If you are reading this article, chances are you are one among many who are teaching or learning online this year. For some of you, embarking on a journey into online education will be a new experience; for all of you, it will be the first time to do so under the extraordinary conditions that arise when the education system is upended by a global pandemic. Teachers and students have been thrown into a period of disruption. Courses designed for classrooms have hurriedly been adapted for online delivery in an attempt to keep education accessible in a time when we need to enforce strict physical distancing measures. Therefore, what we are dealing with now is not “online education” in the traditional sense, but “emergency remote teaching.”
Emergency remote teaching (ERT) has been defined as “a temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate delivery mode due to crisis circumstances,” in which the primary objective “is not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis” (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, & Bond, 2020). As is typical in emergencies, there is pressure to act quickly, without proper resources or adequate consideration of the ideal way to handle the situation, and people who would not normally be involved are being drawn in. Under such circumstances, many people, including teachers and students, are being challenged in new ways and facing a period of emotional vulnerability. This article looks at the emotional impact of emergency remote teaching and offers a glimpse into the silver lining of the ERT storm cloud.
Emergency Remote Teaching and Emotions
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been faced with increased instability in important areas of their lives, which can create intense pressure. Some fear for their health, while others have lost the means to support themselves or their families. Teachers and students are not impervious to these problems and face the additional pressure of having to keep functioning within an educational system that was designed for face-to-face classes.
In this difficult period, we need to understand that teachers and students are dealing with courses against a background that makes full engagement much more difficult than usual.
Did you ever imagine your bedroom or living room would be your classroom? I prepare for and teach 12 lessons a week in my bedroom; my “office” and “classroom” are at the foot of my bed. Now, many teachers and students are interacting from their homes—private spaces that were never meant for this—with some participating under exceptionally trying circumstances. For example, there are many parents with children around during their lessons who are multitasking as caregivers while actively participating online. There are a lot of teachers and students without optimal devices or stable internet access who must deal with unpredictable connections. Furthermore, many teachers and students are grappling with a steep learning curve as they strive to gain the knowledge and skills required for online education.
In the months since ERT began, I have seen an avalanche of messages from teachers in Japan expressing a full range of emotions over the changes that were thrust upon them. There are a number of Facebook groups in which teachers are reaching out to each other. One example is JALTCALL, which has traditionally been an avenue to discuss computer and mobile assisted language learning (CALL/MALL). Another one is Online Teaching Japan, which was created after the COVID-19 outbreak “for teachers to have a place where we can share ideas, technology and best practices for teaching online” and “help each other become the best we can in this ever changing world” (as noted in the group description). On the negative side, teachers tell how their new working environment has caused pressure and frustration as they try to learn how to use new technologies or deal with their institutions prohibiting them from using the technologies they would prefer to use. A lack of guidance and effective communication from employers has left many teachers feeling unsupported and unsettled. They also tell of their concerns over how to bring their classes to life on small screens and their irritation at spending much more time than usual on preparation and administration.
There are many stories of physical and mental exhaustion. On the other side of the coin, though, I am reading an increasing number of posts expressing positive emotions, with “victory posts” about over-coming the new obstacles that the pandemic has put before us all. Many teachers are finding ways to adapt to ERT’s obstacles and have seen hidden benefits to this new teaching mode. For example, teachers who have always done paper-based quizzes and spent countless hours grading them are discovering the joy of using online quizzes that do the grading for them. Others are raving about a whole host of new tools that they have discovered, such as FlipGrid, which is a great interactive tool for speaking and listening tasks. These new treasure troves of tools and skills are energizing some teachers. Furthermore, some teachers have mentioned that attendance rates in their classes are higher than previous years, with students turning up on time even for 9 a.m. classes. And, of course, many are pleased to be avoiding their long commute on crowded trains. Now that the initial shock has passed, the stories that include expressions of positive emotions like thankful, excited and even happy are on the rise.
And what about students? I did an informal survey before classes began so that I would understand the types of devices and internet access my students had at home. As I was also interested in their emotional state, I decided to ask about their feelings about taking the courses that I was teaching online. In one question, they were asked to look at a list of eight feelings and choose whichever ones applied. Here’s the list in the order it was asked: at ease, disappointed, excited, happy, negative, nervous, positive, scared. Care to take a guess on how that list was ordered when responses were tallied? If you guessed that the resounding “winner” in the emotional stakes was nervous, then you are right. In all six classes I surveyed, nervousness was the most commonly chosen emotion. This was followed by feeling scared, which came second in five classes and third in the sixth class. And the next one? Yes, another hard one to face – disappointed. So where are the brighter emotions? Excited and positive were chosen by less than a fifth of students in most classes, at ease by even fewer, and happy came in right at the bottom, chosen by zero students in half of the classes and by one or two students in the others. On the bright side, negative was rarely chosen, so it seemed to me that students were not outright against taking online classes. However, due to the much higher proportion of negative emotions, I sensed they may be feeling fragile; not weak, but in need of extra support and care.
