“Ella, where are you?”
A black screen on my Google Meet platform greets me, but the icon showing Ella has entered our virtual classroom blinks on. I hear soft rustling in the background.
I relax in my chair and take a drink of water. How long will she keep this up?
I try again, “Hello, Ella? Are you there? Can you see me?” I pretend there must be an internet issue.
It’s now 5:33 pm, and she still hasn’t appeared on camera or made any noticeable acknowledgment of my presence. She’s never been this late before. I can’t just sit here for the entire 30 minutes talking to a black screen.
I grab my stuffed monkey off my desk and turn my attention to him, “Hi, Monkey! It’s good to see you. Do you know where Ella is? I don’t see her.”
I change my voice to answer, “No, I don’t see Ella.” I move the monkey around as if he is responding to me.
Here I am, a 36-year old with a master’s degree, talking to a stuffed animal.
This is not the job I thought I’d be doing. But after starting our online language business three years ago, this summer of 2020, we saw a sudden spike in demand for children’s language classes. So here I am, transitioning from working with app developers and post-doctorates to talking to a monkey.
After 2 more minutes of play-talking, Ella’s hand has moved away from her camera, and the side of her face is finally on camera.
“There’s Ella!” I tell Monkey. Then, I turn my attention to the 9 year-old.
“How are you, Ella?” I ask and try to project my concern across the computer screen.
“Angry,” is her one-word reply.
“Oh no, Ella, why are you angry? Are you tired? Are you sad?”
“Yeah, I’m tired.”
“Why are you tired today?” Did you not sleep well?”
“Yeah, I didn’t sleep.”
Her eyes are noticeably worn looking for a 9 year-old at 5:30 in the evening. Back comes Monkey. “Do you feel okay?” he asks.
Ella reaches for her teddy, who answers, “I’m sad.”
Monkey and Teddy talk for another 10 minutes. This is not how our usual English classes go. But today, Ella is tired. And I notice she is not in her usual happy, bouncy mood. So I rallied, and had class with my talking monkey.
As an undergrad, nothing in my education courses prepared me for virtual instruction. But, after over 10 years teaching in a traditional classroom, my experience teaching students has prepared me better than I realized for this new venture into an online classroom.
When I decided to major in education, my primary motivation was to help students connect. I chose to teach English literature because when I was young, I escaped into novels.
Later, it was through writing my family story and journaling that I was able to process traumas and reconstruct a personal identity that was my own.
This same desire to connect with students through language has not changed due to the fact that I now sit in my living room to instruct on pronunciation and sentence structure. My motivation to help others achieve their language goals has not been diminished due to only seeing my students’ videos across a screen.
Everything I had learned about connecting to personal interest, reading student emotions, and adapting instruction to the needed level still exists in an online environment.
And in contrast to a handful of online blackboard-based courses I took while in university, today we have real-time video conferencing, cloud-based documents, and in-sync editing tools.
The digital tools of today allow us to connect in a personal way across the internet. So while virtual classes may feel and look differently, the fundamentals of education still are present.
To all the educators who are venturing into the virtual space for the first time, you got this. Your years of prepping for scaffolded learning and planning engaging in-person activities will serve you in this new distance learning.
To all the parents dealing with children learning from home, you got this. Your years of raising your child to understand the importance of education and perfecting your parent side-eye will help keep your kids and you sane during this crazy transition.
To all the students missing their friends and the routine of the schoolroom, you got this. Your years of playing computer games and texting friends have better prepared you for distance learning than you realize.
Yes, we will all deal with internet issues, problems uploading an assignment, or “camera malfunctions”. But in the physical classroom, we dealt with printer jams, lack of textbooks, and constant cell phone distraction.
The physical learning space has taught us how to adapt and still meet learning objectives. Now, as we begin distance learning, that same resilience and problem-solving mindset will serve us well.
To be honest, I don’t remember a book I read while in middle school, but I still remember Ms. Savage’s kind eyes as she handed us back our journals every Monday. She was the teacher who inspired me to teach.
Because when it comes down to it, the connections between teacher and student, teacher and parent, and parent and student are what matter most.
Keep connection the focus of all education, and despite the challenges, the online classroom transition will be worth it.
“It was good to see you today, Teddy,” Monkey says.
“I am going to brush my teeth now,” Teddy answers.
“Have a good night and get some sleep,” Monkey replies.
“Ok, goodbye,” Teddy waves and moves off-camera.
“Bye, Ella,” I say as I re-take the screen.
“Bye,” she slowly smiles. “See you,” and with that, her image is gone.
I exit the virtual classroom, take out my earphones, and place Monkey back on the shelf.
Because despite connecting across a classroom or across IP addresses, no matter the location, the heart of education will always be about making a personal connection.