for people starting out
This is a non-technical article. If you are using or want to use a particular platform (such as Zoom, WebRoom or Google Classroom) and want to know its limits and how to use it, it is recommended to search for one or more tutorials that can walk you through it. This article is focused on some other issues that might help somebody starting out and how they might approach this new way of teaching.
Everything is changing. Some of us find those changes exciting and opening the door to vast new possibilities. Some of us are unclear about the value of those changes and are even intimidated by what they represent. However we feel, the use of technology in teaching is becoming a growing force to deal with and the recent introduction of the corona virus into our lives has forced us to look more seriously at how online teaching can be practical and perhaps the new norm.
I am new to this myself and I am not here to offer technical tips in how to use a particular platform. There are many fine people out there who have spent some time putting together good tutorials on the internet which can walk you through the various steps needed.
I am here to let you know that you are not alone in your reservations and doubts, and that you can get through the transition to becoming more technology and online savvy. I am an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, and have worked hard to gain the knowledge, the experience and the perspectives I have. But like many of you, I don’t feel so confident about getting more deeply involved with these new ways. And like you, I see the need to accept that these new ways are here to stay, at least until the next new wave of changes occurs.
So here are a few tips and ideas that might help you make that transition, coming from a person who sometimes has to learn the hard way.
TIPS & IDEAS
- We are already used to using technology in our classes
The books we use, the board, the chalk or board pens, the tables, chairs and desks all have to be manufactured. Cell phones, photocopy machines/printers and computers are relatively new technology that weren’t around or so accessible for public use two generations ago; yet they are very commonplace today. You’re reading this online. You are already a user of new technology.
- The unknown is scary for many people
That’s normal. This is a new situation you are entering and there are so many doubts and questions accompanying it. You know yourself that even if you consider yourself a good teacher and are considered by others to be one, there are some areas you feel confident in and some that you don’t. Imagine that you are asked to teach a proficiency level class with a group of demanding students who want to know everything. Their questions could touch upon areas of grammar and knowledge of the language you are not so familiar with. There are many good teachers who avoid or are not interested in exploring how we shape the sounds that we use while speaking, the latest literature in educational research, the origins and new trends in the evolution of the language, different methodologies in teaching, how people learn, and how to deal with learning disabilities/hurdles. Maybe you have always taught a certain age group, a certain set of levels, or a certain kind of course and now you have to teach something you are not accustomed to.
Teaching a language involves such a vast range of fields of skills that no one individual could master them all. That can make it exciting as there are always new challenges and frontiers to explore for those so inclined. But not all people want to keep learning something new and different. Maybe they prefer to explore deeper what they already know or maybe they prefer just to keep doing what they have learnt to do. But changes do happen and we have to adapt to them. Sometimes the best way to deal with those uncomfortable situations that are inevitable is to stop avoiding them and take a few steps towards making them less unknown.
- Many of the teaching skills you have developed are still relevant to teaching online
Those skills are transferable. It’s comforting to keep that in mind. If you are good at giving explanations or instructions, can organize well, lead well, listen well, respond to students, provide direction, or anything else in a long list of skills that a teacher develops over time and experience, they are just as valuable in online teaching as they are in presential teaching.
- You are not the only one feeling uncertain about how to use the technology
I am older now but when I ask my son (a young man better versed in this technological world than I am) for help I see that he struggles too. I have some friends who are engineers/designers that are always learning and applying the latest technology and when I ask for their assistance, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing is obvious to them either. When I ask my colleagues a few basic questions, I come to realize that they don’t know so much, even though it seems like they do. Much depends on if I am asking them something they are already accustomed to working with, and once we step out of those borders, they can be just as lost as I am.
I have found that even though I am insecure and slow about learning some things, so is most everyone else. If we are placed in a situation to learn something new, most of us struggle with it and continue to do so until it becomes more familiar and we have a better idea of what we are doing.
