• Metin Esen

Well-being over Activity; Sanity over Productivity

Since the day I started to become actively involved in teacher education and in-service training, I have always wanted to write a blog and share my knowledge, opinions, feelings, teaching and training material, news, events experiences, and several other field-related posts there. The thing I never wanted and could never foresee was the fact that I would start writing this blog during such "unprecedented times"; another lovely yet startling collocation the isolation period has added to our daily vocabulary inventory. Well, foreseen or not; here I am, and I can gladly say that I have always been one of those people who try to see, now and then, the silver lining in every cloud.

“Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create.”

― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely caught our world off guard, and when I check the statistics right now, it is shocking that the number of active cases is already over 2,800,000 with nearly 200,000 patients having been unable to regain their health. When you are reading this post for the first time, the figures might have gone even higher. All we can individually do is to trust science while patiently waiting and ease the jobs of medical workers by strictly following disinfection precautions and local lock-down regulations. I am sure that many people, just like myself, are tempted by the desires of going out to the parks in this warm spring weather, riding a bike or skateboarding, or having a drink with friends; but remember, your well-being is much more precious than any activity you can possibly do, and the latter is just nothing without you having the former.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, the daily life in many countries around the world has been adversely affected, and the education sector has also come to a halt on the grounds of the precautions taken to prevent contagion. Schools in over 165 countries have closed down nationwide, in both K-12 and higher education levels. Some of these countries and institutions were quick and successful in adapting their curricula and instruction into a whole new distance education system while others are still on the process of setting up a sustainable online environment for their students, who are actually the mass most affected from the situation.

There is only one certain fact when the case is considered: all educators are working day and night to successfully adapt into the condition with the resources at hand, and the abruptness of the matter does not allow for a detailed data collection and needs analysis process. The situation poses an even greater difficulty for EFL teachers as teaching a language in the classroom was already challenging enough, and now online instruction brings along many difficulties in communication, feedback, task assignment, and performance assessment. As an English teacher, I deem myself one of the few lucky people as our adaptation into online instruction as an institution was relatively short, though painful, and with reasonably less tech-related issues. It has been five weeks since we started the online classes on March 23rd, and all I can say for now is so far so good! In the meantime, I have kept observant as much as possible, and I can share these 5 humble suggestions coined in the light of the lessons drawn from the whole process of adaptation and establishment.

If you aim for perfection, you will cause another pandemic: anxiety!

From among the steps of the usual curriculum development process, how many could any institution implement in the course of the time from the closing of the schools to the beginning of the online instruction? Needs analysis? Setting desired outcomes? Materials design? Pilot testing? Evaluation and redesign? The answer is of course none of them as these factors are not dependent on short-time decision-making mechanisms. Especially a time gap of two or three weeks is never enough for even a proper syllabus design, ideally. Therefore, it is no use to struggle to adapt the existing curricula in the most flawless way possible, or to recreate a designer curriculum from the scratch! Supposing that it was made possible; this time, other factors would find it hard to keep up with this dream online curriculum, and these factors include the abilities, capacities, and the facilities of the teachers; the dissemination of teaching sources and material; accessibility by students who are in total physical isolation; and a flawless assessment which would naturally be expected from such a flawless curriculum. Therefore, I personally believe that the real aim of schools and the education system today is to assure students and parents that the quarantine does not mean the end of all life including education. As quoted by Mahmut Hoca, the wise history teacher from the unforgettable movie "Hababam Sınıfı", school is not merely a place made up of four walls standing under a roof. Where there is life, learning is inevitable regardless of space and time. In this regard, the primary responsibility bestowed upon teachers must be to instill the idea that schools care about education and learning, and all we can do together is to ensure a smooth transition from what we have done so far to the aftermath of this temporary halt. Only then will students, from primary school to college, parents, and teachers be able to avoid stress and anxiety, which could be as dangerous and contagious as a virus.

Instead of making a decision on behalf of, make a decision together!

When we were physically working at our institutions, which we will hopefully be able to return to soon, it was quite challenging to organize meetings all the time, get different administrative and academic people together, and include everyone in every single decision making process all the time. However, this quarantine process has shown us all that much of the physical tasks can also be completed virtually online, and the weekly/monthly meetings can be no exceptions. All those online platforms used for online synchronous instruction can also be used for all types of online meetings, and this makes it easier to include teachers into the process. I do not believe such identities as "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" exist; it all depends on the aptitude and the enthusiasm of the individual. All teachers can contribute with something whether it be the knowledge of an online teaching software, a learning material, an idea/suggestion from past experiences, or a warning from the literature. Asking teachers about all these different contributions will only make teachers feel important and strengthen the bonds between the administration and teachers. Of course, it is impossible for the management to comply with every single suggestion or demand; but this is not the ultimate goal. The real purpose is to show that the administration is not making a decision on behalf of a huge team; on the contrary, they would like to do it together online.

