Let’s Get Physical!

Back to normal?

As coronavirus lockdown eases in many countries, restrictions are lifted and once more teaching in a physical class is becoming a reality. It is still, though, far from a return to normal, if there ever was a normal. The imposed physical distancing and health protocols that we need to adhere to are sources of additional stress in our already demanding and stressful professional lives as teachers. Adding the very real and justified fear of possible exposure to Covid-19 certainly does not make things easier for us. 

Last year, when I got back for the first time to face-to-face, I remember feeling exhausted after the first interactions. I had to tackle so many things at the same time: I had to manage my own feelings of anxiety while not distressing students and trainees and adjusting to the new reality in the classroom. This new reality meant that well-established classroom routines of practice had to be adapted in accordance with health safety protocols. 

After a year or so since that first comeback, here are a few things I’ve learned. Some might seem obvious or minor, but the devil is in the details.

We are not alone in this. 

Exchanging experiences and brainstorming with colleagues, talking to students and trainees, evaluating, reflecting, and adapting are always ways forward. Asking for help through our networks even for what might seem insignificant at the time does not mean that we lose face. We simply evolve through participating in a community by sharing. Collective experience and hive mind can provide more answers and invaluable emotional support.

Safety comes first

It really does. Protocols set by health experts should not be ignored or adapted to our own way of doing things. Some rules are not meant to be broken or even bent. The health risks are simply too high for that.

Be clear and succinct.  

I am not talking about giving efficient instructions during a lesson here although the same applies to it as well. I am referring to how implementation of guidelines is best achieved. Engaging in endless debates regarding the distance between desks, or the carrying capacity of people in the classroom each time different teachers enter a class can create confusion amongst students and friction between colleagues. It’s best that everyone is on the same page and guidelines are discussed and agreed upon beforehand with colleagues and administration. It is always easier to communicate to others what we already have a clear understanding of ourselves.

Plan ahead 

Under the circumstances, there are simply too many things to consider for a successful outcome. From time management and how that may cause more people to be in the waiting area at a specific time to handling material and managing appropriately distanced interactions while students engage in group/pair work and teachers monitor. Going into a class thinking I’ve done it so many times, or how hard can it be simply won’t cut it. Careful lesson planning rises once again as an invaluable tool to successful lessons.

Classroom setting

Have just the allowed number of seats / desks. Often when there is extra seating, people tend to occupy the extra space by putting their personal belongings or stretching to more than one seat or even moving closer to others. If you are responsible for sanitising surfaces between groups as is often the case for teachers, you definitely do not need the extra work. If possible, have a window open at all times, even if the air conditioning is on. Ventilation is important but outside noises can disrupt lessons. Consider the length and volume of listening tasks. Extra Wi-Fi speakers placed around the class work wonders. Sharing audio files on students’ mobile phones, provided there are no copyright issues involved, works well for short texts as well. 

Handling equipment and materials in classroom 

Does anyone have a pen? Can you give me your unicorn eraser? Can we share books? This sort of questions is now almost obsolete since everyone is used to not sharing anymore. However, that is not always the case for both children and adults. A packet of wipes can be an indispensable accessory in any class, especially those with very young learners. 

Cleaning and sanitising expensive electronic equipment needs attention. Make sure you know what is recommended before you splash sanitiser all over an interactive whiteboard or a laptop. Conventional whiteboards are cleaned and sanitised more easily but anyhow it is a good idea to avoid having more than two people on the board at the same time. 

Going paperless is not wishful thinking anymore. However, it requires access to equipment, a certain familiarisation with computers and applications from both teacher and students. In most contexts nowadays personal tablets or smartphones could be used in class. Handouts could be sent before class electronically and so can any piece of homework. In class, applications such as learning apps, or Mentimeter and Kahoot can be used for tasks, questions and games. There are plenty of applications to explore and choose the one that best fit your purposes. 

Physical proximity in class

Any pair or group work activity in class involves physical proximity. Because this cannot be the case anymore that does not mean that group or pair work should be abandoned altogether. On the contrary, collaboration, besides promoting positive learning outcomes, also promotes positive emotions and a sense of optimism, all very much needed in classrooms today. In my experience, raised voices are not as loud as you might expect and do not distract students from other pairs. Other activities, such as collaborative writing in class through instant messaging, though, may work for some groups of students but not for others.

Some of the most common questions from trainees and less experienced teachers regard monitoring. It is an acquired skill and does take practice to develop that unobtrusive way of being there for students and knowing how things are progressing for everyone in class without encroaching on students’ personal space and being overbearing. In fact, physical distancing in class forces teachers to practice what most experienced teachers do anyway: monitor effectively from a distance. Find a spot in class that you can be and observe from there. Arrange seating so that there is a clear view of everyone from your spot and so that you can move around easily if needed.  