- Remember our students
The above point reminds me so much of what our students go through. In this fast and changing world we are all being placed into the vulnerable position of being students more often. It helps me better appreciate what they are experiencing when we place demands onto them.
- Observe calmly
When you are first learning something completely new, it can be overwhelming, especially if you place extra pressure on yourself to master everything the first time. That’s not realistic or even helpful. Get a general idea of how things work and get acquainted with the task in front of you. Think of it objectively. Think of seeing what’s there.
- Learn in segments
You can’t learn everything all at once. Besides getting a general idea of how it works, focus in on a few (even one) important points. Keep it very practical and make notes. For example, if I want X, I have to do this…… Or what does (can) this button do? Think of you writing your own customized manual of instructions. Each time you start a new session with new technology / situations, either apply and practice what you have learned, or add one or two new points to your repertoire.
- Be patient
Be patient with the technology and with yourself (and perhaps with the perceived impatience of others). You are going to misinterpret some things, forget and confuse basic elements, discover that things don’t always work the way you hope or expect them to. After some experience you will become more familiar with the situation and that will help you become more confident and able.
- Ask others to be patient
People often seem to react better when they are pre-warned that you are getting to know this medium better. Ask them to be patient if things don’t run as smoothly in the first few sessions. If those glitches occur, then the other people involved are prepared and can be more accepting.
For example, when I was learning how to use a ‘breakout room’ app for putting students into pairs, I realized I had to leave (“unjoin”) one group and later join a different group. That might seem logical to those well-versed in that platform, but it was my first class using that technology. When I wanted to leave one group, my naïve set of logic caused me to press the ‘leave meeting’ button. Instead of leaving that particular group of students, I exited the whole link with the class. I was suddenly on my own and I had abandoned my students! They were waiting for me somewhere in that ethereal space and I was panicking about how I could find a way back. I reminded myself to stay calm and tried to think of a way to do so. Fortunately I still had the link in my email so I re-opened my email, hit the link, and went through the necessary stages to find myself (very relieved and gratefully) back with my waiting students.
From that experience I learned to pre-warn them that ‘glitches’ or the unexpected could occur and if something drastic happened (like me abandoning them again), then they should wait for me. And if I can’t come back, that we could send messages to each other via email, WhatsApp or whatever way that would be practical. And above all, please be patient.
- You will be patient with them
Chances are that some of your students will click on the wrong thing and not click when they should. As we all know from our classroom experience, students don’t always understand instructions or follow them in the intended way. Maybe after a few classes with different students you will feel more confident but some of them are just learning too. They will greatly appreciate your patience and flexibility with them, and be more understanding of you if you still make an occasional blunder or two yourself.
- Establish a minimum base
Develop your manual of instructions so you know everything you need to, to run your class. Remember you don’t need to know and do everything. Just enough to get through a class which is very simple and basic in design. Fewer potential problems and things which could go wrong. Include in this core base what to do if something goes wrong, like how you can, or a student can, re-enter if the link is lost. If there is something you feel should be done in the first or most classes, then become clear on how to do it. For example, you may want to refer to something like a video or document while you are speaking with your students. Can you keep your connection with them while sharing that other image?
The instructions might seem clear in your new customized manual/notebook, but when it is time to teach your class, you will probably find that it doesn’t work nearly as smoothly as you imagined it would when you are actually teaching. Practice a few times so you make sure you know what you are doing. This can reduce the potential problems occurring and help you not tax your students’ patience by having them wait too long while you try to figure it out.
After you feel more comfortable with some basics, try expanding out to learn about one or two new features, like how to use a spotlight or wand when you want to highlight something for your students. Or learn how to add a video link, use a whiteboard, or get the students to write something on the whiteboard too. Try a few new things out to learn better what is available to you. Maybe you can get a few friends together to practice on. And remember to pre-warn your students if you are trying out something new. Having a Plan B if something unexpected happens would be prudent as well.
