Some of the less visible forms of pressure

It all started on 13 March 2020, when full-time education in elementary, secondary and tertiary educational facilities was cancelled here in the Czech Republic. Everything turned upside down and life became surreal. And that was when our egos started suffering …

From that day on, we teachers had to look at our own faces, listen to our own voices and endure being constantly observed by others in a totally new environment – online.

You are probably aware that there’s a psychological reason behind why we hate looking at photographs of ourselves. I think we’ve all been there; when we see a photo of ourselves, for some reason, we start focusing on the bits of the image we don’t like and overall, we look older, uglier and fatter than we normally feel. On the other hand, our friends always look amazing in photos, so we don’t understand why they cringe too when it’s just us who looks terrible.

Similarly, we don’t particularly enjoy listening to our own voices. They sound so different, almost alien. It can’t be us speaking.

And I doubt there are many people out there who like being observed doing stuff in a situation that is new to them, let alone formally.

Yet, these are some of the things we‘ve had to get used to doing. In other words, we‘ve had to become desensitised to constantly seeing our faces on the screens, hearing our voices and being observed by our students (most of them invisible), or even by our bosses sometimes. 

How did we get used to it all then? Well, we had no choice. We had to do the things regardless of how we felt about them. At first, it was tough. I think it’s similar to publishing your first blog post. You put yourself out there and wait. If the feedback is positive, you obviously want to do it again. If the feedback you receive is negative, you always have the option to stand down. The worst thing, I believe, is no response. And this is how I often felt when teaching online – in a void. Like I didn’t know where I had come from and where I was headed. Like a lonely child staring at the ceiling of her bedroom.

However, unlike an unsuccessful blogger, who can always quit, we couldn’t just stop teaching online. We had to keep going no matter what. So, at first, we cringed every time we saw that strange face on the screen or heard that uncanny voice. But after some time, we somehow stopped fussing about our self-images. We started focusing on other things – the more important things. After all, we needed to make our lessons work, and that required a lot of energy and cognitive capacity. So in the end, we didn’t give a damn about what we looked like that particular morning or how awkward our voice sounded in a video we had created.

We’ve learned an important lesson: that undue awareness of oneself often stands in the way of success. There’s no point in worrying about the things you can’t change (the sound of our voice) but there’s a lot we can do to improve the things we’re not happy about (our classroom management skills in a remote lesson).

Postface:

The way I use the we pronoun may feel a bit patronizing in the sense that I believe we all felt the same way. But I know not everybody is so self-conscious. By we I actually mostly mean I but I’m inviting everybody who finds this topic relatable to include themselves in the we. Also, I’m aware that there were other professions in which people had to endure much more stress (nurses, doctors, police officers, firefighters, shop assistants, etc.). My point is that there are many forms of psychological pressure which may be less visible but equally annoying and damaging to a fragile soul.

Asynchronous learning – in the center of attention

It’s October 30, the last day of the ‘Autumn holiday’ week. Here I am, working on my lesson plans for next week, when the school ‘starts’ again. Well, it’s not a real holiday and the school doesn’t really start on Monday, at least not in the sense one would normally imagine. I’ve actually been working from home for the past couple of weeks and it seems I will be doing so for another few weeks, months, …? Who knows.

So far, I’ve mostly been teaching asynchronously but since the situation regarding the reopening of schools is more than uncertain here in the Czech Republic, I’m planning to include synchronous lessons as well from Monday 2 on. I must say, however, that so far, teaching asynchronously has been a truly enjoyable and creative process for me. Finally, I have all the time in the world to search the internet for interesting materials. I simply love creating quizzes and making videos and recordings of my own. The sky is the limit. But it’s important to constantly ask questions: Is the process as enjoyable and creative for my students as it is for me? How useful are the materials? Are they as efficient as they appear to be? And how do I actually know?

