Back to the classroom! Are we ready?
The whole world has been through tough times for nearly one and a half years. We have all been locked up at home before computers striving to stay sane, learn and teach simultaneously. If we watched what we went through in a movie, we would definitely get bored in the first ten minutes thinking that the scenario is a cliché. However, going through this catastrophic scenario, in reality, has been more than just boring. It has spurred a global increase in cases of anxiety and depression, a 28 % rise in cases of depression, and a 26% rise in cases of anxiety compared to the pre-pandemic period according to Santomauro et al.’s research (2021) based on a systematic review of data from 204 countries around the world. Having gone through these mentally and psychologically challenging times as teachers and students, we are now going back to the classroom- the old ways- thanks to the global vaccination campaigns. The question is “Are we ready?”
Distance education has been more of a psychological and social challenge rather than a mental one for me. Teaching online keeps you and your students mentally engaged; the missing ingredient is the genuine classroom atmosphere composed of the students’ smiles, questioning eyes, whispers, laughter, small talks, and so on. Being back in the classroom after teaching online for about one and a half years, I have come to realize that these are the elements that fill the void in communication that online teaching lacks. Just a ‘Good morning’ and ‘Hi!’ or your students’ bright eyes are enough to fuel you as a teacher and your students during the day.
Teaching English online has surely brought about several adaptation problems. In fact, we felt like fish out of the sea when we abruptly switched to online teaching. In my opinion, this was due to mainly two reasons: the materials we had were not designed for online teaching and many of us have not had much experience with using synchronous computer-mediated communication tools such as Zoom and other ICT tools that can be integrated into language teachings such as Kahoot!, GoogleDocs, Edmodo, Padlet, WordPress and zillions of others and even the ones being developed as I am writing this article. Despite these adaptation issues, many of us have successfully handled this challenge via help from colleagues, tech-savvy family members, and friends, and institutional technical support. I am sure there have also been teachers and students feeling left in the dark at times failing to access and technical or professional support; however, I am also sure that these teachers and students have found their own solutions.
The American philosopher and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson says “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions (Wikipedia, 2021).” These words of him, in fact, define the post-pandemic foreign language teaching experiences we are having. Our minds as both teachers and students have been “stretched” or expanded by this new and unexpected idea of online teaching and learning due to the Covid19 pandemic and it seems that none of us are willing to go back to the ‘original dimensions’ in all ways. For example, no one disapproves of the idea of hybrid teaching that combines face-to-face and online education, many of us are fine with receiving some documents such as the weekly plan online or having the meetings online. Most teachers will probably keep using the ICT tools they have picked up during online teaching now that they are back in the classroom because they are now self-trained in using them for teaching purposes and experienced their convenience in some aspects. Personally, I am planning to keep using GoogleDocs to teach writing during classroom teaching due to the ease of giving feedback and saving student writings digitally. I have also come to realize that I automatically tend to use the coursebook software text tools when I need to write “on the board”, which was what I always did during online education: creating a text box on the screen for extra information. It seems that I will not need those board markers much in the classroom anymore.
Gazi University College of Foreign Languages Professional Development and Research Unit has conducted a survey (2021) on evaluating the online education process at the end of the 2020- 2021 academic year which was fully online. The participants were sixty-one instructors working at Gazi University College of Foreign Languages; in fact, it was an internal evaluation survey. We asked the foreign language teachers which language skills and areas they had the least problems with during online teaching. Their responses showed that most of the instructors were fine with teaching grammar (75,4 %), vocabulary (73,8 %), and listening (68,9%) online. On the other hand, they stated that teaching speaking (50,8 %) and pronunciation (43,6%) was the most problematic language skill and area. Keeping these data from the survey in mind, we can keep teaching grammar, vocabulary, and listening online. However, it seems that language teachers would be better off teaching speaking and pronunciation face to face to avoid the problems they have in online teaching.
Supporting the data I discussed above, when I look back on my personal experience as a teacher, I do not remember having the feeling of “What on Earth am I doing?” while teaching grammar and vocabulary; the students would not complain saying “I can’t follow.” It was the same for listening; students would provide the correct answers immediately. Having their earphones on could have even been a convenience for them. However, speaking activities were such a pain in the neck due to technical problems such as malfunctioning microphones, poor internet connection, muffled or echoing sound, etc…I am sure most of us have had moments of frustration while trying to get our students to speak during online classes: All the three students you invite to speak fail to connect and you finally get a pair who can connect. Still, one of them has a microphone that decides not to work at that particular moment. The time you should actually spend assessing students’ talk and giving feedback is wasted away by all those nightmarish technical hiccups. Do you give up trying to keep the activity going? I know you don’t; however, I guess the price is feeling emotionally and mentally exhausted after the online class because of the extra effort you put into it.
We surely have some opportunities that pandemic online teaching has brought about such as greater ICT integration as I discussed above. However, the transition period from one and a half years of online teaching to face-to-face teaching is not surely free of adaptation problems both on the side of teachers and students. In the first face-to-face lesson I taught at the beginning of this year, I realized that I occasionally avoided eye contact with my students. As a heavily visual person, eye contact is actually the essence of communication for me and I would never do that unless I am angry or disappointed. I guess, staring at a computer screen for nearly 18 months made having real eye contact a bit awkward, but I feel better after four weeks now. However, I still have issues with using my body language effectively enough and I still sometimes feel a bit lazy to get up from my chair and walk around the class to check up on students, which I loved doing before the pandemic and missed so much. These are also because I had to sit before the computer during the whole lesson during online teaching, which unfortunately seems to have become a habit. The negative effects of the pandemic online teaching seem to be still lingering, but I hope to go back to my “default settings” as a teacher soon. I also see that my students have similar issues with social skills and interaction; they were a bit hesitant when I asked them to work with a partner during the first few pair and group work activities. There is still an awkward silence for a while when I ask a warm-up question, but things are getting better and better every week.
The final question I would like to ask is still the same: Are we ready to teach face to face? What are the opportunities and challenges awaiting us in this hybrid model of teaching? How has the Covid19 pandemic changed you as a teacher? If you are interested in sharing your story as an English as a foreign language teacher, I would be delighted to listen to it and we could collaborate to write some articles together. Please contact me via email ([email protected]) if you would like to share your story of Covid19 online teaching and post-pandemic teaching. We could have a Zoom meeting maybe, despite being online, we can still share!
Santomauro, D. F. et al. (2021). Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Lancet. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02143-7
Evaluating the online language education at Gazi University College of Foreign Languages during the covid19 pandemic (2021). Gazi University Professional Development and Research Unit. Unpublished Report.
Retrieved online from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Waldo_Emerson