- Reflect and incorporate
As you become more familiar with your limits (knowing more clearly what you can and cannot do), the students’ limits, and how the technology and situation could work, begin thinking of how to make your lesson planning and classes more exciting, relevant and effective. For example, even though I believe it is essential to encourage student input at various times within any lesson, I found my first few classes very teacher-centered, with me doing a lot of lecturing.
I felt a little better after those first few classes in using the technology and that confidence helped me to relook at how I was approaching my classes. Given the limits of the situation, when and how could I use pair-work/group work more effectively? Rather than simply calling out to all the students to answer a question and have only the same two or three answer, what could I do besides calling each student out by name? (I decided to design some activities where the students had to work individually first, then they compared answers in groups and we brought it together when each group later provided the rest of the class with their input (and I responded to it).
- Keep a positive attitude
●Laugh at your mistakes and be understanding of others (but be careful not to laugh at others’ mistakes)
●Learn from your mistakes and experiences and grow further through them
●Know that you will get better at it
●Make a point of finding something positive about each class, especially in your beginning days – we tend to be very critical of ourselves, of the situation, of many things
Focus more on progress made, understanding there is a learning curve, and make a point to acknowledge whatever successes were made, however minor they may be. It could be just getting through the lesson, or being able to communicate something to the students, even if it wasn’t entirely successful.
- Observe others or have others observe you
If you can join in as a silent observer of someone more experienced than you, you can learn a lot, especially if you can speak with that person before and/or after the session.
Many people don’t feel comfortable at all when being observed. Each person has their own perspective on this. For me, I feel I can function best if I have sufficient practice before going into my first classes. Then after a few classes, I could use some guidance and be more open to somebody observing me. This would be the ideal approach for me, emotionally.
In reality, I was accompanied by people observing me right from the first class, interrupting me and correcting me and guiding me through it until it came to an end. To tell you the truth, it was best for everyone concerned. There were many things still unclear to me and I did appreciate that support and guidance. In fact, I needed it. That guidance helped me mature faster and more effectively than had I been left to my own resources only.
- Be professional in content, style and appearance
Content – focus on themes that the students can relate to according to their interests, age, level, etc.
Style – present those themes and have the students engage in activities in a manner that is appropriate to them, and will be effective to the objectives in their learning.
Appearance – you don’t wear your pyjamas in the classroom so even if you are conducting classes from your home, dress professionally.
- Help others
Just as you needed help starting out and learning more later on, there are others that could use a helping hand or some advice. It might be technical advice, teaching suggestions or moral support. A helping and supportive environment helps us all.
- Remember this
Just when you feel you got it and can handle yourself reasonably well, there’s a good chance there will be a new change. Maybe a new platform to learn, or even a whole new approach or system of doing things. Then it will be time to…… become familiar with the unknown, be patient, learn in segments, and so on. You know the routine.
If you work for a school, agency or company, you would also have to get familiar with their policies and norms, even recommended etiquette. The technology, the rules, the different way of teaching and carrying out tasks, the stress, can all be overwhelming. Expect that. At least in the beginning. Expect that things will go wrong and mistakes will be made. Remember
●that as you become more familiar with this new situation, you will be more competent and confident
●to be patient with yourself and others
●to prepare yourself by watching tutorials and practising
●to anticipate potential problems and seek solutions (or Plan Bs)
●to plan your classes well and imagine the logistics of how things will or might work and what is needed to have them run smoothly
●to learn from your mistakes
●to reflect on how things are progressing
●to find enjoyment and satisfaction in what you’re doing. Try to do this in each class, especially in those first classes you are really nervous about. For example, you can acknowledge that you ‘did alright considering it was one of your first times’; or that you had a good interaction with your students and they seemed to have enjoyed your class, or at least some parts of it; that you are making progress in your learning; etc.
Thank you for visiting Max’s English Corner.
Have a good one!
– Max Maximchuk