I’m writing to you from the epicenter of the pandemic in South Florida. Within two weeks of the beginning of March, my adult education school morphed our familiar evening class “communities” to virtual meetings. “Get your sea legs, we’re in this for the long haul!” we were cheered on. And it worked. We rose to the challenge. Our students did, too. We all succeeded, a bright hope in the dark days we live in.
After hitting the ground running the last four months, I’m finally able to reflect on my experiences of how to succeed in the distance learning classroom as an adult education ESOL teacher. Think in terms of simplicity, connection, and taking advantage of the situation.
Simplicity: Distance Learning’s Best Friend
Technology itself will likely be taking up too much of the students’ mental energy. Keep your class to the basics. It is your best bet for students’ motivation to return when things seem complicated. You don’t want to lose students because they don’t know how to use all of the buttons, icons, etc. on your platform. Less is more… and less is even better if you use what students already know.
Keep in mind the limits of your own devices. In face-to-face language classes, I liked to show a lot of culturally authentic videos and websites to supplement curriculum. However, when we tried distance learning, my favorite YouTube videos just slowed down my WiFi… and therefore, my lesson. I kept it simple with just our curriculum and PowerPoints. My mantra is: “If it’s not working, keep moving!”
Our opportunities to connect in the physical classroom are usually plentiful but are so fewer over Zoom. My teaching mantra is “Students don’t know how much you know until they know how much you care.” I used to teach students that I cared about them through our daily interactions. But when the pandemic came, I had to find ways to make up for those interactions. I made a class WhatsApp group to talk to students every day… sometimes even on weekends! We found things to talk about related to class and built on relationships to rebuild those connections.
Meeting with students one on one helped make connections with them. I made appointment times of twenty minutes each one night a week. Students could come into the virtual room and practice either a designated activity or have a free conversation. This helped me build a relationship and rapport with each student. I learned more about their English abilities, goals, and even their lives. They felt as if they knew me personally and were more likely to come.
I found that while distance learning, contacting students was more important than ever. Every day I contacted students who were absent, who had a bad day, or who had some special circumstances going on. Having accountability and people to cheer you on is so important to an education.
Take Advantage of the Situation
Even though the circumstances that require distance learning are bad, there are incredible advantages to distance learning! This is the one opportunity you can learn from anywhere in the world. Vacations, traveling overseas temporarily, even staying late for work one night are all accessible with a class on Zoom. Families don’t have to worry about childcare because they attend class from their home. Finally, you can multitask-attend class on the bus, fold laundry and learn or even eat dinner-and still attend class.
A New Market
In my opinion, there is a new market schools can attract with online classes, as I learned from a Burlington English webinar. The possibilities are endless. Courses can be offered to anyone in the world. Employers with high numbers of English as Second Language speakers could arrange for them to attend English classes on-site through virtual learning. I think what you can offer really depends on the rules of your school, but get creative!
Overall, to my fellow teachers — just be there to check in on your students. Find out how they are handling the pandemic financially, emotionally, etc. We are in this together. We make the challenges simple, we connect to our students, and we seize each moment.