After the devastation that 2020 wrought on our industry, I started 2021 feeling wary, weary, and worn out. Nevertheless, as we cautiously resumed teaching in-person, physically distanced and masked, I began to feel some glimmers of hope. Teaching in-person was a breath of fresh air, despite the limitations of being masked-up and unable to circulate the room, despite my persistent thoughts about the safety of the teachers and students, and despite the fact that I never had clear information about how many more students would be joining my class later in the year.
Before I continue, let me provide some background information. I have been the academic director of an ESL school in Los Angeles since January 2020 and it has been a whirlwind of an experience, to say the least. My intention of writing this article is not to enumerate all of the setbacks and disappointments that followed March 2020, but rather to reflect on what I wish I had considered as both a director and a teacher (I have been doing both) since we resumed in-person lessons in the year 2021. I hope that in reading this, current and future educators in the TESL community are able to get something from my musings.
I wish I had been more comfortable with how uncertain things have been this year. Planning ahead is something that is crucial in my role. Before this pandemic came upon us, knowing how many students enroll each week would help me determine how many classes I would open, which teachers would be assigned to them , and how much that would impact the school financially among many other factors. There would always be a slight degree of uncertainty in this realm, but we could still look ahead for weeks and months and be able to plan our academic year. This is not the case in 2021. Whether and when any students join the lessons is only accurate for a couple of weeks. Otherwise, there is a complex and ever-changing set of circumstances in both our students’ countries and the immigration and COVID policies here in the states, both locally and nationally, that hinder the enrollment process.
There is also the issue of the uncertainty in the classroom. Of course, there is always classroom uncertainty: are your students going to respond well to your lesson? Did you prepare enough material? Will that one student who drives you crazy act out today? And so on. Compound all of those usual factors with masked students and peers who have not really spent much of the past year socializing, who may all have different perspectives and perceptions of what is deemed safe nowadays, or who are also often yearning for the chance to interact with another human being. I know I was in that last camp. So much of what we all have trained for as language teachers gets thrown out of the window when some of the hallmarks of communication: facial expressions and close contact, are limited.
So, my daily life as a teacher, as a director, as the person who checks everyone’s temperature in the morning and tries to make sure everyone has taken a health survey, as the person who makes sure the teachers are okay, as the person who makes sure the students are progressing in their classes, the uncertainty was present for me every single day. And in the beginning of this re-opening and growth of our school, I was driving myself crazy trying to plan the perfect class, making sure every single one of our 30 or so students had that mask over their face, and so many other little details I needed to think about each day. But, at some point, I realized that the best I can do, the best we educators can do at this current surreal moment in our industry, is just deliver the best lessons we can, which often has meant embracing and making light of those limitations or just finding a way to work around them.
In my formal training of becoming an ESL teacher, there was often reference to those ‘magic moments’ that happen in the classroom and how we should embrace them. However, the bulk of our training was (and should be) about preparation. I have prepared a lot of lessons this year that simply did not turn out the way I had hoped they would, which was something that I had not experienced in a long time. But, when reflecting on some of the best experiences in the classroom this past year, I think of when I put my guard down as the authority figure and just let the class drift into some new unknown direction, simply delivering the content needed for future lessons. These ‘human’ moments allow us to connect with our students in a period of time when both the students and the educator absolutely need it most.