379 days and counting

It has been a long time since I last taught in a physical classroom. I remember the lesson very well because I had just started working with a new group of students. The news coming from Europe wasn’t good and I knew that Colombia would inevitably get affected by the pandemic as well, so I prepared my students for the eventuality that the following week’s lesson might be postponed. Schools in Colombia were closed the next day and I haven’t been back to the classroom since then, which is something I certainly didn’t expect at the time. This post is my reflection on a year of teaching online.

379 days and counting: teaching online

The first weeks of teaching through Zoom were pretty exciting because it gave me and the students an opportunity to try out new things. Like many others, I just flipped my lessons to the online environment, which was quite easy thanks to using breakout rooms. We were all happy to see each other through the screen and it all felt like a cool adventure.

However, the novelty wore off after a few weeks. I believe that most students thought the suspension of in-class courses was just a temporary measure. People started getting frustrated with the fact that they couldn’t meet their classmates face-to-face, and their energy levels dropped a little. We were originally supposed to return back to our classrooms in August, but that obviously didn’t happen and we had to endure a very long quarantine.

When it dawned on me that this would be a long-term issue, I decided to change my approach to lesson planning. I knew that I had to make more effort to adapt to the new reality, and that teaching from my living room was going to be part and parcel of my professional life for more time. These days I feel much more confident about being able to deliver good lessons online, and it’s great to work with students who are now used to learning in this environment.

A lot has been written about teaching online and there are numerous courses, lesson plans and tutorials for teachers that can help you with that. I think it’s important to choose an approach that works for your learners. For example, most of my students enjoy working on tasks that require collaboration with their peers. This may range from serious topics like job interviews to creating hilarious infomercials about useless products, and I love it when my students get involved in such activities. Of course, it’s necessary to take your teaching context into account.

I know that some teachers don’t find it easy to work with technology in their classes. Everyone seems to be using Jamboard, Padlet and other tools, and you may feel that it‘s something necessary for a good online lesson. I understand that you can do some pretty cool stuff with those tools and I do use them from time to time, but I think we shouldn’t lose track of what’s important. Being able to build rapport with students is more useful than the ability to use the latest technology. I enjoy including a few Dogme moments in my lesson and just letting the lesson flow in a direction decided by the learners. I always look forward to unexpected deviations from the plan when someone shows us something interesting on their screen or when we have a conversation about a topic relevant to the students‘ lives.

There are differing opinions on the use of cameras in online classrooms. Since I usually teach small groups, I encourage my students to have their camera on. I think everyone feels more comfortable when they have visual contact with all the participants in the group. ‘My camera doesn’t work’ is one of the most common sentences I have heard in the past year, but in reality very few students are truly unable to use it, and the ‘broken camera’ usually gets fixed during the course of the first lesson. I understand that not everyone wants us to see their apartment. Fortunately, it’s easy to use a virtual background to resolve that. If someone doesn’t want to show their face for some reason, I just ask them to use a filter because I’d much rather talk to a banana floating a space than try to communicate with a black square.

Inevitably, teaching online hasn’t been all fun and games. The internet sometimes brings out the worst out of some people and there have been a couple of students whose behaviour made them really difficult to work with. My priority in such cases is to make sure that it doesn’t affect the rest of the group. Fortunately, most of the students have been amazing. When you work with people interested in learning, it’s very easy to enjoy the lessons and forget that you aren’t sitting in the same room.

The main issue with synchronous online learning is the fact that it isn’t accessible to everybody. Many students in Colombia can’t rely on their internet connection, so it doesn’t make sense for them to pay for online courses. Learning through a cell phone isn’t great either and it may make the learners’ experience less enjoyable. I am looking forward to returning to in-class teaching, but it’s good to know that for some students online classes provide a viable alternative when we can’t share the same physical space. Going forward, I can imagine myself working on blended courses or working with some groups exclusively online. How about you?

Jennifer Soto: We need to adapt to this new reality

The idea to conduct interviews for this blog represents a nice opportunity to get in touch with professionals involved in different educational contexts. Today’s interviewee is a Delta-qualified teacher and entrepreneur who decided to set up a company that provides its services fully online. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did!