On the surface, this looks bleak, but reading through the comments showed me that my students wanted to overcome the obstacles they faced. I read that they were nervous about their lack of familiarity with online learning and worried about how they would study English in this new environment but also, that they would do their best. They wrote about looking forward to meeting me and making friends with their classmates. They were nervous, scared, and disappointed but they were not giving up—their comments showed me they were going to try to face this challenge and improve their English skills with the new friends and teacher who waited for them behind their screens. As an educator, I decided to set up opportunities for them to connect with me and each other right from the outset, as I wanted to foster the social networks that would help them through their nervousness, fear, and disappointment and lead them to a space in which they felt more at ease, excited, and happy. I shared a link for my self-introduction video. I also set up activities for students through discussion forums in Moodle (the learning management system in one of my workplaces) and walls on Padlet (a tool for collaborative tasks) so students could get to know each other. Some groups were given access to them early and told they could start before lessons began if they felt like it. I was surprised how many students took that opportunity and I was really pleased to see some friendships starting to blossom online even before the first class. And now, in the second week of classes, I have already seen much evidence of a shift towards positive emotions. Students are voluntarily reaching out to each other and me in this new online world we share, and I am learning much more about them than I would normally know after so few lessons. Usually I would be struggling to remember the names of all of my new students but Zoom told me who they were on day one and reminds me every lesson! In addition, their hand-written self-introductions now have vibrant replacements, with eye-catching photographs and links to things they want to share, like their favourite songs. I feel like I have been able to connect with my students as individuals faster than ever before, and the rapport that I worried would be difficult to build online is there. I still hear students sounding nervous when they get stuck trying to navigate their way to materials I’ve asked them to open online or when they face other tech issues, but when I see their smiles and laughter on my computer screen, read their positive messages, see them turning up for Zoom classes and doing the asynchronous tasks they are assigned—I have hope for this new system.
Sharing Practical and Emotional Support within the Teaching Community
“Social distancing” is a term that is echoing around the globe but, of course, this only needs to be physical. Social connection is more important than ever, and many teachers have been quick to bridge distances by supporting each other online. For example, numerous new and pre-existing groups on Facebook (like JALTCALL and Online Teaching Japan, mentioned above, and Japan University EFL Lesson Support Group) have been flooded with posts that ask about and share information on educational tools, and many educators have generously given their time to make instructional videos and host workshops. Groups like these are not only goldmines of advice and teaching support, they also offer a space for teachers to share their emotional journeys. I have read numerous posts about the highs and lows that teachers are experiencing. There are so many stories and they all have replies from people who have shown support, for example by offering empathy and suggestions or sharing a laugh at a funny situation. There are stories from teachers who are stressed because they have to learn to operate an inordinate number of new tools that they have to use at multiple institutions. There are stories from teachers who are faced with Zoom rooms full of students with their cameras and microphones switched off and feel like they are talking into an abyss. There are stories from stressed-out parents, like one who had to save her computer from a full cup of coffee that her child knocked over during the first lesson of the day then had to tend to that child’s nose bleed during the final lesson of that day—ah, that one was mine…! The emotional support teachers can give each other when they face tough times like these is invaluable. And, of course, there are the victory stories I mentioned above, those “aha” moments when teachers have made a breakthrough, and stories from teachers who are enjoying teaching online. When these are shared, hope spreads, so they are every bit as important as the calls for help.
The Final Word
At this point in time adapting to emergency remote teaching is still posing major challenges, in different ways and for different reasons for each person, but it is our reality, so let us embrace it. ERT is clearly far from ideal, but teachers and students who have sufficient practical and emotional support are not only surviving but in some ways also thriving, so let’s reach out for help when we need it and offer it to others when we can. We are stronger together. The challenges are daunting, but even in these dire circumstances, teachers are discovering benefits to online teaching.
When systems face disruption, it can be tough at first, but we often find new and better paths. Therefore, I’ll end by suggesting that when COVID-19 is behind us, we should reflect on our hard-won new skill sets and experiences and carry the best parts forward with us.
Louise Ohashi has been using digital technology as an educational tool for many years, both to teach (English) and learn (Japanese, French, and Italian). Despite this, teaching online in the current pandemic has presented many new challenges for her, as a teacher, a mother and an individual. Twitter: @ohashilou