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5 lessons learned from teaching on Zoom that will improve my regular teaching

Whilst switching into Zoom-based teaching has been a challenge and sharp learning curve, Heather Urquhart from The Maydays argues there are lessons to be learned online which will apply favourably back to classroom-based delivery.

We are in the middle of a global pandemic. These last weeks and months have been tough for many of us and we all have different ways of coping.

Mine has been to try and carry on in as normal a way as possible by trying to do the things I normally do. For me, that’s the practice and teaching of improvisation. I’ve been a teacher and facilitator for 15 years and up until several weeks ago, all of my work has been in the classroom or theatre setting.

Luckily as an improviser, I’m adaptable. So 5 weeks and multiple sessions later I’ve quickly adapted to teaching life online. There are definitely advantages. Being on my sofa, glass of wine in hand minutes after the class ends being one!

However, what has surprised me is how teaching online has upped my teaching game in general. The global crisis won’t last forever and I’m keen to take the lessons I’ve learned from doing online teaching back into the classroom once this is all over.

So here are 5 tips of how online teaching can help you #IRL.

Be economic, leave spaces

Facilitating effectively over the internet involves a time lag, therefore instructions need to be clear and concise with full stops on the end of sentences and pauses. This is also super useful for the classroom in general where we have a tendency to talk over one another or have oursentencesrambleoninanundefinedwayfortoolongand then trail off into…

As well as this, classroom communication needs to be incredibly clear to keep the group focus and the more commanding style of teaching has been great for confidence and assertiveness.

Asking for hands up for questions, a thumbs up for confirmation of understanding the exercise set as well as nominating students, rather than awkwardly waiting for volunteers has been invaluable for the flow of the lesson and definitely something I’ll be using.

Also, the new need online to leave gaps and spaces in the conversation is a good reminder that, particularly when learning something new, students need a bit of time to process what they want to say - be that searching for the right word, craning in the right grammar, or getting the tone right. Again, online teaching is reminding me that silence and a bit of a (mental) processor lag, fine in the real world too.

Focus on the face

Without the atmosphere in the room, and the non-verbal signals that come from being together in the lesson, it is so important to focus on people’s facial reactions.

Over the medium of ‘to camera’ interaction, it’s not possible to have direct eye contact. However, it does allow us to really take in the whole face. To take the time to really read it.

Working in this way is actually helping me pay more attention to my students' micro-expressions and adapt as a result. Are they losing confidence? Are they really enjoying a particular activity? I also encourage cameras on for people demonstrating, with other cameras off and non-video participants hidden so those people are very much ‘performing’ for the group.

This is also a treat for the watching ‘audience’ who get to see these reactions playing out in full. A refreshing change from the profiles we normally watch during demonstrations. In general though, a useful reminder of the importance of non-verbal communication in the classroom.

Bring some Theatre to the classroom

As I mentioned earlier, I am an improviser. You can read about the links between improvising and ELT here. As I often work in theatrical settings I’m noticing how helpful it is to be even more expressive in an online environment. It may feel counterintuitive to make yourself ‘bigger’ in front of a screen. However all the classes I’ve taught online lately have been most successful when the engagement has been larger than life.

Try standing (or sitting if you’re not able to stand) with a strong stance or using facial expressions and emotion to communicate. With onstage improv, choices like this can really make the show succeed. Back in the classroom, choices like this will make your lessons so much more playful and energised. The more people have fun, the more they learn by stealth.

Vary the Energy

As an extrovert who thrives off human company I’ve been surprised by how much teaching online tires me out, but also massively encouraged by how supportive everyone is. The cheers and whoops when people get it right may feel a bit much for us Brits, but when you’re on the receiving end, it feels amazing. I’ve also been reminded of people’s different learning styles and the importance of keeping it varied.

I attended an excellent training session on Neurodiversity last year by Exceptional individuals and I’ve been drawing very much on my learning from that for online classes.

Some of us find screens difficult, or the differing audio quality, or being ‘on display.’ There are many things you can do online to keep it varied; splitting into pairs, taking regular breaks, changing pace, whole group activities or things where some people get to demo while others learn by watching (muted and safe!).

I already think this is imperative for the classroom, but could we use our heightened sensitivity around learning styles, pace, and ‘on-stage’ & ‘off-stage’ energy to go even further in varying exercises? Could we use the idea of watching scenes back more liberally? It’s really quite satisfying to see how you looked whilst ‘performing’, and it can give students a lot of confidence to see themselves succeeding, to the applause of others.

Improvise!

Learning to move my 15 years of teaching experience online so quickly has been a very steep learning curve.

I’ve no doubt that my ability to improvise has been a huge asset in this. I’m having to try new techniques and adapt exercises for online, all the while being willing to fail in front of the students. I think this is important offline too.

It can be easy to rely on resources and cause ‘death by PowerPoint.’ When this happens, it’s just as easy for students to check out too. At the beginning of our online classes we are asking students to ‘nurture focus.’ As a teacher I give my presence and responsiveness in return. We often talk about failure in improvisation. To be clear. I don’t want to fail, I just don’t want to be afraid of it. I don’t mind admitting something isn’t working and being vulnerable in the classroom.

So much learning comes from failure, so how can I expect that from students if I cannot model it myself? This is particularly applicable to the English language teaching classroom, where so much of learning a language is about getting it wrong, often dozens of times, before you get it right. Being able to literally applaud and celebrate getting it wrong is a technique we use with beginners to improvisation, and it ensures everyone feels safe and confident to try out new things, guess, wrangle words together into a phase for the first time.

I want to keep learning about teaching and this can’t happen if I’m not willing to respond to the direct feedback of the students in the classroom rather than being on autopilot.

There are so many resources coming out every day from facilitators all over the world on how we can make our online life relevant. Let’s keep learning from each other and when this has all passed, let’s take some of those lessons back into our classrooms.