Jennifer Soto started her teaching career in 2011 at Universidad Central de Venezuela, where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages. After completing her CELTA in 2015, Jennifer began working for the British Council in Caracas. In 2018, she was promoted to the role of Academic Coordinator and obtained her Delta. She then moved to Colombia, where she co-founded Xemant.com in January 2020. In addition to online classes, this Medellín-based company provides translation, content writing, proofreading and editing services. Jennifer currently lives in Canada.

Jennifer Soto, Xemant.com

Most teachers got involved in online teaching only because of the pandemic. You co-founded Xemant.com in January, so I assume that you decided to make the switch to online classes by choice. What prompted you to do that?

I’ve always wanted to create something of my own in the typical ‘I want to be my own boss’ way. However, I wouldn’t use the word ‘choice’ to describe my circumstances. When I relocated to Colombia with my husband, we knew that we would be moving again relatively soon, which meant I couldn’t commit to working with any company. I started teaching private classes thanks to my colleagues’ recommendation and soon realized that it was the perfect moment to create a website and develop the idea of offering different language services online, working with other language professionals and giving people solutions for their language needs.

What does a typical class with your company look like? What methods and resources do you use?

I learned a lot in the British Council and many of the ideas are applied in our classes. We use the communicative approach and a typical class will start with the teacher and the student discussing a topic to break the ice and start showing what the focus of the class will be. After that, they will read, watch or listen to something that will be the framework for the rest of the classwork. The student will focus on the main aim of the lesson and then do speaking or writing activities in which they can use what they’ve learned so that they can internalize the information.

Our students will always have the opportunity to practice and communicate in the language they’re learning. Teachers are not the ones speaking the whole class like in a lecture; they interact with students, ask questions, play games, etc. Students will be working, analyzing, and using the language instead of just sitting in front of their computer receiving information.

We use some coursebooks as guidance, but we also like to utilize authentic materials like movies, songs, news articles, etc. This gives students a variety of sources to work with and shows them real examples of the language. Students sometimes suggest topics or materials and we adapt our lessons to include their ideas. We try to personalize our courses as much as possible and students are completely involved in their learning process.

You deliver your classes via Zoom. Why did you choose it? Have you tried any other tools?

We were already familiar with the platform, which has many useful features for online lessons like having breakout rooms for activities in pairs or small groups. Zoom makes it easier for teachers to plan more dynamic activities. It is definitely user-friendly, so it was easy to adopt even for those who hadn’t used Zoom before. That said, we are thinking of working with Microsoft for Education to give our learners a more complete and better experience with a combination of programs. It would allow us to use Teams to teach our lessons, upload our material and students’ production to the cloud and have live chats with other students and teachers.

Jennifer Soto, Xemant.com

Let me ask you about something that most teachers in Colombia have had to deal with. Do you think that students can get the most out of online classes if they don’t have access to a PC and have to use their phone?

The experience certainly won’t be the same, so the teacher needs to adapt their lesson or give those students alternatives. Writing on the teacher’s screen might be too complicated for phone users, so the teacher can ask them to write their answers in the chat box. If there’s a reading activity, the teacher can send the text in advance so that the student can print it or have it on their phone, and so on. Although using a phone is not ideal, it can be done, and students can actually improve as much as if they were working on their computers. Of course, it will depend on how motivated they are and how much support their teacher gives them.

I have a colleague who teaches Math through WhatsApp in Brazil, and if he can do that, then I can teach languages! Seriously, we are lucky that we can do so many things with our phones. We actually have a WhatsApp group where our teachers and students share links, videos, quizzes and even memes to practice English outside the class.

Most of us switched to online classes practically overnight, so it took us some time to get used to the new situation. What would you recommend to teachers who are new to this?

To switch to online learning as well. I wasn’t that new to online teaching, but my experience was mainly in the face-to-face environment, so when we decided to found Xemant.com, I started enrolling in online courses myself to learn how to utilize some methodologies or tasks. I took the Teaching English Online course by Cambridge Assessment English, watched tutorials on how to use the platforms, used one new feature each class and, little by little, it became natural, and I’m still discovering new interesting things to make my lessons more dynamic and enjoyable. There are plenty of resources that will help you a lot. The good thing about the pandemic is that we are learning and adapting, and I don’t think that’s something negative. Sometimes, if not forced to do something, we never actually do it.

