Posted in Reflection, Uncategorized

A Reflective Review of 2020

I don’t think many of us at the start of 2020 imagined how impactful this year would be and how it was going to flip our world upside down. For people around the world, life in 2020 was like a Hollywood movie with a few ups and many downs. That simple analogy was certainly true for me. Every generation goes through a traumatic, era-defining global event, as the picture above shows where you have children trying to learn during the Polio outbreak, and the COVID-19 pandemic was the one that I had to navigate through.

The year started brightly. One of my resolutions for the year was to be more sociable (bit of a jinx, no?). I went to a few events my friends had organised and really enjoyed this time after completing the Delta exam the previous month. I cherished these moments with friends and new ones, too. I’m normally quite shy around new folk, but as soon as we get to know each other I show a bit more of myself. It’s weird because I have no problem working with new students! I had no idea that those few weeks of socialising, relaxing a little, feeling great about getting more comfortable meeting new people would turn out to be the only real interactions I would have with people in large group settings for the remainder of the year. Mad thinking about that now.

My first encounter with the term COVID-19 was in mid-January hearing that something wasn’t quite right in China. My initial thoughts were that this was just another virus that’ll dominate the news for a while and we’ll no longer hear anything about it after that (insert facepalm here). I was a little concerned about a friend of mine and fellow teacher who was preparing to leave our school for South Korea. I always thought, albeit in the back of my mind, that this virus could easily reach Europe, but I was praying that this would not be the case. Naivety turned to paranoia when the virus hit Italy. Things turned so quickly after that and people were glued to the news 24/7 (myself included).

I was in Budapest doing my Delta Module 2 orientation course when the first case of COVID was confirmed in Ireland. It is so strange to think that when I flew to Hungary I was saying farewell to a COVID-free Ireland then returning to a completely new place. While I was in Hungary, I could see that people were very concerned. A student at the school I was working at was upset that there was no hot water to wash his hands. I think a lot of people would have approached COVID differently if they could see that this thing actually was affecting people worldwide and it wasn’t just in their country, city or town. 

My orientation course was a pleasure to be a part of. My tutor, Neil Anderson, who later went on to be my tutor and marker for my Listening assignment of Module 2 and my Module 3 Extended Assignment, was really great. His approach to input sessions was to get us to demo an activity, allow us to discuss it, then delve into the principles a little bit. I still use some of the activities and methods he used with us e.g. using Cuisenaire rods for decoding messages in connected speech. Thanks to him I was able to fine-tune some parts of my teaching for the better, for instance, giving instructions. He also praised my board work and my approach to giving learners a lot of independence. My Delta colleagues were also great to work with. They helped me to see different sides to the equations we were studying e.g. approaches to reading, working on fluency tasks. All in all, I felt I was fully prepared to take on Module 2. Obviously with COVID at the back of my mind that impacted me a little bit. I was in constant communication with my manager back home with what the current situation was there and what they were planning to do.

When I did return, I was hoping the school would take the initiative and not wait for the advice of the government and close. From there we could devise a plan to try and get lessons online. The school did close. But then things got quiet – exceptionally quiet. I bided my time and prepared for what I thought would be the next natural step which was teaching online. 

Then, the unthinkable happened. We were told that the school was to close permanently. It was incredibly tough to take. I had so much faith in the school that we were going to pull through this, but we fell at the first hurdle. I blame the owners for taking their ball and going home, not the management. They tried their level best to keep things afloat. A lot of the teachers were upset, as you can imagine, but for me, it was gut-wrenching and a huge confidence blow in my faith in language schools. The precarious nature of the industry really raised its head and left a sour taste in my mouth. As teachers said goodbye to each other online, that was one of the most difficult parts to manage in that we could not really say goodbye in person. The same was true with my students who I left before my trip to Budapest.

The only salutary lesson I could draw from this crisis was that, even though I didn’t have a job, I had my skills and experience. A job does not define you. The work that I do and the people that I help are what matters in my life.

The other problem I had was that the school closure threw my Delta plans into disarray. In order to complete Module 2, you need to complete four observations physically in a school. At that time, Cambridge were not facilitating online observations for Delta candidates, which was weird as they were for CELTA, which made the situations even more stressful. My course tutors at International House in London were incredibly supportive. We were told to work on the paperwork until a solution could be made.