Be simplistic and consistent in terms of online tools; less is definitely more this time!

As the technology advances, our classrooms meet new technological ways to teach English, and various uses of these tools enable teachers to address both multiple-intelligence and individual needs. The higher the number of tools a teacher uses, the easier instruction gets and the more engagement is ensured in the classroom. This was maybe true just before the pandemic, but now a teacher cannot turn their head from one side to another without being introduced to an online tool which is highly useful for whatever purposes only God knows! Trying to benefit from too many of these tools and software at once might yield the opposite outcome, and the teachers could lose their motivation to teach because of trying to master and maintain too many resorts for just one simple course.

Similarly, students may demonstrate less engagement due to the stress of being unable to follow too many tasks on too many addresses. It is best to stick with one ultimate tool/software that enables asynchronous material and assignment sharing, such as Moodle or Google Classroom, and a tool/software to make it possible for synchronous online gatherings, such as Zoom or Cisco Webex. It is surely a good idea to introduce additional tools for different purposes like teaching vocabulary, sharing voice recordings, and collating digital projects, but it is wise to leave the use of these devices to the will of the teacher rather than imposing. As a teacher who is always enthusiastic to learn about new tools and technological developments, I feel quite overwhelmed by the number of advertisements, blog posts, training videos, and promotions about online teaching tools, with no interest in trying and wielding them. Although the motto in terms of incorporating technology into teaching was "the more the merrier" before, it is certainly "less is more" at present!

Morale is as important as motivation, so make sure to include extracurricular plans!

There is one more aspect to our lives that is much more important than our societal roles and responsibilities, and that aspect is our sanity or our mental well-being. Suddenly, the regular life stops and a majority of people are locked inside their houses for indefinitely. This situation has surely had adverse impacts on our psychology, and the social media makes it apparent that people refer to different mechanisms to cope with the distress. Some try to cook recipes they never had the opportunity before, whilst some others spend huge amounts of time in front of the TV or their PCs, binge-watching their favorite series piled up due to the workload of the daily life. There are people who spend some quality time with fitness, Pilates, yoga, or meditation. However, the essence of the matter is that we need to find new alternatives for the lack of social side of our lives, and merely sticking to teaching and learning cannot compensate for this huge gap, which is the case for both teachers and students. Therefore, I would suggest sparing some space in the curriculum or weekly program for some extracurricular activities that teachers can do with their fellow teachers or with their students. During certain online classes, I feel the urge to stop the lesson and chat with the students about their daily lives, the effects of COVID-19 in Turkey and all around the world, their plans for the aftermath of the lock-down, the most recent movie or series they have watched, and many other things. However, I am supposed to teach a very busy syllabus, and I cannot just discard objectives and procedures at my will. I believe that all teachers and students are in need of such a humane incentive, so the people in charge of the decision-making process should definitely take this fact into consideration and address the social needs of their teachers and students.

Online teaching does not have to be the new normal!

Finally, one of the biggest challenges educators face at present is the dilemma of whether to normalize and routinize all the practices arising from the online teaching process. At this point, I believe we should clarify the distinction that online/distance education is not totally the same concept as online teaching due to the reason I have emphasized in my first suggestion. What we are trying to do right now is just cover up for the instruction we are unable to carry out in the actual classroom environment. Just as the pandemic going on all around the world and the physical isolation process are not normal, so the online teaching business is not. We cannot simply pretend all is perfect, and online teaching is the new normal. If we do so, we will just collectively give in to a kind of willful blindness, which is described by Margaret Heffernan as "the intricate, pervasive cognitive and emotional mechanisms by which we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know." She further explains:

"Whether individual or collective, willful blindness doesn’t have a single driver, but many. It is a human phenomenon to which we all succumb in matters little and large. We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial. We mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs."

In this respect, choosing to see an image where education has not stopped; teachers have been able to adapt into the online system perfectly; all students have the facilities to keep up with the online classes; and everything will be all right after we return to the school is just a delusion, and it drags us into a willful blindness in the societal level.

“Self-care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

― Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

In short, all the suggestions above lead to one non-negligible fact, and that is the well-being of the individual for the well-being of the society. Simply think about the metaphor of the oxygen mask dropping automatically in the case of an imbalanced cabin pressure on an airplane. A parent needs to wear their own mask before doing so for their babies or children; the idea behind is that they might not save others' lives if something happens to them in the meantime. This is also true for teachers; a teacher who is unsure about their well-being cannot help their students in the proper way.

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