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.

Online class observation insights

Throughout my teaching career, I have been formally observed or have observed my colleagues on many occasions. However, during the online teaching period, I only had one formal observation. In this post, I’d like to describe the experience and explore the question of whether online class observation is different from the ‘real thing’, i.e. face-to-face observation, at least from the point of view of the observee.

Now, the observer (the principal of our school) told me far in advance that I could choose the lesson I wanted her to see. It was not a hard choice; my only selection criterion was this: do the students voluntarily turn on their cameras? There were only two groups where I knew for sure that this wouldn’t be an issue so I chose the older students – simply because it was more convenient time-wise.

I should say that in my online lessons, I typically experimented a lot; I would try out new apps, websites, approaches to presenting content and materials, etc. The question I asked myself before the observed lesson was Do I want to experiment or do I want to play it safe this time? I opted for the latter because a) I didn’t want things to go wrong (they always do when technology is involved) and b) I didn’t want to give an impression of someone who is trying too hard to impress. Technology was intrinsically embedded in the lesson anyway (it was a Zoom lesson after all), so I didn’t want to impose more unnecessary pressure on me and the students just to prove that I’m tech-savvy.

Of course, I didn’t go completely conservative, either. I used breakout rooms, for example, because that’s what I would always do in my Zoom lessons and that’s what my students were used to. However, right from the start, I was aware of one potential problem: what do you do with the extra member – the observer? When dividing the participants into groups, anyone, including the extra member, is automatically or manually sent to one breakout room and unlike the host, they can’t just wander about popping into the other rooms. Obviously, it would have made no sense for the observer to linger in the main room where nothing was happening in the meantime. To deal with this, as soon as I sent her to a particular room, I joined the group myself and stayed there for the whole activity. Yes, the other students were left to their own devices, but it was the better option; it would feel strange to leave the group while the principal was still present. Obviously, I could have moved her manually each time I wanted to join a different group. But it didn’t occur to me back then since I had a lot on my plate already. So it was after a new activity was introduced when she was asked to join another group. In the end, she had seen four different groups, which was perfectly fine for the sake of demonstration. Also, I should stress that prior to this, she had not been particularly experienced in using breakout rooms, so she seemed genuinely pleased to see how the whole thing actually worked.

What I appreciated most was the fact that after a short pep talk at the beginning of the lesson she switched off her camera and stayed invisible and muted for the rest of the lesson (except for a few minutes at the end of the class when she said s few nice words and a goodbye). So, we were all aware that she was there all along, but her presence wasn’t disruptive in any way. This may seem quite surprising because normally, muted microphones and switched off cameras are a nightmare and such a type of ‘silent participation’ is usually pretty maddening. But now that I think about it, being invisible and inaudible is not a problem at all once you are the observer. On the contrary, I believe it would have been awkward for her to be ‘displayed’ on the screen all the time. It might have also been unpleasant for the students (don’t forget, she is the principal!).

Anyway, I was pleased that the students behaved quite naturally and participated actively although I hadn’t told them in advance that the lesson will be observed. Actually, I only told them a few seconds before I invited the principal into the main room. The reason why I had deliberately withheld the information from my students until the very last minute was that I didn’t want them to feel nervous long before the actual thing, plus I suspected some of them might choose to skip the lesson. It wouldn’t be too surprising; as we all know, back then, it was perfectly feasible to stay away from school with all the potentially plausible excuses at hand that simply had to be accepted. Ultimately, what can you do if a student’s internet connection isn’t working that day? Not much really.

In the end, I got some really nice feedback from the principal, which was truly satisfying, especially under the given circumstances.

In conclusion, online observation doesn’t necessarily have to feel very different from face-to-face formal observation. In fact, it can even be less daunting in some regards. First of all, your 3d presence has shrunk into a 2d space, so to speak. This may pose some disadvantages but eventually, all you have to worry about is your voice, facial expressions and a few classroom management skills. Also, you can’t control what’s happening in your students’ homes but you have some unique options for how to discipline them, for example. All in all, once you have got the knack of how things work in a specific online environment, you can become more confident and feel less nervous than you normally would when observed traditionally, i.e. in the classroom.