The elephant in the room wears a mask under its trunk

It is understandable that people may complain about wearing faces masks, especially during warm or rainy days. The amount of time spent on asking students to adjust their masks has been considerable according to some teachers. A way around this may be discussing with the class, even with young learners, commonly accepted rules, and using gestures to remind each other to stay safe. By providing space for students to exercise their own agency and become actively involved in class management, staying safe can become a non-issue. 

What remains an issue, though, is the raised voices and the repetitions. There seems to be a consensus amongst teachers, students, trainees and tutors that communication is impeded because of the masks. But is this really the case? What about medical staff? Surely, they have always been communicating more vital information than what is shared in an ELT class quite successfully wearing masks for longer hours than we have to. And what about communicating in places and classes where there are people wearing face coverings for religious reasons? 

Shakespeare said the eyes are the windows to the soul. Although I am not convinced about the soul part, eyes do tell more than we think. Research has shown that we identify emotions just from looking at the eyes. What research has also shown us is that we can still be understood if we’re speaking through any sort of facewear as sound and articulation are not really influenced. What I have noticed is that the incidents of people complaining about masks and comprehensibility have reduced over time, even during oral exams. Masks can be an issue for some but only if we keep thinking about them. As the most memorable line from Donnie Brasco goes “Forget about it”.

Touching, but not 

The no touching of people in class is a rule that for some coming from cultures where physical contact even amongst strangers is accepted, is often hard to follow. Perhaps because touching is demonstrative of acceptance and support, and proximity provides a sense of understated commandry. Whatever the reason, unlike other contexts in which physical touching has always been a definite no-no, students talk about a feeling of “being deprived” or the “sense that something is missing”. So, there’s a negative space for us teachers to occupy with meaning. I found myself more preoccupied than usual with students’ interests and needs. I think that many teachers and trainees unconsciously go the extra mile to have lessons that are more interesting and interactive for students. And I think that the reason for that might be the need to compensate and to keep making our lessons fun in spite of everything, as demonstrated in the comment one of the students made to a trainee: “Thank you for the lesson. I had a really great time!”. Both teacher and student left the class with a smile.

Pedagogy before technology.

The last year or so has been particularly straining for teachers: online, blended, face-to-face and, depending on which part of the world you are located in, having to be able to move from one to the other at any given time. Technology has been for most the beast to tackle. Don’t get me wrong, technology can be an ally to what teaching will turn into next but, in my book, it can never substitute for critically reflecting on the pedagogical value of our practice. 

Self-care is class well-being

Getting back to face-to-face is not a reason for panic attacks. It takes some planning, effort, and time on our part to ultimately transform it into a very satisfying experience. In difficult times, we need not to forget ourselves. After all, we play a vital part in the well-being of others. Social support and engaging in pleasurable activities are prescribed as good self-care strategies. For me teaching is included in these self-care strategies and is perhaps the most creative way to reclaim our lives during a pandemic.

Some further reading 

Clement, M. (2017). Why combatting teachers’ stress is everyone’s job. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas90(4), 135-138. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2017.1323519

Glanz, J. (2005). What every principal should know about collaborative leadership. Corwin Press.

Hansson, A., Hillerås, P., & Forsell, Y. (2005). What kind of self-care strategies do people report using and is there an association with well-being? Social Indicators Research73(1), 133–139. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-004-0995-3

Lee, D. H., & Anderson, A. K. (2017). Reading What the Mind Thinks From How the Eye Sees. Psychological Science28(4), 494–503. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616687364

A couple of videos to watch 

Smiles. You cannot miss them even with the masks.

Forget about it. Some good advice. 

Elisavet Kostaki - Psoma
Elisavet Kostaki – Psoma

Elisavet has been involved in various aspects of TESOL for more than two decades: as a teacher, an examiner, a mentor and a teacher trainer. For the last two years she has also worked on various CELTA courses as an approved tutor.

How can we revitalise ELT?

‘Wait – I could use that!’: A few days before the US elections, researcher A. Greenwald went around asking people whether they intended to vote and why. Naturally, most replied that they would. But here is the thing: it later transpired that the people asked were much more likely to vote than another, control group (Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007 – p. 63). Why? Because simply stating your intention creates a public commitment and this generates a small, subconscious pressure that pushes you towards being consistent. OK – let’s pause here: could we not do the same idea with our students? Ask them whether they intended to do their homework perhaps (and why)? Indeed, we could. Is this an idea we could use? Yes. Does it have to do with ELT? No. Read on…

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Has this ever happened to you? You read books, you attend conferences, you watch webinars and it is all great – initially. Beyond a certain point however, you find yourself thinking ‘Yes, I know that’ or ‘Hmmm – that’s X in other words’ – if you are an old hand, you may even find you can predict what people are going to say before they do so! Why? The answer is ‘The Law of Diminishing Returns’. It’s a little like picking figs from a fig-tree. In the beginning it’s all very easy and your basket keeps filling up, but once you have picked the low-hanging fruit, you have to work much harder for much smaller returns. So here is an idea: why not move to another tree? The Moral: To rekindle your interest in teaching, try going beyond ELT.

