I am sure we have all found ourselves asking the question in the title above to ourselves during pandemic quarantine both as a human being and a teacher. Personally, this question still lingers in my mind as we move onto another year of distance language education.
Times of crisis are sometimes doors to great opportunities for development. Despite many challenges it has, distance language education experience computer has also helped me explore dimensions of my skills as a teacher. It was a totally new and foreign experience for me and probably for many language teachers who had to abruptly switch to online mode of education from the traditional face to face mode. When I was first asked by my institution to teach some online English as a foreign language courses, I honestly freaked out. There were tons of questions wandering in my mind. How on earth am I going to reach out to those who are less motivated to learn? Will it be possible for me to check student comprehension effectively? Will my students be able to focus when they are in a relaxed environment like their home? How am I supposed to use my body language and gestures effectively enough when my students can see only my face on a small computer screen? Will the motivational strategies I use in the classroom work in a digital teaching environment? The final and most important question was “will I have the satisfied feeling that ‘I have taught in the best way I can’ after the online lessons that I have never taught before?”
One important source of anxiety for me was the fact that I did not have any professional training on distance language education. I knew that I wasn’t the only English teacher who was struggling to find their way in these extraordinary times that required a sudden shift from the traditional mode to the digital one. This made me feel that I, just like many other English teachers all around the world, had to try to be self-trained in distance language education. I was indeed confident about my teaching skills; however, I wasn’t sure about how to transfer these classroom teaching skills to the new digital mode.
My first online session was not a bitter disappointment for me; but I didn’t get all the questions I had in my mind answered yet. However, as I spent more time teaching online classes, I came to realize that I automatically made some adjustments to the methods and techniques I usually use in the classroom so that they could also be effective in my online courses. For example, I used realia by showing them to the camera while teaching vocabulary. In class, I used to make them watch videos relevant to that day’s theme, I did the same by playing videos on screen share. I used to use student discussions as pre and post listening, reading and writing activities in class, I did the same by switching to discussion mode on the online education tool I used. Asking random questions that could activate their background knowledge about the content of the lesson was one of my usual practices in face to face classes, I did the same during online courses by turning students’ microphones on randomly. I also facilitated multi-directional interaction among students after listening and reading exercises so that they could consolidate what they have learned without my dominant guidance, I kept the same practice during online lessons by allowing them to ask and answer questions to each other without my moderation. Using digital tools for language learning was as fun as they were in the classroom in my online classes; my students had fun playing Kahoot! games for vocabulary practice in front of their computers at home.
It is true that online education has many limitations. We cannot monitor students easily as we do in the classroom because they do not always prefer to turn their microphones and cameras on. This creates another challenge for us; we cannot even be sure that the student is there and focused on what is going on in the lesson. We keep receiving excuses for not getting answers to our questions. Giving and receiving feedback also sometimes becomes a pain in the neck due to technical problems. Perhaps, the greatest challenge for both teachers and students is missing the lively and vibrant classroom atmosphere where everyone can see and hear each other without any extra effort and feeling isolated away from this atmosphere.
Despite all these limitations, we can still look at the bright side, too. Personally, as a teacher, I have become more conscientious with time management during online classes due to the self-principle that I must make the most of the time we spend in front of the computer. In the classroom, I used to be a bit more flexible because we did not have to spend extra time only to make sure that we see and hear each other. I have also become a teacher who provides more explicit grammar teaching rather than implicit teaching because I felt that the ‘distance’ required it. What is more, I have noticed that some of my students made greater progress than they did during face to face education. When I asked them what the secret behind this was, they said that they spent more time using digital tools for language learning because they were usually at home and spent more time in front of the computer. This could also be the consequence of restrictions on social activities due to the pandemic which allowed more time for studies; however, it would not be wrong to assume that it is also the consequence of self-regulation of learning that distance education requires. Finally, personally I feel as a teacher that the quality of communication with my students has increased during distance education because they and I had to express ourselves as clearly as possible to avoid any misunderstandings that could be caused by the ‘distance’.
Looking back on my first experience with distance English as a foreign language education and getting ready for the next one mentally and psychologically, I now come to realize that this Covid-19 pandemic has urged me to train myself into being an “online teacher” from one who has had experience only in classroom teaching. I have had to construct a new identity as an ‘online EFL teacher’ who is not the same teacher as the one in the traditional classroom. This abrupt pandemic distance education experience has pushed me to explore the dimensions of my teaching skills, my adaptive skills and flexibility in my teaching practices. If I go back to the question in the title that has still been lingering in my mind after 4 months teaching online EFL classes, I am now closer to thinking that it is both a blessing and a curse. From the limitations perspective, it seems to be a curse; from the bright side perspective, it seems to be a blessing. We are all pretty much sure that we are going to spend more time teaching online classes than we thought at the beginning of the pandemic. Therefore, I am choosing to look at the bright side and consider distance education a blessing as a teacher. Because I have always believed an old saying: “If there is a will, there is a way.”