Nervous, frustrated, overwhelmed, confused and exhausted – as the global pandemic has forced many English teachers of children into the digital realm, this is how many colleagues have said they feel. While there are platforms specifically designed to substitute conventional in-class teaching – with the ubiquity of technology facilitating their uptake in the homes of children and teachers – and yet, English language teachers are still struggling with this unprecedented digital learning shift.
Adapting to the ‘new normal’
During lockdown, I’d get both excited and nervous about going to the supermarket. It was the only justifiable excuse I had to experience what the ‘new’ world was like. Ever conscious of the statistics and scare-stories in the news, I found myself closely watching others as I tried to behave in whatever was the most appropriate way to behave in public – so, can I take these gloves off now I’m done with the fruit and veg, or do I wear them all the time? It’s only natural that there’s a herd mentality at times of great change; some for the better (people physical distancing), some for the worse (people filling shopping trolleys with toilet tissue). English language education has in many ways been similar to the supermarket.
‘What is school X doing? School Y is doing this and that, shouldn’t we be doing this and that? School Z is considering teaching grammar via a new form of meditation – look into it!’ Many of us had little to no time to adapt to school closures, so ‘the herd’ was looking around desperately for an example to follow. However, there just weren’t (and arguably still aren’t) any clear examples. With no shepherd, the majority of English language teaching contexts resorted to Plan A – do exactly what you do in class, except on a digital platform.
Plan A – replicate the physical classroom online
As a teacher of English to children as young as 4, the order to follow Plan A resulted in the near loss of an eyebrow as it tried to escape upwards from my head! Pandering to giving parents / caregivers ‘value for money’ in an English academy setting, twinned with the herd mentality of replicating schools X, Y and Z was actively compromising the quality of teaching for children. I knew it wouldn’t be the most effective way to teach this age range and while I’m sure parents / caregivers and school managers knew it too – unfortunately, few were brave enough to lead and make a change.
Plan A loudly solves one issue (continuation of English classes), but quietly introduces endless others. How do I do my quizzes? How do I provide feedback? How do I organise and monitor group work? How do I keep the children’s attention? Each one of these issues becomes a problem that requires time, effort and research to address. The path of least resistance again appears to be looking to the herd, searching for ready-made solutions. Thus, the online lesson plan became like Frankenstein’s monster, packed with sources and platforms found online, clumsily put together into what couldn’t be further away from replicating what happens in face-to-face lessons – so much for Plan A!
Plan B – a new recipe
In between confused online lessons and blocks of TV, I’d be back at the supermarket trying to replicate behaviours in the ‘new normal’. I began to notice that there are two types of shoppers. Those who wander up and down the supermarket aisles wondering which microwaveable meals can fill the week, citing convenience and timesaving. Others gravitate to the fresh produce aisle and think about how to combine selected ingredients into something wonderful.
Creating a meal, via learning from a recipe or utilising accrued knowledge, teaches you something and progresses your practice. Putting a ready meal in the microwave gets you nowhere. There’s an initial outlay of effort – learning to combine ingredients and make delicious dishes – but the result is great. Your particular level of culinary interest is irrelevant, but as a trained English language teacher, it’s essential to apply knowledge that you’ve acquired and to progress your practical skills. Looking for ‘ready meals’ online as a quick fix is not an acceptable English teaching option.
Effort is reward
Covid-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And online teaching certainly won’t disappear if and when a solution to this difficult period becomes available. Even if you’ve spent previous months trying to make Plan A work, I would encourage you to move to Plan B. Digital technologies offer wonderful resources to not only replace class-based learning, but to go beyond it. Consider your individuality, your specialties as an English language teacher of children and, your uniqueness as a person.
Embrace a select group of tools that work for you and take the time to make your own teaching resources. Work with the educational technology, and not against it. Think long term, rather than quick fix. Exchange nervous, frustrated, overwhelmed, confused and exhausted for motivated, creative, challenged, original and brave. The rewards will be both immediate and long term for yourself, and most importantly, for the children that you teach.