Online CELTA week 3: the slog

On Monday 6th July 2020 I started training on my first ever fully online CELTA course on Zoom. On the same day, Stephanie Wilbur also started online CELTA training for the first time, but on a different course. We’ve decided to compare our experiences. The post below covers week three. Here’s week one and week two.

Why is it a slog?

SM: Week three is often the most challenging one on any full-time CELTA course, especially one where you change groups halfway through the course. Sometimes you change groups more often but most courses I’ve worked on just change once in the middle. Everybody gets the changeover blues. You often have new language students to work with (though sometimes you’re with the same students throughout) and a new group of trainees. The trainees have to get used to you and you to them. The change in level can come as quite a shock for some trainees. They feel comfortable with the first level, in our case pre-intermediate, and working with students who expect something completely different of them can really knock their self-confidence. This is also when we’re starting to expect trainees to become more independent, and this can also knock their confidence or make them feel stressed.

Week three is when everything feels like it’s happening at the same time. Everybody has assignments to submit, and lessons to work on in more detail, and it feels like your brain is full and has no space for any more information from input. It’s like a sponge which can’t take in any more water.

For trainers, it’s also a challenging week because we have to manage the changeover and the expectations of trainees, as well as keeping students coming to the lessons. We also have to continue our preparation for input sessions, mark assignments, work with trainees on assignments which need to be resubmitted, and particularly with any trainees who are not making the expected progress. It’s always a long week. This weekend [as of Friday night] I still have to finish TP feedback from Friday and send it, mark 6 assignments and 3 assignment resubmissions, plan my input sessions for next week, or at least know which ones need more work, and prepare some tutorial documents. [Sunday update – I got everything done except the input, but finished at 23.25 to make sure I would have a full day off!]

We have TP at the end of the day. When a trainee needs more help, it takes more time to do feedback, particularly making sure that you’re highlighting the most important areas for them to work on and not overwhelming them. Thankfully I only got behind on feedback on Thursday, when I sent one lot of TP feedback at the end of the day, not the morning as I usually do.

SW: Week three was full of long days, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve hit a wall because there’s so much to get done. I was definitely feeling exhausted at certain points through the week. Our TP is in the morning, and I usually get TP feedback by the end of lunch, but had one day when I couldn’t do it until the end of the day because everything was taking longer.

There were a lot of resubmissions on our course this week, meaning trainees were feeling quite stressed. They can ask me questions by email, and often did this at very odd hours of the day and night. I spent a lot of time reassuring them and being clear about what I can and can’t tell them for their assignments, but also had to be clear that to stay healthy myself I can’t reply to them in the evenings because I need to have a break from work. 

The changeover is challenging as different trainers naturally give slightly different advice. You have to develop a rapport and a feeling of trust with your new TP group, and show them what your expectations are. For example, when there are only a few students in class, my colleague has left small groups in the main room and suggested teachers switch their cameras off to monitor, whereas I’ve suggested that trainees still put students into breakout rooms. I think this better helps them to learn to monitor appropriately, know when to move in and out of the rooms, and consider when to intervene and when to close the rooms. [SM: I’ve emailed trainees to tell them we’re going to use this approach next week if we don’t have many students – Stephanie has mentioned it every week, but I hadn’t done anything about it until now. One trainee put students into a BOR when there were only three of them, and another commented that this gives the activity a clearer start and end point, which I agree with.]

How do you cope with spending so much time in front of the computer?

SM: As a manager I already spend a lot of my time in front of a computer. Obviously this increased in March, but apart from adding an occasional online lesson, it wasn’t that much of a difference for me. The online CELTA is definitely a lot of computer time, especially this week, but that’s also fairly normal for me as I’ve always typed my feedback and have all my input sessions on my computer. In some ways I think I have less eye strain because I don’t have to keep focusing on the classroom and then my computer repeatedly. I can also move around more easily if I start to get stiff. Having said that I’m getting a slight pain in my neck from turning my head to the right all the time to look at the lesson on my second screen. I also have achey eyes at the end of this week from the long days.