So with that, that’s exactly what I did. I completed my first assignment and started working on my portfolio. During this downtime of not doing a lot of teaching, I decided to take on Module 3. It was around this time where I was doing my second assignment for Listening, which was a very technical part of the course I have to say, and required a lot of reading. Although I was feeling fine about everything and was eager to tackle this assignment alongside Module 3, my body felt otherwise. I started getting familiar pains which turned out to be kidney stones on both sides. If you know, you know, and if you don’t, the pain is equivalent to that of giving birth. This sharp stabbing pain plagued me for the rest of the summer. 

Thankfully, somehow I got through it and managed to submit all the paperwork in time. I also started working at a new school, DCI, which is a nice little school that overlooks O’Connell Bridge. Though my faith in schools was at its lowest, the owner there restored a little bit of that faith in me that I had lost by keeping us updated on what was going on behind the scenes. This transparency was welcomed at a time of uncertainty for teachers.

Like everyone around, work migrated to the online space. I had dabbled a little bit with online teaching before, but I was about to get an enormous education and experience for the remainder of the year. I think that was one of the positives that came out of the pandemic, that people were willing, or had no choice, to learn so much so quickly. It was true for me. However, I didn’t become comfortable with online teaching until about a year later. 

It was great to be reunited with students who had now been redistributed to other schools. One of my main goals was to close the gap as much as possible and try to get that atmosphere we had in the physical classroom back online. I achieved this by trying to minimise chat about COVID, allowing students plenty of opportunities to socialise with each other in break-out rooms, and showing them Yuki, my dog, as much as possible to raise their spirits. Inclusion was really important now more than ever before. Without that, the possibility that learning could take place would be at risk. Of course, with this new form of environment to navigate and manage, classroom management needed to be optimal at all times. I was consistently checking in on those whose mics and/or videos were off, trying to get students who were at their jobs to participate, and making sure students were ever-present when they went into break-out rooms. Planning speaking tasks were pretty difficult if students ran into technical difficulty, so when they did go off without a hitch, it was a relief. 

While I do like working online, it can be incredibly draining as you are trying to read people a little more intently, looking for signs that they are okay with the tasks, the input, and/or instructions. By the end of the day, I just wanted to switch off all forms of technology.

Returning to the classroom was on the horizon and I was curious to see my new school, fellow teachers, and students in the flesh. Also, I was curious to see how management would oversee physical distancing and hygiene procedures in the school. Having a temperature device (gun?) pointed at you, wearing a face shield, using ample amounts of sanitizer, and asking students to readjust their masks became the norm real quick. Working in the classroom wasn’t the same as before as you had to restrict your movements, use less paperwork (which is a good thing anyway), group work became difficult, and so on. It really was a strange time to be in. 

The return to the classroom meant I was able to start my Delta observations. I had three: one for grammar, one for listening, and one for writing. They all went quite well. My friend, Mara, my Delta tutor, observed my lessons and gave me some decent feedback on each lesson. She really helped me to think about including everyone as much as possible and to work on clarification of language. Luckily, I passed each lesson which gave me a lot of reassurance that I was doing okay as a teacher. 

Sadly after the third lesson, and after trying so hard to protect myself, family, and friends from COVID, I contracted the virus. I had a tickly cough which I thought nothing of. However, my throat started to tighten and that’s when I knew something wasn’t right. When I received confirmation of a positive test from my GP, I naturally started to panic for those who I had been in contact with (my girlfriend, school management, and students). Thankfully, none of them were affected. I think I got the virus while commuting on the bus. You know how the story goes: there is always one or two individuals who need the windows to be closed. But during a pandemic? Come on now. My symptoms as I said were a cough and a tightening of my throat but I also had some short episodes where breathing became quite difficult. It felt like being underwater trying to come up for air but someone was holding you down. I tried to concentrate on my breathing when these episodes presented themselves. It was very scary but I got through it. Isolating from my girlfriend and Yuki was quite difficult but I was happy that they were okay.

Sadly, schools were asked to close for a second time which put my Delta on hold again. Being so close to the end really hurt. With all of this going on I decided to postpone my final Delta assignment until next summer as it was taking a toll on my health. It was great to not think about studying and just get back to teaching and prepare for the Christmas break. Then, like a Christmas miracle, Cambridge relented and allowed Delta candidates to do their observations online. I don’t know why they finally changed their minds (maybe they had a bit of a backlog of students to get through?). This made me get back on the horse and prep for my final assignment. It was a great way to end the year after so much drama and chaos.

While 2020 was a horrible year for everyone, it truly was, I will remember it for the rest of my life as a defining year for me personally and professionally. It may have had a defining influence on my teaching and beliefs on language acquisition. On the flip side, there were a lot of hurdles to overcome and I don’t know how I did it. My friends and family played an enormous part in it and I will be forever thankful to them.

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