COVID-19 and teaching: One year on

COVID-19 became real on 20th March 2020. This was day-zero as far as I’m concerned.

A government order was made to stay home and only leave for essential reasons. In fact, if you had to go out, you needed written permission and your ID. Face masks were obligatory, even outdoors, and the price of each one set by the government to prevent any enterprising spivs making a couple of extra Dirhams on the back of the pandemic.

The announcement had been made that we needed to close our teaching centre. We could continue working online but we had to stay at home or risk running foul of the law. On the morning of 20th March 2020, I needed to go into work one last time to pick up a few essentials. There were taxis in the streets but I wasn’t prepared to risk catching what was proving to be a deadly virus, so I decided to walk into town and back again. Just before I set off, a team of council workers dressed in PPE were spraying the streets with disinfectant. The smell eventually reached my balcony, so I went in, shut the door and was in two minds whether it was safe to go out.

I walked into work and there were other colleagues collecting the bits and pieces they needed to work from home. I had a brief conversation with my boss and for some reason I thought we would be back in the office in a few weeks, I even said to her, ‘see you in a few weeks’. In fact, the next time I set foot in that office was in July 2020, just before I moved to Tunisia. As for my boss, we speak, but I have yet to see her again.

The view from my balcony

The view from my balcony. The hustle and bustle was replaced by a deafening silence.

***

In the weeks leading up to the 20th March, I reached out to Dr Stephen Krashen after he tweeted this:

Stanford is moving all courses on-line because of the “spread of coronavirus in the Bay Area.” (LATimes, March 8). I will be happy to give guest lectures online for the rest of this month.

I quickly responded saying:

“…guest lectures online…”, I’m really obliged to ask- would you like to deliver our INSETT next week in Rabat?!

Under normal circumstances, this exchange would never have happened, nor would I have received a response from the man himself saying he would be happy to do it.

Stephen Krashen Poster

The date was set for Friday 20th March at 16:00. Initially, it was meant to be a face-to-face meeting, in the sense we would have used the technology available in a classroom to watch and listen to his presentation. This was quickly moved online once the order was given to stay home. As the hour approached, I was on my way back from the office, walking home, just after saying to my boss, ‘see you in a few weeks’.

I set my computer up on my dining table and tested the technology. At 16:00, it was time:

The event was fantastic and if I may say, took our minds off the uncertainty we were all feeling, if only for an hour. My enjoyment was marred only by the police sirens and shouts to get indoors emanating from just outside my block of flats. I wrote a blog post about the event and if you are interested, you can read it by clicking here: The man who brought Krashen to Morocco.

***

Online teaching

Although we weren’t the first institution to make the shift, we did move our operation online within a few weeks from the start of the lockdown. If we think about what technology we all needed to become adept in using in order to deliver our lessons online, it’s no mean feat. The learning curve has been steeper for some more than others but none of us have really had it easy. It must be said though that even the most reticent teacher has been taken out of their comfort zones to ensure they are able to use some video conferencing software such as Zoom, and at least one digital application to help deliver their lesson content. My go to applications are ActivInspire and PowerPoint, but I have also dabbled with whiteboard.fi and Jamboard.

One of the reoccurring problems I have seen and experienced is when the tech we rely on doesn’t behave as it should. Under normal circumstances when you have a problem you can’t fix, you might be able to get someone to come and help you. Working online doesn’t afford anyone that privilege. If anything we have all become proficient in knowing what to do to resolve glitches when teaching virtually.

Online teaching. You're on mute

It has not just been about the tools we use in the classroom, either. Meetings are now online using applications such as Teams. In fact, as an application, Teams has become central to my day-to-day working life. I even had it on my phone for a while, but removed when it started to blur the lines of when I was and wasn’t meant to be working.

Twitter, as usual, has been a fantastic resource to connect with others working in ELT and a platform to share ideas. I’ve met some wonderful and inspiring people who have shared their thoughts to many a teaching problem over the last 12 months. Thank you.

