A Year in the Life

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It’s been a little over a year since ESL campuses shut their doors. I can’t decide whether it has gone by slowly or quickly. In my personal life, the pandemic has lurched along, one depressing headline after another; endless days without family and friends. However, as a teacher I have been flying through the days by the seat of my pants!

The technology hurdles

Before COVID I felt quite confident about the digital tools in my arsenal. I figured the transition to online teaching wouldn’t be a big deal – turns out I was wrong. It’s one thing to use online activities to engage students in a face-to-face classroom, but it’s quite another to do everything online.

Amidst this chaos, the first day arrives with a start. Nervously, I click on Zoom and I’m greeted by rows of students peering at me from tiny squares on the screen.

It worked!  This might just be fun. But wait a minute, why are there so few students?

Panic rises. A part of me focuses on the class as they introduce themselves while the other scrambles to figure out why half of them are missing. I throw my students into breakout rooms, and scroll through my emails. Sure enough, I had sent out two different links. I recopy the current link and send it out. That was Day One.

My classes go more smoothly after that and yet, the forces of technology lurk in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Why can’t the students hear me? Why can’t I hear them? Why are my videos not working? And don’t get me started on module sequencing. While doing some marking, I hear the ping of an email, then another and another. “Teacher, I can’t move past activity one in the module. How do I get to the next one?” My stomach sinks at the prospect of digging around the module settings to figure out what’s wrong.       

One morning, as I hop between breakout rooms, I find myself trapped. Where am I and how do I get out of here? What a weird situation – safe at my desk but lost in cyberspace. Panic mounts until I hear a student’s reassuring voice.

“Teacher, you are in Group 4.” How did she know I was lost? Had I been mumbling out loud like a lunatic? “Ahhhh. Okay. Thanks.” I click on Group 5. “Hi, guys. What have you come up with for question two?” “Umm…you’re still with us, teacher, in Group Four.”  

How my students save the day

Technical glitches aside, I enjoy teaching online.  In an environment where anything can and does happen, the students wow me with their patience and understanding.

A couple of times, when exiting a video, I accidentally click on the button that quits the entire class. I hurry back. “Sorry, guys. The chat box fills up with smiley emojis and thumbs up. “Hey, teacher, no problem.” “These things happen.” “Don’t worry.”    


One time my dog gets food poisoning during class. On our pre-class morning walk, my dog Tex tried to eat a mushroom and became seriously ill while I was teaching. Thankfully, I’m in a small town and the vet is three minutes away. I ask the class to hang on and race to the clinic. I leave Tex with the vet and hurry back to the house. As I run inside I hear, “Yes, I think that’s right. Let’s move to number 7.”

They are taking up the grammar. I am filled with warmth and gratitude. “How is your dog?” the students ask. In the end, Tex was fine and class resumed.

The students help in a myriad of small ways too. “Hey, teacher, you’re running out of power,” “No, no, don’t touch that red button,” and “Don’t forget to click record.”

With every group a real sense of “we are all in this together” has developed. We talk about the pandemic. The students share their feelings of fear, isolation and loneliness. We discuss coping strategies.

When I come down with a case of Covid-19, the students send a flurry of sympathetic emails. And when I tell them that I will be late getting their writing drafts back, they tell me to stop marking, that my health is more important! These guys feel like family.

 The year has been challenging, yet strangely rewarding. I’ve learned technical skills that would put my adult children to shame. But more than that, I’ve learned a lot about kindness, perseverance and humility from my students. Some people may say that you can’t build the same community online as you can in a regular classroom, but for me, it’s stronger than ever!

I’m Jennifer Hutchison and I teach EAP and communications at George Brown College in Toronto. I have also taught courses in sociolinguistics in the English Foundation Program at Toronto Metropolitan University. In my spare time, I write short stories, read, exercise, and bake (the last two are codependent). Teaching English is my passion. I am curious about the world around me and feel fortunate to have that world brought to me every day in the classroom. Nevertheless, I took a circuitous route to discover this passion. After my undergraduate degree in French and translation, I worked as a translator and then veered off into writing and editing, which I did from home while I raised my children (four of them!). In none of these positions (except, possibly, childrearing) was I helping anybody, so I returned to school, launched my ESL career, and have never looked back. I look forward to working with you and sharing experiences and strategies on the Blog!


2 thoughts on “A Year in the Life”

  1. WOW….so familiar…curious though what level you teach and in what framework and how much support you had for materials, resources, a ready made user friendly LMS? How much money did you spend on tech, app subscriptions, new glasses!!!! HOW MANY ALL NIGHTERS DID YOU PULL? ( 4 hours’s sleep in the first months…All I thought about: “In a few hours you face the sharks”.)
    (Not the learners..they were my Wilsons!! As in Castaway).

    I teach Level6/7. I had to create EVERYTHING…every single piece of material, figure it all out for myself. Like you, thanks to PTCT ACE Language Learning and Technology I thought I’d be OK with tech..NOPE (but it helped me get up to speed.)

    I created a basic Google Classroom..watched Russel Stannerd and Alice Keeler videos till my eyes fell out..and yes, had to get new glasses…Modules? Admin wanted “PBL?”* modules…onerous, stressful, not appropriate..sigh. Waste of time. Colleague said “I hand in the module but I don’t follow it”. That was helpful in lowering stress.

    I felt I was on a raft in a stormy sea, with sharks swimming around me (… tech issues was only one).
    I’m still on the raft but the sea has quieted down a bit. I learned to say (thanks to Patrice Palmer for her wise, practical and compassionate plenary at the recent TESLTORONTO conference) “I’ve learned enough apps for now”, “What I’m doing IS good enough”. “Time to care of me” (but only after 13 months of not taking care of me – physically or emotionally)

    I’m pleased with my work. Pleased I COULD (and did) make a difference in people’s lives. Pleased I did not quit. Pleased I had the experience that showed me it is possible to teach and learn online (I’m the same teacher I always was – in person and remote).

    However, online learning is slower and there are issues with retention. Just how much language can be “taught” in an online course, and how sustainable is videoconferencing teaching under such draining daily tension and stress are questions we will grapple with for a long time.

    But somehow resilience on the part of all – admin, teachers, learners – did prevail and there’s a sense of gratitude and accomplishment. Thank you for sharing..bet all have “red button stories!!!

  2. What an authentic example of not striving but thriving in the midst of the whirlwind! Your students rallied around you because you rally for them. Cheers to you, and all selfless teachers like you!

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