students is paramount in establishing that vital connection between student and teacher.
Let me clarify; I’m not the world’s best teacher. Still, I do, however, consider myself to be able to establish a strong rapport with students very quickly; my students learn because they feel at ease in the classroom and find the class to be a safe environment for learning, that’s my gift as a teacher.
Now, let’s take away facial expressions; this is one of my strong characteristics as a teacher, they help me to make the bond that is necessary for that connection to flower, hence building that rapport that is so vital. The “masking” takes much more away from the communication process than one would think. Me being able to give and receive these small facial gestures hinders an indispensable part of that communication.
The eyes have now become one of the new ways to read and observe non-verbal communication. Students cannot fake a smile because the eyes serve as a gateway for this non-verbal communication. Conversely, you have to learn to smile with sincerity; otherwise, it’s impossible to convey your sentiments.
Pairwork, running dictation, a thing of the past?
Wow, this is something that as a TEFL teacher, I found indispensable to the cohesiveness of a class. Pairwork is no longer possible due to social distancing guidelines; moving in the classroom is prohibited, which makes language games that require moving around and or working in pairs obsolete. They never mentioned this in my CertTesol or DELTA, I mean you need to get super creative to build this bond between students. I have found that many interactive games, such as KAHOOT!, and other similar virtual quiz games that the students can play in class can help; however, it’s just not the same as working in pairs or small groups where students work together to reach a common goal.
I wish I had a crystal ball to see where we will be once they discover a vaccine and what the permanent impact will have on all of us, particularly on our students.
I do, however, know we will survive this and in some way become more creative and more versatile in the way we teach and deliver our course material and learn not to take anything for granted.
When I first started teaching ESL, I remember a very knowledgeable teacher trainer once told me something very enlightening. “As TEFL teachers, we should be able to teach practically anywhere from a hut in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no resources, to a boardroom where you have every technological resource at your disposal.” I imagine at present; we now are somewhere between a hut and a boardroom