Adjusting to an online world - Part 1
By Sandy Millin
Exactly one month ago as I write this, our school was on day one of trying to work out how to respond to government guidelines in response to COVID-19. It’s hard to believe that it is only 31 days since then, as life has changed so completely in that time. In this article, I’ll look at how teaching, training, managing and living all look different now.
All of our group classes and most of our one-to-ones are now being taught via Zoom. Our ADoSes, Ruth and Emma, planned a tutorial lesson to introduce students to Zoom, which all of the teachers used. Parents attended the young learner classes to help their children. We also put together guidelines for students and parents, and two teachers made YouTube tutorials for students demonstrating key features of Zoom.
Four weeks in, most groups have adjusted to online lessons well, and our teachers are exploring ways to exploit Zoom and students’ home environments as part of their lessons. They’ve even shared ideas on the IATEFL Young Learner and Teenager Special Interest Group blog.
In my own lessons, I feel like I’ve got to know my students much, much better than was ever possible in the physical classroom. Apart from the inevitable technical problems at times, the lessons have generally gone smoothly and been lots of fun. They’ve also been an important bit of routine for both me and my students, a continuity from life before everything changed.
Shaun Wilden provided an excellent short introduction to Zoom for DoSes across the IH network on March 10th, which our senior team then extended into two days of training for our teachers on March 12th and 13th. We were lucky to be able to do this in the school building, which was already closed to students by that stage. We showed teachers the main functions of Zoom, then gave them time to play with it in groups, experiencing the roles of teacher and student. We also looked at how planning might be different when teaching online compared to in a physical classroom.
Our first week involved teachers working in separate classrooms at school to maintain appropriate social distancing, but with the option of being able to request help from senior staff if any problems came up. After that, we moved to working from home.
Training has been a case of trying to anticipate problems or questions, while teachers rapidly gained more experience with Zoom than the senior team did. It’s a unique situation as all of us have become beginners at the same time, so training has largely become sharing, with very little top-down communication. Throughout the whole process, our teachers have constantly shared new knowledge to help all of us work better on Zoom. I’ve cried with gratitude more than once at the amazing team that I’m lucky enough to work with, and their willingness to pull together in the face of so many unknowns in order to keep the school going as much as possible.
At the beginning of the whole process, the crisis management and the rapidly changing nature of the situation made it feel a lot like the beginning of a school year, but with no clear end in sight. We were constantly trying to find out which students would have lessons, who would teach what, how full teachers’ timetables would be, what skills or knowledge teachers had that could be put to good use...and trying to keep everyone updated on the situation at the same time. The senior team worked until 10pm day after day to try to make the transition as smooth as possible. Moving to working from home was initially a breath of fresh air, because you could switch your phone off if you needed to escape!
Now, I find that I’ve settled into a new routine. I’m doing most of my management through WhatsApp conversations, rather than popping into the staffroom. We have an online Zoom staffroom which teachers can drop into. I’m also trying to have longer conversations with every teacher as regularly as possible, including doing a phone check-in with everyone a week into working from home. Not being able to see people in the staffroom makes it challenging to predict what problems there might be, but it also makes it harder to share successes and just have informal chats.
Our weekly staff meetings have become more important than ever, as a time when we can all be in the same place at the same time and share ideas together. For me, this is when it feels like we are still a single team, rather than a set of individuals.
In Poland as I write this, we are lucky to still be able to go out for walks if we want to – we are not on complete lockdown yet. However, everything else has changed. Food shopping takes longer, and we have to work around the hours when shops are only open to those aged over 65. From next week, we will have to wear masks when we go out. Our Director, Grzegorz Chruszcz, has always been fantastically generous, and has made sure that we have everything we need to keep going throughout this challenging time: masks, gloves, alcohol handwash, antibacterial spray, but also things to make us smile. For Easter, he gave us traditional Easter cakes and little clockwork chicks.
Routine has been important, and as far as possible I’ve tried to stick to normal working hours. I’ve also made sure there’s a separate space in my flat for work and home – I know I’m lucky to be able to do this. As I live alone, the biggest thing I miss is the social interactions of day-to-day life. Many of my work conversations are now about problems, so I try to ensure that I have one or two conversations every day that are social in nature. I’m also pushing myself to do my physio exercises every day, take breaks from the computer, and walk as much as possible in my flat (I have an autoimmune disease so only go out for food). Finally, I’m trying to be kind, accepting when I have negative feelings, and not putting pressure on myself to do too much.
It’s vital that we all look after our mental and physical health as much as we possibly can, not just now but always. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty glass. Look after yourselves, practise good self-care, and find the positives which are always there in every day.
I’m immensely grateful to be part of the teaching community, and the IH community, who have all been so willing to share their knowledge and experiences as the world changes. There will be a time when all this is but a distant memory.
Author's bio: Sandy Millin is the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz in Poland. She is also a CELTA trainer and materials writer. She has self-published three books: Richer Speaking, ELT Playbook 1 and ELT Playbook Teacher Training. She blogs regularly at http://sandymillin.wordpress.com and tweets @sandymillin.