In the early summer of 2017, I had the privilege of being asked to make a trip to Tehran, Iran to train a group of teachers for the TESOL Canada Certificate Program. When political events made the trip too dangerous an undertaking, I was crestfallen. I had already “met” the Iranian teacher who would be the primary facilitator of the program on Skype, and we instantly made a strong connection. I tried to console myself with the notion that I would make it there – one day – to meet her in person.
Then a different opportunity presented itself when the Iranian teacher asked if I could do a Skype train-the-trainer session with her and two other teachers who would be running the program. I was thrilled to be a part of the process in any capacity, so I happily agreed. The training sessions went relatively smoothly, and despite our obvious physical distance and minor technical difficulties (one of us would get kicked off, someone’s screen would freeze, etc.), there was still a sense of intimacy and a strong rapport among us. These teachers are brilliant, enthusiastic individuals with a wealth of experience in the field of EFL, which made my job that much easier. By the end of our two weeks of training, we had established a wonderful bond, and they were well-versed in the components of the program and aware of key pitfalls to watch for as facilitators.
This past winter, I was asked to teach an online session with their TESOL class, and I was thrilled to oblige, of course! While the earlier, train-the-trainer meetings went off with few technical glitches, this was not the case with this session. Skype seemed to have it in for us, and we were plagued with one issue after another. It would take us several attempts to get up and running, and when we finally did, the screen would become pixilated or freeze altogether, and we would get messages that the connection was bad, or that we should turn off our cameras for better sound.
I may be one of the lucky ones, but never in my fifteen years of teaching have I had the challenge of not being able to see or hear my students to confirm that they were engaged or that they were following the flow of a lesson! My Iranian contact was instrumental in keeping things moving and prompting the students (who I couldn’t see) to answer questions. In effect, she was my eyes – and sometimes my ears – for close to 40 minutes of the session. My frustration was enormous, but the trainer soldiered on beautifully towards the end of the session. While the most logical course of action would have been to postpone the session, these students were on a tight schedule, having already missed a week of classes when they lost Internet connection during the protests in early January.
It then began to dawn on me that this experience was teaching me an appreciation for the luxury of having a visual of one’s students and with this, access to other crucial paralinguistic cues. It also gave me a sense of my Iranian colleague’s true “grit” for getting a job done, which endeared her to me all the more. The whole session could have been doomed to disaster, but my colleague’s support (and our mutual persistence in seeing things through) resulted instead in a fairly fruitful class for these trainees.
I came away from the experience with some valuable insight into the power of cooperation to overcome technological challenges, but more importantly, I was able to admit that Skype had allowed me to “virtually be there” in the first place, when I couldn’t in person. We have since made plans to opt for a more reliable system like Zoom next time around. I look forward to some (hopefully) uninterrupted screen time with this wonderful trainer and her class, or better yet, to travel there in person for the full, unadulterated experience!
Jennifer Jones is a TESOL trainer and Head TESOL Coordinator at London Language Institute. She has an MA TESOL with a special focus in curriculum design, and when not teacher training, designs assessments and curricula for the institute.