Lost zeal?

This blog has been around for quite some time now. It’s an inseparable part of me; it’s an extension of my teacher self. But over the past few months, it’s become a bit more external, so to speak. It’s something out there, something I’m aware of but something I think of less and less. The thing is that I’ve always been considered a prolific blogger. When I was given that label some years ago, I happily accepted it. And most of the time, I lived up to it without having to try too hard. However, this year, there were long stretches of silence from me. It’s even occurred to me a few times this year that since I have not enough content to write about, I’ll quit ‚officially’. Some bloggers disappeared into thin air quite inconspicuously while others did say their goodbye out loud and wound up their endeavour for good. But I think comebacks are ridiculous. And I knew that at some point I would feel the need to come back. So what’s the point?

The question that really bothers me though is why I’ve lost my zeal? This year (as of today) I have only produced 15 posts, which is the fewest of all times (just for the sake of comparison, in 2014 I wrote 96!). Well, we could blame it on the pandemic. Wait! Last year, I published 22 posts and there was no such thing as COVID-19. So apparently, my motivation to write started decreasing before 2020, regardless of the external factors. On the face of it, it seems I’ve figured things out as a teacher and tried everything out so I have nothing new to share. But, as we all know, 2020 has tested us, teachers, more than enough so saying that there was nothing new would sound absolutely implausible.

One way or the other, the good news is that I don’t feel I’ve lost my enthusiasm for the teaching profession itself. Well, maybe I’m not as passionate as I used to be a few years back but this may well be to the good. Having passion is useful but it may also be rather overwhelming – for the teacher as well as the students. So I think that in a way, I have settled and calmed down as a teacher over the past couple of years, which I consider to be a positive sign. This may (or may not) be reflected in the amount of content I publish on my blog.

Anyway, I hope I’ll be able to be in the physical classroom more than I was in 2020 because it’s the place where the most amazing things worth sharing happen.

Too much colour

So, between my last post and this one, some time has passed – almost two months, to be precise. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to be back at school again. I’ve seen all of my classes, although some of them for just a fleeting moment. The students have had all sorts of learning ‘settings’; apart from the default face-to-face classes at school, they also had online lessons (synchronous as well as asynchronous ones) and recently a novelty has been introduced – rotation learning. This means that a class attends face-to-face lessons for one week and the next week, they have online classes. This is undoubtedly quite helpful from the epidemiological perspective since it ensures that there are fewer students in the school building at every given moment. However, it does have some drawbacks too.

This is an example of my timetable from one of the weeks (I deliberately chose the most colourful one to illustrate my state of mind at that point).

Wednesday

I’m not complaining; I love to have some colour in my life but to be honest, although I was happy to teach face-to-face again and I didn’t mind online teaching per se, this vibrant mixture was not my cup of tea. Given the fact that some breaks last for only 5-10 minutes, it was plain hectic. After all, you need some time to log in and log out of your Zoom lessons (physically and mentally), plus sometimes you just need a cup of coffee or a bathroom break. Some of my colleagues confessed that it was not uncommon for them to almost forget about their asynchronous online classes (they realized later in the day that they had not hit the publish button) or were late for a Zoom session. All in all, we were all a bit confused as to what day it was and what lesson we were actually supposed to be teaching at that particular moment.

Having said that, one should always be happy for what they have. Now, it’s Christmas holiday and we already know that there will be no face-to-face lessons whatsoever at the beginning of January because the pandemic situation has gotten worse over the past few weeks.

I mean, I don’t think our patience and flexibility has ever been tested more. But one thing is certain – most of us are grateful for every day at school. So because I know face-to-face lessons may continue to be scarce, I do my best to utilise every moment. For example, and this may seem a bit controversial, I almost completely ditched tests. I know that some teachers felt the need to catch up with grades as soon as they met their students in the physical classroom. After all, ‘virtual’ grades are not deemed as valid as the ones acquired during regular lessons. However, I felt that the time in the actual classroom was so precious that I didn’t feel the need to waste it on tests. There are other ways to verify that my students have learned all the necessary stuff.

What about you? How colourful has it been for you? 🙂

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.