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.
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.
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 Ideas, 90(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 Research, 73(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 Science, 28(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.