Based on my experience, an asynchronous lesson has the potential to be much better-thought-out than any real lesson (be it in the actual class or via Zoom). It’s a bit like coursebook writing, I guess; you need to think twice before you include a task and the accompanying instructions. For example, you need to carefully consider the length, the actual wording and the fact that sometimes the students are better off with instructions in their mother tongue. You constantly change and rewrite things before you post them. You include a picture if it’s all too visually boring and delete one if it appears a bit too overwhelming. You shorten an exercise once it seems too daunting and you add a sentence or two to avoid the dumbing-down effect. Balance is the key word. And once everything is in balance, you can enjoy the end result to the fullest.

Having said that, while a coursebook writer doesn’t usually know their end ‘viewer’, you do. In fact, it’s imperative to think of the actual student doing the tasks. You need to constantly imagine them in front of their computers: how much time will they potentially spend completing your assignment? What resources will they need? Will their need their parents’ help, for example?

No wonder you end up spending far more time on each lesson than you normally would. But it’s a good investment. I believe that students can gain a lot from a good asynchronous lesson. Why? Particularly because the student is finally working most of the time. You, the teacher, no longer rob the student of their precious time, as you would inevitably do in a synchronous lesson. In other words, they don’t get distracted by everything that is going on in the class and they can fully focus on the task. They are in the center of your attention, so to speak. With that said, the fast finishers get no longer bored (because when they finish, they go about their own business). The slow finishers aren’t so stressed anymore (because nobody is impatiently waiting for them to get a move on).

All in all, it’s a whole new world for me, which I’m really enjoying at the moment.

Embracing uncertainty

OK. It’s been a week since I wrote my last post and I must say things have changed a lot. Well, actually, things haven’t changed at all, at least not to the better. Still, I feel my perspective has shifted a great deal.

It’s unbelievable how flexible a human being can be, especially in times of despair. People can bear a lot of load. And the more of it they carry, the lighter the burden from previous days seems in comparison to what they are struggling with at the minute.

The teaching and learning conditions at schools here in the Czech Republic (and I dare say in the rest of the world) are nothing like they used to be, say, a year ago. Apart from the physical changes (masks, disinfectants, social distancing), there are some mental obstacles we need to tackle on a daily basis. At the back of our minds, there is this omnipresent fear of something we don’t quite understand. And that’s a hell of a load.

Yet, we are getting used to the invisible enemy. At least I am.

Last week, the weather was splendid. It was as if Mother Nature wanted to make up for the mess people find themselves in right now. So it was possible to have some lessons outdoors (where no masks are needed). For example, a group of my senior students did a project about their hometown – Šternberk. I split the group into pairs and each pair worked on a different topic. Their task was to find information about some of the places of interests found in the vicinity of our school. Then we wandered around and pretended to be tour guides, meaning each pair presented their findings to the rest of the group in English. Whenever possible, they presented the information on the spot, e.g. when talking about the castle, we were literally standing in front of the sight, Later, they wrote their parts up and sent me the electronic versions so that everybody had the the whole compilation at their disposal for their final exams.

Other group did some ‘outdoor’ collaborative writing. The students were working in pairs, lying on the grass or sitting around in the sun. One group wrote a story starting When I was seven years old … The story was supposed to be written in the past tense (which was the focus of the lesson) and it had to include a moral or an interesting twist. Another group wrote collaborative essays on the topic My future is in my hands? (the question mark is important here). Again, the lesson was based around the topic of future, which we had talked about in the previous lessons. All the stories were finally written up in an electronic version for me to see before the students will present their work in class next week.

Learning outdoors is fun and honestly, it’s great to have a change of scene. However, there are some pitfalls to it too. Firstly, it can get a bit noisy from the traffic. Also, not all students are disciplined enough to be able to concentrate on the given task – there are way too many distractions. Finally, outdoor teaching is not suitable for all types of activities. In fact, unless you have a fully equipped outdoor classroom, it’s something that definitely spices up the time spent at school but it’s just a temporary measure. Not to mention the most important thing – the weather must be nice.

Today is Friday and we are not at school. In an attempt to improve the epidemic situation, The Ministry of Health advised us to stay at home till Tuesday, which is a bank holiday in the Czech Republic. Well, we’ll see what the future holds for us. Hopefully, we’ll be back at school on Tuesday, teaching face to face. Otherwise, hello, online teaching!