Many language teachers have been struggling to transfer communicative and interactive language classes to rigid online realities, with varying degrees of success, myself included. Teaching to 30 black squares on Zoom with the occasional thumbs-up emoji or a few students who do have cameras on does not really seem like the ideal environment for learning a language, let alone anything else. Back in March, I wrote a post about why in-person learning is so important, and while I have come to see that teaching online certainly has some benefits for both students and teachers, I am still staunchly “for” a return to in-person learning as soon as it is safe to do so. Now more than ever, I understand the importance of the classroom as a social space where students and teachers connect and create a sense of belonging. I teach college level students on a semester basis, so the relationships I build with my students are of a short duration, but they are important to me nonetheless – and, I believe, to my students. These days, as I peer curiously into the little black Zoom squares, I have a growing concern about the emotional and mental states of the kids behind the cameras.
A few students have taken the time to meet with me online and share a bit about how they are handling the extra stressors related to learning online and living with covid. Mid-way through the semester, I sent a survey to students to get feedback on course content and many thanked me for taking the time to check in with them. It seems many of my students are struggling with motivation to do their studies and mental health, and they are not alone. According to recent surveys on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, almost half of Montrealers between the age of 18 and 24 years old are experiencing major declines in their mental health. These high numbers can be associated with pandemic-induced job loss and isolation. Younger children are also experiencing increased mental health challenges according to B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, Jennifer Charlesworth and SFU Professor Charlotte Waddell. Charlesworth and Waddell note that “[l]ongstanding social and economic inequities in society were found to exacerbate the effects of the virus, impacting children’s mental health disproportionately by affecting family relationships and dynamics at home and the level of help they can access” . They also say that school is an essential hub for students to access resources and connect with others.
Further, Charlesworth and Waddell argue that children need to stay in school as much as possible during the pandemic. However, this is not possible for many students, and older students (highschool, cégep, university) seem to be expected to have the self-management skills to handle covid-safe online learning. So, what can those of us teaching in an online environment do to help our students maintain their mental health? On one hand, we must advocate for resources and funding for both teachers and students as they grapple with the challenge of learning online, and the extra mental health stressors imposed by isolation and confinement. This can be done by writing to our union reps and administrations. I find touching base with my colleagues during department meetings also helps. The flip side of big-picture actions are small steps that we can do with our students each day. Here are my five top tips, followed by links to a variety of other helpful resources.
1. Keep lessons short & simple: I find that my students are overwhelmed by having to manage learning at-home. Many simply do not have “a room of their own”. I have recognized that we can only do online a fraction of what we can do in-person, and thus I try not to give my students much more work than can be completed during class time.
2. Embrace routine: In line with keeping things simple, consider a straightforward routine for your class. I have found that keeping a predictable class schedule is helpful for students. I try to structure lessons as 1 hour of synchronous learning, followed by a break (next term, I may do a stretching activity before the break with students just to get some movement in…good for me and for them!), then an explanation of “lab” activities, and let them go to work independently for the rest of the class. I am not always able to follow this routine, but I try my best to respect the Zoom fatigue that my students must be facing. Additionally, knowing that just being there for your students is helpful for them.
3. Give students a chance to talk to each other: Students are starved for socialization. If possible, work extended small-group icebreakers and activities into each class. This can be anything from having students share and compare their answers to homework questions to working through speaking activities in your textbook to working on grammar or pronunciation activities. I feel my students perk up when they get to talk to one another in the Zoom breakout rooms.
4. Check in: The mid-semester survey that I sent to my students seemed to be really appreciated by them. It gave them a chance to share their feelings about the course and the term in general, which in turn allowed me to adjust my teaching to meet their needs (a shift from projects to quizzes, see the next tip!). Next term, I am considering a journaling activity (probably through Microsoft Teams Class Notebook) in which students and I can engage in some back-and-forth letter writing throughout the term.
5. Take care of yourself: Online teaching is demanding. Give yourself a break by giving students a quiz that will automatically correct itself (Microsoft Forms or Kahoot are good for this) or simply use the activities laid out in the textbook (if you have one) or ask a colleague to share some lesson plans. While automatically graded quizzes and textbook activities may seem rote to some and may not match up with your usual teaching philosophy, the simplicity of these activities can be more manageable during these complex times, for both you and your students. Taking care of ourselves by creating manageable workloads will mean we have more time to meet with students who are struggling, and more time to take care of our own mental health, too.
Those are my top tips – for now! I hope some of my thoughts have been helpful…I am just doing my best with what we have available right now, and with an understanding that soon enough, we will be back to in-person learning. Below, I share some additional resources for teaching online and mental health during the pandemic. Please share your top online-teaching tips or favourite resources in the comments below!
Links for online teaching tips:
Links for mental health:
You feel like shit – A self-care game (could be great to share with your 18+ students)