Life Hacks for Online Teachers
The digitalisation of education was already in motion even before the events of this year, which has seen more and more classes taught online or in blended scenarios. The transition brings with it great opportunities for innovation, but it’s certainly not without its challenges, too! We’re sometimes spoilt for choice with a plethora of digital tools and platforms and apps with ‘bells and whistles’ so there’s a lot to be said for taking a step back and focusing on what’s important. In this blog post I’d like to share some of the ‘life hacks’ I’ve learned as an online teacher which I hope will help simplify and make more efficient your digital teaching lives…
*Should you wish to delve deeper into this topic, check out the webinar I delivered – you can access the recording and slides at the Pearson teacher training hub
About 1.5 years ago, I moved from Budapest to Barcelona. I’d had a couple of online students before but it was only when I moved to Barcelona that I started to teach fully online. Little did I know that soon the whole teaching profession would undergo a similar transition as a result of worldwide lockdowns.
At first, it seemed that teaching online only had advantages. Here are some of them:
Then the days, and weeks, and the months went by, and I realised that these things that I have just listed for you are not all advantages, and that many of them carry some disadvantages in them. And that’s when the dark clouds came… So let me share with you some of the life hacks I picked up along the way:
Problem no.1: Increased workload
Lesson planning time slots
I have started using time slots for lesson planning and professional development. I have started to put my lesson planning time slots into my calendar, so that I would make sure that I don’t plan anything else in that time slot. This way, I had a more realistic picture of how much I work and how well I manage my time. I’m sure many of you have heard about the Pomodoro technique, which involves using a timer set to 25 minutes, which you spend fully focusing on your task. Then, you have about 5 minutes to relax, when you are not allowed to do any work at all. This has worked well for me for creative and labour-intensive tasks, such as lesson planning.
5 minutes post-lesson
Another thing that has caused me quite a lot of headache was keeping track of all my classes. You know, when you are planning your Monday lesson on a Sunday evening, trying to remember what you did in the lesson. Therefore, I started to spend five minutes after each lesson just quickly jotting down some information to help me later in lesson planning. Here are the questions that I asked myself after every lesson:
In my experience, these 5 minutes really go a long way because the next time I opened up my notes to prepare for a lesson, I never had to start from scratch; I already had some ideas as to what we could/should be doing.
Organize your stuff
Another reason for my increased workload was that although I didn’t have to carry things around and tidy my paper-based teaching materials, my computer quickly became quite cluttered. That’s when I found out about a method that is used for keeping your house clean: the FlyLady method, which involves setting a timer every day for about 15 minutes to do some cleaning. If you do this every day, you can avoid having to do 2-3 hour cleaning sessions at weekends and you can concentrate on what weekends really are there for: relaxing. So I started to do the same thing on my computer (15 minutes per week), and it has really made a difference to the efficiency of my work.
The biggest game changer for me however, was certainly OneNote. It’s one of the programmes of the Microsoft Office package, but it’s extraordinary because it’s free, it works on all my devices (my tablet and my phone, too) and it synchronizes between them. Let me show you a short screencast as to how I use it before, after and during my lessons:
Problem no.2: Too many apps, websites, tech tools
In general: ‘less is more’.
One of my favourite tech tools that I recently started to use is Google Jamboard. It’s a very simple online whiteboard with lots of functions. It’s fantastic because it’s a simple canvas that you can add pictures, gifs and sticky notes to, and it’s also a collaborative one that students can use together on their devices. So let me show you a couple of examples for its use:
So as I said before, I don’t think it’s the number of tools that we are using that will make a difference to our lessons, but to what extent we exploit them.
If you still want to try new tools, here’s a tip; try one tool every month. Try it with multiple students, groups, levels and reflect on how it worked. One tool every month will mean 12 tools in a year, which is a lot! If you don’t know what to try, I suggest talking to colleagues and looking for tried and tested ones.
This by the way, leads us to our next problem: online teaching can get quite lonely!
Problem no.3: Online teaching can be lonely
It probably sounds obvious, but join a teacher association! Search on Facebook, get in touch with your local IATEFL branch or other teacher association. I for one am a member of a teacher cooperative here in Barcelona (SLB Coop) and joining this coop was one of the best decisions I have made from a professional and personal aspect, too.
Another really cool thing that I have recently been involved in, is a so-called Lesson Jam. This is a professional development program set up by FREEED, which is an online community of English language teachers. Every second week they have a Lesson Jam, which means that a couple of teachers get together for a Zoom meeting. Each teacher brings a simple teaching idea (a lesson idea, a game or a technique) and they have to share it with the others in 5 minutes. Then the others have about 10 minutes to ask about the idea and add suggestions as to how it could be improved or tweaked. I love it because I only have to prepare for 5 minutes, but I leave the session with ideas for several lessons.
So why not start something like this with your own professional learning network?
Problem no. 4: Online conferences are just not the same!
I attended a lot of conferences and webinars during the first lockdown, but I felt that these talks were not as engaging and memorable as face-to-face ones. Then I started to think about what the reason for this might be and I realised that it’s THE COFFEE BREAK. The time when I meet like-minded teachers and talk about the talks and workshops we have attended.
So what I did is that I looked for a conference buddy! My conference buddy is a teacher who has similar experience and enthusiasm for professional development as I do. We attend one conference or talk every month, then we sit down (usually with a glass of wine, to be honest) and share what we have learnt. This is a great way to stay connected to other professionals, to learn new things but also to save time because you can hear about two webinars having attended only one of them!
Now close your eyes and think about a person that you could ask to be your conference buddy. Then when you have read this post, send them a message and set up a call! If you really cannot think of anyone, I’ve already made the first step for you. I have created a JamBoard where you can find a “professional development buddy”. Just use this link to open the JamBoard and if you are looking for a professional development partner, leave your name and email address there so that people can get in touch with you!
I hope these small life hacks will help you stay sane and balance work and life. Just remember, at the end of the day good teaching is good teaching and it’s not our tech skills or the range of tools that we use that make a lesson useful and enjoyable.
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