7 things that helped me teach online

This year, as the pandemic hit and schools shut down, I had to re-invent myself as an online ESL teacher. Here’s a list of things I did to make my (and my students’) life easier.

1. Slow down

When I first moved to Spain to work as an English teacher, I could only say “el gatito bebe leche*(thanks, Duolingo). I will never forget the two sentences I learned during my very first lesson: “¿Que ha dicho?” and “No tengo ni p*ta idea**. Despite having recently completed my CELTA training, I couldn’t slow down enough for my students to understand me. Indeed, it took me a long time to master the perfect talking speed, and I occasionally still hear my students exchange those exact Spanish words.

This was in a physical classroom, in a pre-facemask society. Online teaching is taking all this to a new, slower, talking level. Different internet connection speeds mean that the sound doesn’t reach all students at the same time, and not all of them have access to great quality headphones. Add to that crying babies and TV in the background, and you can bet students will have a harder time keeping up with you.

Slowing down and pausing often are essential in an online classroom, together with strategically repeating key information and asking your students questions to check that they are still with you. Soon, you’ll find out how much of all this is actually needed, but it’s better to overdo it a little than to lose most students over week one!

(*) The kitten drinks milk
(**) “What did she say?” “I have no f*ing clue”

2. Nail the tech

This one will take some time, but it’ll be time well invested. When I started teaching online, I had no time to prepare. One day the schools were shut by the government, and the next day my boss delivered headsets to all his teachers and wished us good luck.

Needless to say, I wasn’t ready. The video call platforms themselves weren’t ready, and, overwhelmed by the gigantic number of new users, began to launch updates on a daily basis. I could only go with it and figure out how to be an online teacher as I taught.

My first classes were slow and exhausting. My students, despite being so-called digital natives, had no clue how to connect a microphone or download a pdf. Instead, they figured out pretty quickly how to share their screens and chat privately.

It took a while before I was able to multitask my IT and teaching roles and get back into the flow of the lesson. When it happened, however, I started to enjoy teaching even more than I did before — the turning point possibly being the option to mute everyone’s microphone with a single click.

If I were to give some advice on this, it’d be to start simple. Learn about the security features first, then move on to the basics and, once you got those, have fun with the fancy tools. You could also practice by video calling a friend to make sure you can share your screen and audio properly — while they can’t!

3. Visuals

Another crucial point became curating the visual aspect of my lessons. In class, I would just walk in, switch on the IWB, and write there if needed. My height, my voice and my hand gestures usually got more attention than the back of other people’s heads. Online, as we all got the same, tiny squared space, I had to start a competition to get my students to look at me and at my IWB, instead of just glancing at each other’s faces.

So, my commuting hours went into pimping up my board work. Sometimes, it was enough to copy and paste a picture of a schoolboy to get them to do the task: “This is Bob. He is late for school. Can you give him some advice?” and other times I’d spend an hour pasting pictures of kids on top of the image of a park: “Close your eyes.” I moved a bunch of kids around in the park. “Open your eyes. What has changed?” This could easily take up the whole hour, with no interruption nor distraction from the present perfect tense!

4. Games, games, games

Learning online is tough, especially for the younger ones. In the classroom, every ESL teacher knows when it’s time to get the kids out of their chairs and ready to compete in a board race. But how can we make online teaching less tedious?

Thankfully, there are lots of free games available online. My favourite for all ages is probably Baamboozle, followed by Categories for higher levels (B1+). JeopardyLabs is also extremely fun, if you can spare the time to prepare the questions.

But what about my students’ absolute favourites? The timeless Pictionary and Hangman, of course. And no panic: Kahoot! will still be your Friday afternoon saviour with its new ‘at home’ version.

5. Let them mingle

During lockdown, lots of psychologists spoke up about the negative impact that isolation from their peers could have on young people. I could see my kids become less and less enthusiastic as the quarantine continued, and I wondered what I could do about it.

In class, I used to pair them up to maximize speaking practice time. Online, I started to split them into Breakout Rooms, which are separated video-call meetings. At the beginning, I would be jumping in and out of the BRs, asking questions, checking on them, and then I would quickly get them back to the main meeting for class feedback.

But as time went by, they started to ask me to split them in bigger groups. They asked for more time in their BRs. I was wary at the beginning — were they just trying to avoid the lesson? But I decided to give them a chance. As I jumped in and out the different rooms, I stayed silent, and 90% of the time they were so focused on the task they didn’t even notice me there.

When I brought them back together for classroom feedback, I was utterly impressed. They came back with long, articulated sentences and stories. They loved so much spending time together, they would work hard to earn it. And who was I to say no? More time for me to sip my umpteenth cup of tea!

6. Make it about them

At the beginning of the year, I passed around a piece of paper asking my 10-year-olds to write a list of their favourite celebrities. They filled it with names I’d never heard before — TikTok dancers, Spanish trappers and football players. When I got it back, I scanned the list with no real interest, put it in my pencil case and forgot about it.

Fast-forward to April, and I am teaching these kids through a screen. We’re doing comparatives and superlatives and my usual classroom activities to practice them (“Make a line from the shortest to the tallest!”) are just not going to do it this time.

Then I remember. The piece of paper is still at the bottom of my pencil case (haven’t needed it much lately) and, after a quick Google search, I manage to put the pictures of the kids’ celebrities on the IWB. Later, I add a list of adjectives on the side (‘successful’ ‘good’ ‘rich’ etc.) and press save.

I don’t think the whole activity took longer than 15 minutes to prepare, but it was hard to contain the kids’ excitement when they saw all their favourite stars on the board. It was just a banal comparison exercise, but they loved talking about their idols. I had to repeat the exercise for three classes in a row — they didn’t want to do anything else!

It takes very little, sometimes, to adapt an activity to the group you’re teaching. This is even more important online, where you can’t make the activity about the kids themselves as they’re not physically in the classroom. Asking your students what and who they like and then build your lessons around this information is the easiest way to engage them — and even get to know them a bit better.

7. Be reachable

When you teach online, the time at the end of the class when you gather your books and some students come forward with questions they didn’t want to share with the rest of the group, or didn’t have time to, simply disappears. Once the lesson is over, you say goodbye and end the call to go get ready for the next one.

It’s important for students, especially those who are preparing for exams, to have a way to reach you besides the lesson. I set up an email account they could use to send me their writings and told them they could also write me a message if they had any questions.

Guess what? They did. And this exchange not only helped them get some writing done in time, but it also turned into great feedback for me, allowing me to understand what I should be focusing on in the little time we spent (virtually) face-to-face.

Journalist, photographer, illustrator and English teacher. One day I’ll be all that.

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