The heart and fatigue of online teaching

Teachers are not only exhausted but missing the powerful connections of having children in a room together

The heart and fatigue of online teaching

Last year when the coronavirus gained a forceful entry into our world, we adapted and swiftly moved to virtual schooling, learning to take classes on Zoom, Teams or Google. We did not complain or crib; in fact, everyone was busy discovering the newer possibilities of the various apps and platforms and how they could bring some excitement and life back into our classrooms.  

Children took to it quite sportingly. They rather enjoyed this new order and seemed amused at having the school shrink into a tiny screen in one corner of their house. Adding to the thrill was the newfound opportunity to fiddle with gadgets.  

The parents had their share of fun, too, as they enjoyed watching teachers in action from the comfort of their homes. This happiness was balanced or rather overshot in no time by the additional pressure of this online education and teachers soon found themselves pulled in all directions.  

However, the second wave hitting harder than the first has not just thrown us off guard once more but added to our helplessness and frustration. Schools are once again constricted onto screens, and the frustrations of online schooling are beginning to cause an acute heartache among students and teachers as well as parents. 

The fatigue factor  

What we can achieve when together is abundant in comparison to the on-screen strain of a few hours of teaching and meetings. It’s about trying to keep an eye on several little windows where children are sitting, slouching or sleeping, with some in total darkness. Some zoom into the camera to lend their facial features for anatomical study while others barely keep the top of their heads on display.  

Constantly trying to figure out who is speaking or who is trying to speak but is on mute calls for a superhuman level of alertness over 40 minutes of a class, leaving teachers exhausted. All senses are working at a heightened capacity, with ears perked up to hear what's being said through poor network connections, fingers performing multiple feats to ensure the smooth flow of the class, and eyes trying to grasp the macrocosm within the microcosm of windows.  

Twenty to 30 per cent of the class time involves frustrating commands such as "Adjust your camera," “Mute yourself" or "Unmute yourself” and "Do not jump on your chair.”  

Even the children are suffering from parallel conversations and coaching as teachers screech on one side of the screen and parents offer advisories on the other. 

The heart fatigue   

The heartwarming aspects of schooling have disappeared. There is no more giving eye contact to children to transmit your love and concern, or to convey boundaries. They seem to be looking elsewhere even when they are looking at you onscreen.  

There are no more pats on their back to gently wake them up from a mental slumber. To gain a sleepyhead's attention, the teacher has to disrupt the whole class's rhythm and flow online.  

There is no more impromptu passing of a personal word of encouragement to a disengaged little one in class, no more "Let's go out for a class in the garden today." There’s no more singing together because of the lags and the cacophony such attempts create online. 

There are no more safe spaces for children to share their pains or feelings, as some of them are constantly in the company of family members hovering around. There is no more sharing of birthday cakes and canteen samosas together. Children can no longer sneak in a few moments of fun around the water cooler or make naughty side talks amongst friends — little antics that kept them rejuvenated through a day of taxing lessons.  

The loss of curriculum 

Learning has also taken a nosedive on online platforms. School education has a huge amount of hidden curriculum and learning that shapes and impacts a learner.  

What students learned by observing each other or the teacher, peeping into each other's notebooks, watching their classmates, waiting for their turn, dealing with a bully or remembering to carry homework has suddenly gone amiss. 

How teachers impacted learning — by peeping over children's shoulders as they framed their answers, giving a timely nudge or a nod, keeping a check on how they were processing information — is not just a challenge but impossible online. 

Missing the normalcy 

It would be unfair to completely discredit what technology has done for us as we traverse these tough times. It has given us a great second chance at keeping connections alive and keeping the learning going. And by enabling group work through break-out rooms and live interactive boards, classroom engagement has been quite high.  

When I point out all these gaps, it is only to express the aching cries of teachers whose lives are made warmer and richer not because of the lessons they teach but because of the lives they transform, the children they reach out to, the smiles they spread and the legends they create day after day. We are missing the normalcy, the proximity, the power of being in one room together — and the classroom laughter. 

Online education is a boon and a blessing, no doubt, but online education will never replace live school learning.  

Simi Sharma is founder and director at Avalon Heights International School in Thane, India. 

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