***

In July last year, I had a work focussed discussion with my colleague JB about returning to face-to-face teaching and what we needed to do, not just about the physical layout of the classroom, but also what was required in terms of buy-in from staff and students to ensure everyone’s safety. If you are interested in reading more about what we discussed, you can find it here: COVID-19: Social distancing and a return to face-to-face teaching.

I left Morocco in late July and moved to Tunisia in September 2020. Since then, our teaching centre has had periods where we have been required to suspend face-to-face teaching for a week at a time, I believe the term used is a circuit-breaker lockdown. At the time of writing, a national curfew requires all classes starting after 19:00 every evening to be online. Of course, the intention is to go back to face-to-face teaching at the first opportunity, and operationally, it has made sense to plan for both circumstances, i.e. offline and online. All classes can be switched from face-to-face to online, and back again, without too much administrative effort. It has happened where we have needed to move classes online with little more than a few hours’ notice.

My experience of teaching in a socially distanced classroom has been surprisingly okay. There is no denying that it is a necessary obstacle which we all have to work around, but key components such as group work are thankfully not lost. As someone who wants students to be actively moving around, having them sat, in evenly spaced-out rows, facing the front, does not fill me with joy. But as I’ve said, it is a necessary obstacle and one we only have to live with for now.

Hearing your students and having them hear you while wearing a mask can be difficult, but the most noticeable thing for me is how much communication is lost when you are unable to see someone’s face. I also think the natural bond you would normally make with a student cohort is much more difficult to generate than under normal circumstances. I’m not the only person to notice this, and personally feel I’ve had to work twice as hard to create that warm and welcoming environment we need our classrooms to be for our students to feel comfortable and for learning to take place.

social distancing

Since September, I have taught young learners in an off-site primary school as well as older teenagers and adults who come to our teaching centre and online. I have found that I have had to reinforce the rules about acceptable social distancing measures and mask wearing at the off-site school far more than with similar aged cohorts within my own institution. The rules in the school are slightly different to ours, and as an outsider coming in, it reminds us that we are stepping into ‘their territory’. Getting your students to adapt their normal behaviour patterns is just that little bit more taxing than if they were coming to your teaching centre. I should say that as teachers, we are not alone and having non-teaching staff on hand to liaise with parents to reinforce COVID-19 protocols, as well as ensuring students enter and exit the premises in an orderly fashion, has been invaluable.

***

Today is 20th March 2021, a year to the day since all of this started, well that’s the date I’ve decide it started. It’s clear that things are going to get better and although it’s slow progress, there is an end in sight. What we can be sure of is when we eventually go back to something that resembles life before COVID-19, some of the elements that have come about as a result of this pandemic will remain. We will be working from home more, teaching online is not going to go away and may even be merged with face-to-face teaching to form some form of blended synchronous learning:

‘…the integration of physical classroom and cyber classroom settings using synchronous learning to enable unlimited connectivity for teachers and students from any part of the world’. ‘… the technology we have all been using can and probably will be able to connect those to your face-to-face language classroom who would otherwise not be able to attend’. (1 & 2)

The digital applications which we have all experimented with, that flipped approach we tried, the fact that more of us have reached out to a global community to seek help for things which we haven’t had the answers for (and learnt other things along the way), all of this is contributing to and will shape the future for everyone working in ELT.

Hybrid teaching

As a parting message, I would like to encapsulate how far we have come in the last 12 months with two words that essentially meant nothing on 20th March 2020 but mean everything to us today, 20th March 2021.

Here they are: breakout rooms.

References:

  • (1) Bower, Matt & Dalgarno, Barney & Kennedy, Gregor & Lee, Mark & Kenney, Jacqueline. (2014). Blended Synchronous Learning-A Handbook for Educators Blended synchronous learning: a handbook for educators
  • (2) Simultaneous Delivery of a Face-to-Face Course to On-Campus and Remote Off-Campus Students. TECHTRENDS TECH TRENDS 54, 34–40 (2010).

You may also be interested in this lesson I created which explores viral diseases, with a specific focus on why the indigenous population of the Americas was decimated after the arrival of the first Europeans in 1492. Parallels could be drawn with our current pandemic. You can download the lesson here: Americapox: The Missing Plague.

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