I have returned to the physical classroom after two years of teaching remotely in the confines of my own home, and teaching face-to-face was, if I could be honest, a struggle. In this post (and corresponding video), I share some of the difficulties I encountered after returning to the physical classroom.

Returning to the physical classroom has not been easy

Challenge 1: Classroom Management

One of the initial challenges I encountered was classroom management. I am naturally not so good at remembering student names and it takes me a while for names to stick – thankfully I don’t forget my wife’s name! When returning to the classroom, I had to draw a classroom map and then write the names on this. I referred to this during lessons and it helped me remember student names. Within an online environment, remembering names is something which is not given much thought as many students have their name appearing next to their corresponding image on the screen, so I guess I became lazy and decided to rely on the image and the visual cue for student names.

The second issue related to classroom management that I discovered was related to controlling the class and students, particularly with adolescent learners. I was called into a private language institute to help an old ex-DOS colleague during the initial period of the summer school. I was involved with teaching to a range of international young learners, and trying to find engaging activities which would engage and motivate young learners was tough. It took a number of weeks until I was able to create activities and tasks which would engage young learners. I rediscovered the power of language games in class. Furthermore, over the past four or five years, I have been predominately teaching adult learners with minimal exposure to young learners or teenagers both online and face-to-face. This further compounded the issue, but after a few weeks, I rediscovered how to engage such adolescent learners.

Finally, I found myself having to enter the classroom prior to the lesson starting and rearranging the classroom to suit the task that I was planning. Within a remote environment, all teachers have to worry about is breakout rooms or which students to pair up together. While teaching, I entered the classroom ten minutes before the students arrived, moving the desks and chairs or placing students at nominated desks. I had forgotten how much more goes into planning a lesson and how long activities would last.

Challenge 2: Lesson Planning

The second challenge which I encountered was lesson planning. While teaching to face-to-face, teachers instinctively know how long an activity should last. Transitioning such an activity for an online environment is usually extended, with many tasks requiring more explicit instructions or a demonstration. The off shoot of being exposed to an online environment caused me to over plan and prepare too much for the physical classroom. I ended up taking more than enough material with me into the classroom, to ensure that I had enough in case activities or tasks finished early. However, being prepared is not a bad thing and it took a few weeks to readjust teaching in a classroom once more.

The other point about lesson planning was the difference between a remote and a face-to-face environment was the teaching of the various skills in association with the teacher. Within an online environment, I would tend to get students to do any form of reading, listening, or writing prior to the lesson – essentially flipping the lesson – and then as a class review this. Students would be able to share their thoughts, ideas, views or raise questions with one another, and is much more discoverable compared to a physical lesson. However, while teaching face-to-face, I had to rediscover how to teach a reading or listening lesson. What appeared to be quite a natural skill to develop in a physical classroom, with various tasks took a while to reacquire once again as a teacher.

Challenge 3: Student Engagement

The third challenge which I had discovered, that is related to the previous point, was related to student engagement during face-to-face lessons. Within an online environment, assessing and monitoring student engagement can be challenging. I discovered while teaching online that I had issues with students not switching on their webcams, giving lessons to students during trips in their car or in a noisy restaurant, or non-responsive learners. Engagement within a remote environment is a struggle and quite artificial. Student Zoom etiquette guidelines were organised for students to follow, but after a week, things returned to normal.

While teaching face-to-face, I found that assessing engagement much more immediate and natural but also realised that certain activities or lessons were not so engaging. This was related to the lack of warm-up or lead-in tasks which were usually absent initially from the lesson – I would dive immediately into the lesson or topic with minimal attempt to interest the students to the task. It took a few lessons to remind myself the importance of introducing the topic to the students, organising such activities such as class surveys, vocabulary introductions via hangman, etc.

Challenge 4: Teacher Talking Time

The final issue that I found returning to the physical classroom was the amount of teacher talking time. Within an online environment, I found myself filling in the silence rather than embracing the silence and allowing students to find their space. This can happen in the classroom but it is usually compounded more in a remote environment when students decide to switch off their webcams. Furthermore, the remote interaction between student(s) and teacher is limited, where the teacher would normally ‘teach to the students’ rather than ‘teach the students’, with the breakout room being used as the interactive element between learners.

Once I had returned to the physical classroom, I discovered that I had picked up some bad habits from the online environment whereby I was talking too much and not allowing time for students to communicate. This was swiftly dealt with but I had to remind myself not to talk or ramble too much, having to refrain from talking from time to time.

Bite my tongue / Refrain from talking too much

Conclusion

This was my reentry to the physical classroom post-pandemic and something which required a little more patience. As all teachers have been over the past two years or so, we are all adaptable and I feel now comfortable teaching both face-to-face or online to a range of international students. There are obvious concerns revolving around COVID still circulating around the UK despite things returning to normal.

However, are you now back in the classroom? How was your transition from online to face-to-face? Are you still teaching remotely, and if so do you think you will return to the physical classroom?

Please let me know in the comments.