I try to manage the physical effects by taking regular breaks. I have a piece of software which reminds me regularly to spend one minute or 5 minutes away from the computer when I’m not in sessions. I look away from the screen and out the window to refocus my eyes. I also do stretches as often as I can, mostly on my hands and my back. I have my phone set on night mode and try to use dictation when I can (including for my parts of this post) to rest my eyes and my hands. The biggest challenge I’ve had is that my days this week have been longer than normal. I think I have had three 11-hour days, finishing late in the evening. The quality of my sleep has been affected a little though thankfully not too much. The main problem is not being able to get back to sleep if I wake up in the night because I haven’t had time to process the day before I go to bed – I find myself making mental to do lists or planning blog posts 😉

SW: In a previous career I spent a lot of time on the computer, so I’ve had experience of long periods of screen time, but this is quite different from my recent experience because I’m normally in front of people moving around a lot. CELTA is normally the most sedentary thing I do, especially sitting during observations. An online CELTA is less strenuous on my back because I can move around when I’m observing because my camera is off. I can sit, stand, move or stretch as I need to. For half of the day, I’m not stuck in a chair so in some ways it’s easier than a face-to-face CELTA.

I need a gap between concentrating on anything and sleeping, so I make sure I have a clear two hours with no work before bedtime. That helps me to relax and means that I sleep better, though I work early in the morning and at most free minutes during the day to get everything done (that’s normal for CELTA though!).

How did you manage Stage 2 tutorials?

SM: We had no inputs on Monday morning of week three. On Friday we scheduled 30-minute meetings with our trainees, and they joined our TP room when it was time to meet. I prepared all of my grades using this template, and put my comments into a separate document ready to copy and paste. The trainees filled in their ideas of their grades on Moodle before we met. As we would face-to-face, we worked through the criteria, discussing any differences between their self-assessment and my assessment. They wrote the areas they think they need to work on in the second half of the course into the chat on Zoom, while I uploaded my comments to the Moodle (so we weren’t both editing at the same time). We then discussed the comments, with specific ideas for how to work on any problem areas, and signed off on the tutorial.

SW: Our tutorials happened on Tuesday afternoon as we started TP1 slightly later than on Sandy’s course. I had 20-minute tutorials instead of one input. The second input was slightly shorter to give us time to do this. I told the trainees when to join me on Zoom. I’d already pre-written my list of grades and notes for the last page. We have everything on Google Drive, include a version of the CELTA 5 document which we can edit. Trainees download it, fill it in, then upload it again. I download it, fill my parts in then upload it again. Unfortunately we can’t both use the same document at exactly the same time because the formatting messes up in the file version we have. Normally I start with the criteria, but this time I talked about final page first, then went through the criteria with them, pasted my comments, talked about any issues they had, then uploaded the final version to Drive. When one trainee hadn’t filled in the criteria on their CELTA 5, I sent them away to do it and they came back at the end after the rest of the tutorials. On a face-to-face course, I normally do tutorials with teachers ABC one day and DEF on the next day, but doing them all on the same day was fine.

SM and SW: In the tutorials we both found that trainees all marked 5A (“arranging the physical features of the classroom appropriately for teaching and learning, bearing in mind safety regulations of the institution”) as N (not applicable), but we both believe that Zoom still has features which can be exploited, just like a physical classroom does, and there are still safety regulations (for example issues with Zoombombing). As trainers, we need to check we’re applying criteria in the same way on Zoom as we do on a face-to-face course.

What worked this week?

SM: This week I experimented with an input which was based completely around a Google Doc. I had one document with activities to work through to help trainees understand present tenses in English. The answers were in a box under each activity in white text so that the trainees could be self-sufficient. I also added some clues in white which they could use if they wanted to, and some little summaries inspired by Michael Lewis. I put trainees in pairs with one second- and one first-language English speaker in each breakout room, gave them the document link and left them to it for just over an hour. My role was to monitor progress and intervene if they were having problems. As expected, one pair managed all of the activities, some only managed two or three, and others managed about two thirds. In our brief feedback afterwards we talked about how knowing a language includes procedural and descriptive knowledge and that it was useful to work with each other to fill the gaps. It was great to hear how excited people got when they realised that they had understood something which they had originally found quite challenging. I got some positive feedback after the session as trainees enjoyed being able to work at their own speed and get and give support to each other. It took a while to prepare, even though I had materials to adapt, but I can now reuse this session every time I want to work on present tenses from now on (on a face-to-face course too).

