We’re going to have to move online. We had heard the rumours and feared the worst, but many of us had hoped it would all blow over – that this was all a flash in the pan; a fuss over nothing. That was not, however, the case. In the first week of February 2020, the Coronavirus drove myself and my colleagues online, into the virtual classroom for the first time. I was not thrilled at the prospect. If I had wanted to be an online teacher, surely that’s the job I would have first applied for, all those years ago?

Fear Dot Com

And so it was with great dread that I downloaded Zoom’s online video conferencing software, and logged in for the first time. Within a week, I was back to a familiar, almost full, schedule of classes. Although the structure of the lessons seemed easier, and there would be less students than normal, I was apprehensive. Self-conscious of my stupid face and voice, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to hold my class’s attention without the usual array of high-fives, stickers and toys at my disposal.

The important thing to remember is that this is still a classroom, and to instill that sense of routine to one’s students wherever you can. Classroom management is still possible – even substituting the usual rewards with mere pictures of Ultraman and Elsa works!

Zoom has plenty of options to make your lesson engaging. The screen sharing option allows the teacher to share the contents of their desktop with the class – web browser, media player; the full works. Just remember to close any NSFW tabs, clear your browsing history and hide your naughtiest favourites before opening up Chrome for all the class to see.

Zoom also allows students to control the mouse, interact with the screen and draw/write using the ‘annotate’ function (remember to turn it off when you don’t want the students to play, unless you want toddlers scribbling all over your PPT the whole time). It’s also easy to allow for student-to-student interaction: “Dora, can you ask Rose what colour she likes?”

Students becoming distracted and hyperactive? Share a nice and active (but educational!) video to let the kids blow off steam. TPR remains essential, especially in refocusing. Zoom also comes with a nifty ‘green screen’ function which adds graphics to the background – while alternative programs such as Manycam take that to a whole other level, including filters and funky special effects. Hey look, the teacher’s in space!

After a few days of practice, I was soon able to do everything in the virtual classroom that I would in a face-to-face environment. Panic over, right? …Right?!

A Walk in the Park

As I was quick to discover, online teaching is not without its challenges.  Smaller students are going to find it difficult continuously focusing on a screen (unless your name happens to be Ryder and the rest of the class a team of pups) so it’s worth remembering that certain classes are going to be a struggle. There’s not much you can do when Mom is chasing little Aiden around the house with an iPad, begging him to listen.

The omnipresence of parents in the background makes every class feel like an Open Lesson. Consider adding a ‘Be quiet Mom and Dad’ rule, especially for those who keep prompting the kids and acting like an unwarranted TA. And a ‘no snacking’ rule, for students who want to spend the whole class munching on a bag of potato chips. It can also be distracting for everyone when one of the students is taking the class from outside, in the back garden or park.

As with any delivery system, there will inevitably be advantages and disadvantages. It was nice to see my favourite students again, after my prolonged absence from the classroom, and some – trained by years of cartoons and TV – actually became more attentive during online classes.


What a Way to Make a Living

Working from home, it’s great being able to nip away to grab a cup of coffee between classes. It also means easier access to crazy realia (I thoroughly enjoyed introducing my new puppy to the students at the end of class), and not having to adhere to uniform from the waist down can make for a refreshing sense of freedom. At the same time, it’s difficult feeling one’s work/life boundaries erode, as the home becomes an office, and one is bombarded with WeChat calls and messages, even after the working day is done.

There’s a sense, for China at least, that the worst of the Coronavirus is behind us now, and one day self-quarantine and online teaching will be but a faintly surreal memory, of no-trousers-workdays, students in the park, and that one little girl who kept throwing her poor kitten in the air during class. It’s a new skill I learned, and a new chapter to the TEFL experience. Granted, it’s not one that I asked for, but it’s an experience all the same. And isn’t that why we’re all here anyway?

About the Author:

Joel Harley
Joel Harley is an ESL teacher and professional writer currently living and working in Chengdu, China. He enjoys good food, good drink and bad movies. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter, and find his movie reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
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