For the past ten years or so, I have been exploring the vibrant field of Applied Psychology and I have come to realise that there are all kinds of insights from such domains as Advertising, Management, Custumer Service or even Design which can be really useful to us as teachers. In what follows I am going to share with you three ideas pinched from the food-and-drink industry. In each case I will be suggesting one or two ways in which we can make use of these discoveries in our classes.

The loveliest word

 What is the best word out there? A word which captures everything that really matters? I will tell you. It’s ‘Kate’ – if your name happens to be Kate, that is; or ‘Anne’ if this is what people call you. The loveliest word in English is your name. Advertisers know that of course. In Australia, Coca-Cola wanted to reconnect with the younger generation. How did they do that? Piece of cake: they printed some of the most popular names on Coke bottles! Imagine going to the supermarket and finding a Coke with your name on it. Wouldn’t that attract your attention? And why not get one for your boyfriend with his name on it? But what if you couldn’t find it? No problems: there were special kiosks where you could have a friend’s unusual name printed out on the bottle. Naturally, sales soared… (Ferrier 2014 – p. 110) Watch this amazing clip:

Make a note of the idea: we are the centre of our world. Our first name attracts our attention and creates positive associations.

So how can we use this? 

Use your students’ first names. At every opportunity. I used to try to create a closer bond with my students by addressing them as ‘mate’ or ‘chief’. Not anymore. ‘But’ you might say ‘I already use my students’ first names – all the time’. Do you? Let us have a look at that essay you marked a moment ago…

Don’t tell – sell!

This one completely blew my mind (Wansink et al. 2005). Imagine a buffet restaurant like the ones you find in all good hotels. Next to each of the metal containers, there is a label with a description of the food: ‘Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Cod Fillet’ or ‘Vegetable Soup’. What do you think would happen if someone were to replace these labels with more descriptive ones such as ‘Tender Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Succulent Cod Fillet’ or ‘Creamy Vegetable Soup?’ That’s right: all of a sudden, these dishes became much more desirable and consumption increased dramatically. Clearly, the fancy adjectives worked wonders. But here is the interesting thing: not only did these descriptions increase demand, people gave the food much higher ratings too! Watch this clip:

So this is the big discovery here: expectations colour perceptions. Forget ‘What you see is what you get’; research suggests that ‘What you get is what you expect’!

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about how you introduce the material you give your students. Do you say ‘Now we are going to read an article…’ or ‘OK – you’ll never believe what this article says…’. And what about activities? Is it ‘Now we are going to do an activity to practice X…’ or ‘Right – this is my favourite activity ever…’? Now look at how I introduced this section. The moral: sell your stuff to students.

Engagement – (capital E)

This last story comes from Germany (Ferrier 2014 – p. 108). The McDonald’s people had a problem: they had to advertise, but their budget was limited. What could they do? Then one of them had a brainwave: why not get the customers to do the work? So they organised a competition. They set up a site where people could go and make their own virtual burgers. All the ingredients were there, and they could combine them in any way they wanted to create something visually impressive. Now here is the clever bit: having done so, the people themselves would then promote their creation in the media! And everyone would get to vote for their favourite option. Not only would the winning burger be included in the McDonald’s menu, there would be prizes too. Well, wouldn’t you get your friends involved? Wouldn’t you get them to vote for your masterpiece? Watch this clip:

Needless to say, the idea was hugely successful. The secret here was ownership: whatever we create, feels exceptional – regardless of how good it actually is.

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about the activities we use in class. Most of them are language manipulation tasks, right? But what if we were to ask our students to create something – a story, or a poster or a sketch? And what if there was a safe site where they could upload their work and where others could vote for their favourite? Just an idea…

It only takes a nudge 

OK – what about this one? The students of a secondary class in the UK were due to take a math test the following week. The parents of half of these students – the parents, mind you, not the kids! – received the message in the picture a few days before the test. That was all. The results? The students whose parents got the message did substantially better than the others. Not only that; the idea was popular with both parents and students! (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. 115) Apparently, sometimes all we need is the right reminder at the right time. The sender doesn’t even have to be the teacher! Imagine the possibilities here: ‘Improve your school results – get a good secretary!’ I rest my case… 😊  


  • Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press
  • Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. (2007) Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion. London: Profile Books
  • Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books
  • Wansink, B. van Ittersum, K., Painter, J., , How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. (2005). Food Quality and Preference, 16 (5) 393-400
Nick Michelioudakis
Nick Michelioudakis

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has worked for a number of publishers and examination boards and he has given seminars and workshops in many countries.  He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines. Nick has just designed a short course on Psychology and Language Teaching, which you can find out more about here