That’s really good advice. By the way, I noticed that you started making YouTube videos. I really liked the one about Venezuelan words that come from English. I hear those words all the time, but I hadn’t realised they were taken from English until I saw your video! What plans do you have with your YouTube channel? I imagine that coming up with new ideas for videos can’t be easy.

I’m glad you liked it and I hope you also like the other videos me, my partner and our students have made. That video in particular was my first one ever; I wanted to do it about something that amazed me and thought that others might feel the same way. We sometimes take languages for granted and simply use words because it’s natural, but when you dig deeper, you end up discovering amazing facts and learning that your language is in fact a combination of languages.

Our plan with the YouTube channel is to keep making videos that teach, motivate and entertain our viewers, who are not only English learners. It’s definitely a challenge to come up with ideas that can be of interest as it seems everything has been done already, but I think we are focusing on producing content that can be useful. We recently collaborated with English teachers around the world to make a video about accents, and I loved the experience, so I hope we can continue doing things like that to motivate others.

I completely agree with what you said in the video. Speaking of Venezuela, the country’s own crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I imagine this must have affected the primary and secondary education in a terrible way. What about ELT? Is there now any market to speak of?

I still have family there, so I’m aware of the situation and it has definitely worsened their education system. I know there are many teachers making a lot of effort and sending assignments by e-mail and working with WhatsApp. When it comes to online classes, I doubt that’s an option for many as the internet service is too unstable and there are many blackouts.

Regarding ELT, there’s definitely a market precisely because of the crisis as many want to have opportunities abroad or work remotely for international companies and they need English for that. I know most English institutes are offering online lessons, but again, the internet and electricity are still an issue.

You have experience with teaching Italian and Spanish. How does that compare to teaching English? I am particularly interested in Spanish, which is your mother tongue. I can’t even imagine myself teaching my native language; I think I would fail miserably if I tried to do that.

I used to think the same, but I do my research and prepare my lessons just as I do for my English and Italian lessons. Yes, I’m a native speaker, but that alone doesn’t make me a qualified Spanish teacher. I take what I learned from my CELTA and Delta and apply it to my lessons based on research of the different aspects of the language. This is very important for me as a native Spanish speaker because I may sometimes consider some things obvious, or I may forget my students don’t know the nuances as well as I do and it may be difficult for me to understand why they’re having certain issues with the language. So I try to see myself as a Spanish learner as well and try not to forget the learning process, and I definitely apply knowledge from English to my Spanish lessons.

Could you talk a little about your experience with obtaining your CELTA and Delta? Where did you take the courses and what was it like?

I took both courses in the British Council in Caracas. I would say they were both the most challenging yet rewarding experiences in my career. The CELTA was a face-to-face course that took one month; it was really intense and I ended up not wanting to speak or hear English at home! It changed all I knew about teaching because my tutors showed me techniques and resources that I had never thought existed, and I realized there that teaching is a collaborative job and that the most important individual in a lesson is the student. That should be obvious, but the course helped me to teach with that in mind.

I chose the distance option for my Delta, so it was done online except for the in-class teaching practice. It was a whole new experience that required a lot more discipline and organization since you don’t have a set schedule, so you need to have excellent time-management skills. I was teaching, working as a coordinator and doing the Delta at the same time, so it definitely meant investing a lot of my free time.

While CELTA gave me great tools to teach, taking the Delta was what made me a real teacher. Getting to know the learning process more in depth, understanding students’ different needs, strengths and weaknesses, analyzing why we do certain things in certain ways or learning how to change some activities based on your specific group, all of that was extremely useful. I love learning and I could write a book about all the things I learned from the Delta, but I will just say that it changed my life as a teacher.

What do you think of the fact that those qualifications can be now done 100% online?

I find it amazing. It means more teachers from other parts of the world now have the possibility to take the courses, interact with colleagues from around the world and get to know the different teaching realities. The pandemic has already changed the way we teach, and if we don’t adapt to this new reality, we’ll end up being left behind. I’m sure tutors are adapting the materials and sessions for the online environment as it’s obviously a different experience in many areas. I think we should embrace it and take advantage of it because we will still be able to apply many of the things learned in an online CELTA to our face-to-face lessons.