What the Pandemic Has Taught Me… By Rich Esteves

As we recognize the one year anniversary of the educational disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I invited readers and colleagues to share what the pandemic has taught them about teaching and learning. I’ll be sharing these posts (and my own) over the next few weeks. This week, we hear from Rich Esteves, an English as a foreign language teacher in Spain. Rich was one of my college roommates and he and I have shared some great road trips and memories over the years. Note: If you’re interested in submitting a reflection on what you’ve learned from teaching during the pandemic, email me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu.

“Dress for winter,” I advised the class, after one of the students mildly protested to the open window. With a pandemic in our lives, we have had to make numerous adjustments not only to our everyday routines, but also to our teaching environment.

I have spent the past fifteen years teaching English as a foreign language in Madrid, Spain. Most of the year I teach business English to professionals. As the bulk of these classes are one to one, moving to Zoom or Teams was a simple solution which offered more benefits than obstacles. No longer did I have to spend an hour each way commuting, and khakis and dress shoes were promptly replaced with pajama bottoms and slippers. As my students often have meetings which throw monkey wrenches into their agendas, the only obstacle with rescheduling lessons with our new format is having lunch or walking my dog a bit earlier or later.

In the summers, I have been part of a team teaching intensive five-day conversation-based courses to university students. Although their intensiveness can be exhausting for both the teachers and students, they offer a refreshing opportunity to be in contact with the younger generation. The university course had been postponed until the cold months of the end of the year when the organizers could create conditions which minimized risk without inhibiting learning. Students have always been divided into groups of fifteen, and further subdivided into three groups of five. Three teachers rotate between the subgroups throughout the day which gives the students instructors with different accents and teaching methods.

Under normal circumstances, the three groups were often combined for activities. With the pandemic restrictions in mind, students in the different groups were not even supposed to meet each other. Although they had books, which they generally dislike even opening, no other handouts or props could be distributed or handled, thereby making teachers scrap certain activities and alter others. Working with no more than a marker, whiteboard, and my imagination, laying the framework for thought-provoking debates became a staple.

Naturally, masks were a must. While they could create frustration, they were a useful tool for students to make a stronger effort to pronounce well, speak loudly and clearly, and pay closer attention when their classmates were speaking. While open windows often allowed noise from outside to make comprehension more difficult, in the real world, noise is frequent and listening skills need to be adapted to real world conditions.

One of the most popular tasks of the course has always been the group performance. The performance must last approximately ten minutes, have a script entirely in English, and could be a completely original concept, or more commonly, a parody of an existing television series, game show, reality show, or whatever tickles their fancy. Normally, each class would create and rehearse their production until performing it in front of the teachers and other two classes on Friday afternoon. As gathering eighteen people in one room was entirely taboo, they were instructed to make a video of the performance using their telephones and edit it with their laptops and online applications. To wrap up the week, each class watched their own video and those of the other two classes on television after being uploaded to a USB drive. The groups came up with their own awards to vote on, and an award presentation via Zoom call followed. This adapted activity turned out to be an enormous crowd pleaser. The students got an opportunity to practice their English and acting skills, and learned how to put together an amateur video, which on many occasions surprised the teaching staff to the high quality of editing and production.
Teachers evaluate students at the end of the week, and we are also anonymously evaluated by the students. The feedback for this series of courses was better than ever. Having to overcome challenges to reach goals ends up being fulfilling for everyone involved.

What I have learned through this experience is that changing the rules and tools to the classroom environment should be embraced as an opportunity for everyone to hone their skills in a new way. Leaving our comfort zone and having to adapt offers an opportunity to make us stronger. What is fundamental is enthusiasm on both sides, open minds, and a touch of creativity.

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