My CPD input always involves setting up assignment 4 and talking for a bit about my career, then sharing a list of resources which trainees can explore in the rest of the session. They can also ask me questions about any area which they can’t see covered on the list. This always seems to work well as everyone can explore what they’re interested in, and I think it transferred well online.

I continued using the same feedback strategy of trainees working with a Google Doc in pairs, and realised this is useful for quotes from peers for Assignment 4 reflecting on the course. Listening to what Stephanie does though, I realise that when we come back together it’s me lecturing and summarising – quite trainer-centred!

SW: I’ve been using Padlet in feedback, with trainees making notes during the lesson. I tell them before TP what the three lesson focuses are and what their observation task is. During feedback they do a carousel in breakout rooms in pairs, so each teacher speaks to three observers and can ask questions. Looking at Padlet gives them feedback from everybody. Then we have 15-20 minutes to talk about things together. Teachers do a summary of what they’ve heard when we come back together, and I fill in any gaps. I ask any questions if there’s anything they missed, for example: What do you think about the pronunciation focus? This works well because they’re doing all the summarising.

It was interesting hearing a discussion between trainees and students this week about how weird it is having 3 consecutive lessons with 3 different teachers. We’re so used to it as trainers, sometimes we forget it could be an odd format for other people!

What challenges did you have this week?

SM: In a classroom-based CELTA, if one trainee has very high unnecessary teacher talking time, I get them to agree on an action their colleagues can do while observing to highlight that they should stop talking, for example fingers on lips or putting their hand up. This normally drastically reduces their TTT within two or three lessons. It’s harder to do this kind of thing online, though perhaps trainees could private message each other. This doesn’t work in breakout rooms though as you can only publicly message there.

At this stage on a course, trainees can get very wrapped up in their own lessons and feel like they have to do everything themselves. I think it’s important to remind them that when teaching three lessons, they should know what the other two teachers are doing, and how all three lessons might fit together for the students as one lesson, not three. Some trainees also need to be encouraged to ask for help from each other, which is good practice for working in a supportive staffroom and for sharing classes with other teachers.

Week three is when I often find myself having individual meetings with some trainees to help with real problem areas they haven’t been able to get a handle on yet, or to boost their confidence to get them through the last part of the course. This week I had three 30-minute meetings with trainees at the end of the day, and one meeting on Saturday to help people with things that I would normally do in between sessions on a face-to-face course. It’s much harder to deal with things in little bites as you go along – everything needs scheduling and organising.

To support trainees with resubmissions, I gave them one hour before input when they could schedule meetings to discuss their assignments if they wanted to. To help trainees understand how to choose activities for the Focus on the Learner assignment, I talked to them about remedial tutorials we have at our school: teachers have to choose an area for the tutorial and give the tutorial teacher an activity to do. This worked really well and I think it helped them to understand the kind of exercises it’s useful to choose. As a trainer, it’s harder to ask colleagues little questions about assignments as you go along. You end up saving up all the questions for one big meeting, again generally at the end of the day/week.

SW: Trainees can’t just grab you for quick questions between sessions. I get an email in the morning but can’t look at it until the end of the day, so rather than solving a problem in those little minutes in between, trainees are left waiting all day. Next time I do an online course, I think I’ll have office hours so trainees can make an appointment if they want to speak to me about something.

When there were low student numbers, I asked trainees to help in a speaking lesson, the same as I would in a face-to-face classroom. 

An input session that works really well offline about minimal materials and which is normally interactive and fun ended up being a slide show. I was tired from marking and got sidetracked by trying to do a running dictation online and forgot about what I needed to do with the rest of the session! They still learnt about the activities, but didn’t try anywhere near as many as I would normally do with them.

What tips do you have/did you give?

SM: A couple of things I’ve told trainees:

  • Make sure you ‘clear all drawings’ after you use the annotate function on Zoom if you’re still sharing, as otherwise they’ll show up on the next slide. If you stop sharing, they’ll disappear.
  • Think about when to screen share and when not to. It’s easier to discuss things when there’s no slide on the screen, especially for students who are on a phone or tablet.

SW: You should still use breakout rooms, even if there are only one or two students in the lesson. This gives them space, in a way that just you having your camera off doesn’t do.

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