As a foreign teacher in Japan teaching in English to students at a Japanese high school, my job can be challenging at the best of times. Trying to keep the students engaged and motivated while presenting information in a language that they are not proficient at involves a combination of patience, humour, flexibility, and understanding. Faced with the present pandemic, teachers everywhere have struggled with similar tasks of trying to maintain academic standards and integrity while teaching their students at a distance.
Transitioning from in-person to online
This transition from traditional in-class instruction to teaching online happened to coincide with the start of the academic year in Japan. Having never taught online before, I, along with many of my colleagues, scrambled to familiarize ourselves with Microsoft Teams, the platform my school chose to use. I spent hours watching YouTube videos and doing practice sessions until I felt comfortable enough to proceed teaching each of my 90-minute classes fully online. As the term progressed, lots of trial and error ensued as I addressed issues that arose, such as getting my students to actively participate in class, improving the flow of my classes, or introducing new strategies or techniques to advance my practice. At times I felt that I had everything under control and could not understand all the fuss surrounding teaching online. At other times, I felt defeated and questioned my effectiveness as a teacher. However, I tried to learn from my failures and struggles and I found myself constantly evaluating my classes, even while they were going on. What was working? What needed changing?
As many teachers decided to teach online from their offices instead of from home, there was an increased burden on the school’s internet. Because of this, the administration decided that during class, cameras did not have to be turned on. This created a few challenges that I had to work through. Not being able to see what the students were doing while they were in class meant that I could not assess their understanding or level of interest and engagement through visual cues. Furthermore, students were even less inclined to speak out, answer questions, or ask for clarification during class time. Frequently I felt that I was talking to a blank computer screen. Silence would follow when I asked the students questions to assess their comprehension of the subject material or to inquire if they understood or had any questions. This led to frustration on my part. In order to solve this problem, I wrote each of the students’ names on flash cards and would randomly call on one (or more) to answer questions. By doing so, not only did I cut down on the time that I was waiting for someone to answer, but I was also able to gauge the students’ understanding and attentiveness of what we were doing in class.
A second issue that arose was the fact that I felt I was constantly marking assignments. In the traditional classroom setting, I would give an assignment and then collect and mark all the submissions on the due date. However, when teaching online, I would post the assignment with a due date and the students would be able to submit it at any time before that date. Because I hate the feeling of having work hang over my head, what resulted was frequent checking to see if any work had been submitted, and if so, I would mark it right away. Consequently, I was constantly marking and feeling on edge, never able to turn work off, even at the end of the day.
Not all was negative, though. One positive experience I had, which continues to this day, centered on the interaction I had with my students after class. I found that they reached out to me more, whether it was to ask questions, let me know that they would be absent from class, or to share the personal feelings, problems, or anxieties that they were encountering with life during a pandemic. This may have been due to the fact they felt veiled behind a computer screen, but nevertheless, I felt that our relationship evolved and deepened. In addition, I also had a quick way of contacting the students, either as a class or individually. If I wanted to tell them something, or if I had a question, I could post it and within minutes I would have a reply. I intend to continue using online platforms to support learning even when class returns to in-person teaching.
I am preparing my courses in case we have to move back online in the future. Some changes I would make are to not allow for rolling submission of assignments, but rather instruct the students to submit their work on the due date. Secondly, I would teach from home instead of from the office, so students can use their cameras and we can maintain some semblance of in-school classes. Interacting in a more “face-to-face” fashion supports both verbal and nonverbal communication.
Generally, if I was to assess how successful I was at teaching online, I would have to say that while it was not as bad as I had anticipated, I am still at a very basic level. Moving forward, I would like to learn new and innovative ways to make my lessons more engaging so that the way I teach online would better resemble the way I teach in the classroom.
Continuing Teacher Education offers a variety of AQ and ABQ courses designed to help teachers like Erika with online course design and strategy. For more information on the programs being offered, visit coursesforteachers.ca.