How to survive six lessons in a row?

Without exaggeration, having to teach six consecutive lessons with 5 or 10-minute breaks in between may sometimes be a real ordeal. In my context, it is the maximum you can reach because then you REALLY need a lunch break. If you wanted to sound overly optimistic, you could say that there is a lot of variety. Indeed. We’re talking about a lot of variables here, such as six different groups, ages, mixes of genders, coursebooks, sets of additional materials, classrooms, numbers of students, seating arrangements, vibes, levels of motivation, etc.

Now, if you are good at maths, you know that these variables provide an awful lot of combinations. Let’s say you start with a group of fifteen 12-year-olds (odd number is never ideal) which consists of three boys and twelve girls (not perfect either), you need to grab a specific coursebook (which you may or may not know like the back of your hand), you teach in a small classroom on the top floor (while your office is on the ground floor), the seats are arranged in a horseshoe (good… if it’s your preferred arrangement), the students are eager to learn (excellent!) but are a bit too noisy sometimes (you need to take this into consideration when planning the lesson). Then you go on to teach a group of fourteen 16-year-olds (6 students are missing, 7 haven’t done their homework), the classroom is in the adjacent building, you are using a brand new coursebook you are not quite familiar with yet, etc. If this marathon happens on a Monday (which will be my case from September on), you have the whole weekend to prepare for it. But even with thorough lesson plans, you have to be perfectly fit on that day (no mild colds, headaches, hangovers or other types of sores). And if you are like me, you may even need a lot of coffee all along.

Most of all, be prepared to cut corners in order to survive. In no particular order, these are some of the tips that have worked for me.

  1. Don’t feel guilty if you come to the classroom a few minutes later. You don’t have a jetpack after all. Explain, apologize and start the lesson as if nothing happened.
  2. Do not overrun a lesson. If possible, finish a minute earlier rather than a minute later.  
  3. If you are preparing some additional fun materials (warmers, games), do not hesitate to use the same activity in two or more lessons (with all the necessary adjustments).
  4. In the morning, put your coursebooks in a pile in the order you are going to need them – with the first one on the top of the pile. The same applies to the additional materials and the equipment you’ll need, such as your CD player. Have everything at hand.
  5. In advance, ask a student from each group to meet you at your office to help you carry all the stuff. Your transfer to the classroom will happen much faster.
  6. To save your vocal cords, include a lot of group/pair work and/or writing/reading practice (or tests). Speak as little as possible. Let the students do the work.
  7. ‘Lay low’, i.e. do not experiment or take too many risks in the form of brand new, untested activities. You don’t really need to spike up your cortison levels.
  8. You may feel tired towards the end of the day. This is when caffeine stops working and your energy levels drop. Thus conflicts may arise (at least in my case). Be careful. Do not be harsh on you or your students.
  9. Do not rely on technology too much. The internet may not be working properly on that day so if you have planned the whole lesson around a YouTube video, you may feel bitter. Also, it may take some time to connect all the cables laying around before you are able to turn on the damn smart TV. In fact, I try to avoid technology completely on such a busy day.
  10. Finally, remember that your students have had six lessons in a row too, so it’s not just you who feels tired (and possibly bored to death). Be patient, especially towards the end of the day.

Most importantly, and this is where you can’t cut corners, you really need some sort of a plan, no matter how experienced and good at improvisation you are. I always look forward to my upcoming lessons, even when there are six consecutive classes ahead of me, but I do have to know that I am well-prepared for each and every one to a certain extent.

If I ever have to teach via Zoom again, what will I do differently?

The first thing that comes to mind here is the workspace. It may seem superficial and quite unimportant given the seriousness of the circumstances we found ourselves in, but to me, it was one of the crucial aspects. At the beginning of the whole lockdown situation, I delivered my classes from my office at school. Later on, we were obviously advised to stay at home. The latter scenario felt more comfortable at first (and definitely safer at that time), but it had a few drawbacks too – there was a fine line between work and my personal life (not that there was much of it). In other words, this situation invaded my and my family’s privacy and eventually ended up feeling incredibly confining. So, next time, if possible, I’d definitely like to stick to going to my office and delivering the lessons from there.

One of the most controversial and generally highly debated topics would probably be the use of web cameras (or rather the lack thereof). There were groups where it was not an issue at all. However, some students were hesitant or absolutely reluctant to turn on their cameras, which caused a bit of friction between us, especially in the beginning. But I finally surrendered (especially after some personal experience of reluctance on my part) and even though sometimes I was the only one visible on the screen, I didn’t mind. What would I do differently next time? Well, I’d probably try to set some clear rules regarding cameras right from the start.  

Now, I should say that there were some things that worked quite well, so I’d like to keep them up next time around. First and foremost, I’d definitely like to keep the flipped learning format. Let me explain what I mean here. Flipped learning was born out of general education long before Covid-19. The key principle is that the learners do the input part of the lesson at home, on their own. Flipped learning takes advantage of technology and lets learners use their own time and technology for lesson input. Class time is then used to do further exercises or controlled practice, to revise main ideas and key points and to work on a project in groups or as a whole class. In practice, this means that I wouldn’t teach 4 out of 4 lessons a week synchronously but 2 asynchronously and 1 or 2 synchronously, for example. In other words, my students would study the content on their own, through materials such as videos and texts I would create for them, and then we would go over the content together in a Zoom lesson. In some schools, the teachers had to deliver all the lessons synchronously. This must have been exhausting for all parties involved (the teachers, the students and the parents) as well as ineffective, in my opinion. The Ministry of Education advised against this layout anyway.

As far as asynchronous lessons are concerned, I think I went out of my way to create interesting and engaging materials. This was the part I enjoyed most. I learned a lot in the course of time and I believe my students truly appreciated my zeal. Still, I realize one needs to be really careful and not overdo it. Too much of a good thing may sometimes be overwhelming. Balance is important here. For instance, escape games may be fun if you include them occasionally but a bit of drill has its place in an online lesson too. Anyway, another tip I’d like to share with my future self is to prepare all the materials in advance (which I basically did) so that I can publish them right in the morning. This brings me to the next point…

The Zoom (synchronous) lessons always had to overlap with the actual timetable, which, in my opinion, was a sensible requirement from the administrators. However, the asynchronous lessons could literally span over the course of the whole day (or longer). It means that I published homework at 8:00 am and the submission deadline was 8:00 am the following day before the next English lesson. If the next lesson was two days later, the students actually had 48 hours to complete the task. This is how I liked to do it. Some students did the assignment as soon as they could while others did it at the last minute. This was not a big deal once they did submit the homework on time. Nevertheless, it made things complicated for me; in the attempt to make sure that each and every student received immediate feedback, I ended up peeking at the submission table all day long. My bad. You get what you ask for. Anyway, next time, I guess it would be wiser to set a strict time limit and get students to do the assignments within the frame of the actual lesson, e.g. from 8:45-9:30. I’m aware that it would be quite restrictive for some (the night owls would not be over the moon) but it may prevent procrastination and make things easier for the teacher. However, all teachers would have to make sure that their assignments don’t take longer than 45 minutes (the length of a typical lesson in the Czech Republic). This might actually prove quite tricky.

Well, if this generally dreaded scenario is ever to materialize again, I would like to be well prepared – mentally as well as physically. That’s why I’ve drafted this post anyway. 🙂