Being a better teacher, Bits and bobs

Lessons of 2020-2021

This school year has been a very special one, and this is not a compliment. The mess started in spring 2020 when we plunged all the way into a full-scale online program from what seemed to be the iron-bound educational traditions: lessons are done in a classroom, handwritten notes, seeing each other every day, the teacher is available in person and exclusively in school hours.

We allowed ourselves to toy with the idea of returning to ‘normal life’ for longer than we probably should. There was hope to return to classrooms by November, by New Year, after the winter break in February… We had occasional spells of face-to-face classes for appointed grades. We had hybrid sessions. The exams were conducted with unpredictable levels of luck in terms of time arrangement and intensity. Somehow, we reached the finishing line and it seems to be the right time to name a few lessons among many and various.

Teaching online

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the idea of taking face-to-face classes and bringing them to the students via Zoom led to a complete fiasco. Even when we gave our first trial shot last spring, we still kept trying to do the same by inertia. But as time passes, some certain steps for better were taken.

  • Simpler is always better. We use Canvas as the main platform, and it allows you t do a lot. If you cannot find what you need directly in the settings, probably you can after tweaking the code a bit. And so I began with fancy home pages, made the pages look attractive, included study paths, and made all sorts of arrangements to keep the modules intricate and full of useful content. Guess what happened next? Right, students cannot find what they need to find, most of the arrangements seemed to be confusing and the time invested was not worth it.
    If you check my modules in spring, the arrangement is as simple as one can be: weekly modules, a simple page for each lesson with the date in the title. Assignments with the date and clear name. And it worked.
  • If you have a big group, the collateral damage is the reality. Let’s say, you have 20 students. Your zoom lesson has a theoretical part and then you want a little bit of a discussion. Do not expect all of them to be active, do not even assume that every single one was paying attention beginning till end. All because…
  • Attention span is virtually non-existent and illusory. Even if the cameras are on (are they at all times?) and seemingly the students are present and even react to your questions, but this is nowhere close to what we expect in a classroom. Obviously, inviting students to actively participate helps to some extent, but this is not a panacea.

Lesson planning

  • Less is more. Don’t try to do more, squeeze that last activity, or beef up your lesson plan. Keep things simple, approachable, and at the possible minimum because of the attention deficiency, we have already discussed.
  • No, you will not fall behind your yearly plan. The habit to plan the class with possible distractors is in blood, but when you are online, discipline is not something to worry much about. People join, do not distract you along the way and try to finish their work quicker just to push it aside. But with that approach, it is worth revising the yearly plan and adjust the content with the objectives, as what is there should be truly done well, but wasting time and energy on nice but extra details is not that helpful.

Students and you

  • Stay in touch. Being alone on the other side of zoom calls, only in schedule class times is not the recipe for strong connection with the students. Being available to answer the questions, responding to their emails or allowing time for a chat about life: all those simple steps will strengthen the connection. As a bonus, you will get more motivated students who trust you.
  • Listen. With the cameras off there may be not much to look at. With the clear-cut lesson span make sure not to hold the floor for too long: allocate considerable amount of time for the student to talk. The lessons should not turn into a talking head delivering material, and teacher’s motivation to hear the voices should be the driving force eventually shifting the focus from the teacher to the students (cheers to student-centered lessons).

You are not alone

This is probably the most important lesson of this school year. I have realised the importance of working in a team, of not staying in the information bubble. There were times (during the winter lockdown) when the only people I saw were my students in zoom windows and my family. The experience of a private tutor working alone is neither something attractive nor helpful if one works as a school teacher.

Staying in touch with colleagues during lockdowns, working from school, sharing meals, news and hopes mean a lot. Being part of a team and not seeing anyone is the experience I do not want to go through again.