Many teachers across the world are facing a drastic change as schools close and learning shifts online due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Here, David Dodgson shares 7 tips on managing your online workload and taking care of yourself while doing so.
What a difference a month makes – my March post on the value of notebooks already seemed out of place when it was published as teachers the world over were either preparing for or already started on remote teaching. Suddenly, digital learning platforms, collaborative web tools, and audio/visual hardware are more important than ever.
After 2 weeks of online lessons, I now have the benefit of the Easter break and time to reflect on the sudden shift brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and plan ahead for an extended period of working from home.
In this post, I will not focus on the web resources available or tools and tips for the technical side of online teaching – there are many such posts out there already and you may, like me, already have access to a specific digital learning platform through your employer. Instead, I will focus on the challenges of working from home and share some tips for making the days online more manageable.
1. Establish a workday routine
Between the chores to be done, the need to look after others, and the temptations of just one more cup of coffee, it is all too easy when working from home to decide to leave tasks until later. Do this too much and you’ll soon find yourself scrambling to get things finished and/or working until all sorts of undesirable hours. That is why it is important to set aside specific hours when you are working. I personally have been getting started one hour before my first lesson (helped by the fact we are still kicking the day off with tutor periods, albeit online ones) to check all the resources I need are ready, respond to emails, and generally do the things I would do on a normal day at work.
Dress is also important. While I do not wear the full suit and tie combo, I will still dress for work as it helps both me and my students focus on our lessons (while also creating a good impression for any curious parents dropping in while I’m on screen!)
2. Create a workspace
It is also important to, if possible, have a dedicated space for working. You may be lucky enough to already have a home office set up, or a study desk within a room. If not, you should identify a space that can be used for work on a daily basis. This will help you be more organised than constantly hopping from room to room depending on which space is free.
It is also a good idea from a practical standpoint to have your laptop and any other equipment needed in one place with any books or other resources stored in the same area.
3. Make sure your household know about the above!
It may of course not be possible to work a full ‘normal day’ especially in a family situation with a partner also working from home and children to home-school. In such circumstances, establishing a clear routine for everyone is vital. In my situation, I took advantage of the extended lunch break that carried over from my regular lessons to online ones to get my kids started on some of their tasks. It soon became clear that this was time available to them but the hours of 8am-12 noon and 2pm to 4pm were for my work with an extra couple of hours later in the evening for marking and planning.
With my work hours and space established, we have been able to manage my wife’s work hours and the kids’ learning time as well as fit in some time to relax. It hasn’t been easy but it has been possible thanks to clear communication.
4. Set ‘office hours’ for students (and parents!)
As already mentioned, I have established a routine of logging on an hour before lessons and using some time in the evenings to get my admin work done. Part of this is making myself available to students and parents, who have as many concerns and questions about the current remote learning situation as my colleagues do. When schools were closed and our online sessions began, I emailed all my classes to specify times when I would respond to emails and be available via Microsoft Teams (my school’s platform of choice). This helped prevent emails and message requests coming in at all hours – or at least it eliminated the expectation that they would be answered immediately!
5. Stay in touch with colleagues
One of the virtual spaces created on our Teams platform that has proved to be highly popular is the ‘Virtual Staff Room’. Teachers have used this as a space to share reflections, ask questions, and offer advice throughout the three weeks of online classes so far. It has also been used as a live hangout space during breaks and lunchtime. From a social point of view and for peer support, this has been invaluable, especially during these days of distancing and isolation. Using the virtual space to stay in touch and not always talk about work has provided a change of pace in the day, and I will be encouraging my students to do something similar next term.
6. Schedule time away from the PC
However, we must still be mindful of how much time we end up spending at the computer each day. Between planning and delivering lessons, setting and marking tasks, emails, virtual meetings, and virtual staffroom conversations, several hours a day pass at the PC. Time is needed to stretch your legs, give your eyes a rest, and get some fresh air. We have scheduled a ten minutes transition between each live lesson slot, which is a great chance to get up from the desk, make a cup of tea, and tune out for a moment.
In the evening, I am also mindful of spending less time on my laptop – a challenge for me as I usually spend some of that time engaged in digital activities not related to work such as writing these blog posts or making videos for my (non-ELT related) YouTube channel. Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances and if eight hours a day must be spent online for work, less time is devoted to digital hobbies and recreation.
7. Make time for your ‘self’
Finally, it is vital to make some time for ‘self’ – self-reflection to consolidate on the days’ work and think ahead to doing better tomorrow; self-care by taking those physical and mental breaks when you need them; and just being by yourself. I have found virtual teaching to be a whirlwind of activity with more detailed planning, feedback, and attention to individual students required than a face-to-face setting. Getting away from the ‘noise’ and spending some time reading a book in the garden or enjoying some other solitary non-digital activity helps me refresh for the challenges of the next day.