The remarkable resilience and creativity of ELT teachers

4th May 2020

There’s a lot of negativity around at the moment, both in the world and in ELT. When the IATEFL conference in Manchester was postponed to next year, it really hit me how much it means to me. I could write this whole post about how our annual get-together has been fundamental to my career, but suffice it to say that the void it leaves in my year was felt very keenly when I realised that it wouldn’t be happening in 2020. The same can also be said for the BRAZ-TESOL conference that was due to take place in São Paulo but has also been put back to next year. Moreover, there are all the local events that won’t be happening; and then you start to get a sense of how just this one aspect of what we do, as a community of practitioners, has gone in an instant.

And if we widen the scope out from conferences, you can see how the entire ELT sector has been transformed in a matter of weeks. Whatever sector you work in, wherever you are in the world, the work that you do has more than likely been utterly changed. The most obvious example is in the classroom, which has moved from being a physical space to an online environment with a speed that none of us could have imagined. 

However, what I have also observed has inspired me, and should prove to all of us that ELT professionals can withstand this unprecedented situation. Teachers across the world have been asked to completely change the way they teach in a heartbeat. With little training and time, they have responded remarkably driven by a determination to keep educating their learners. Teachers who have never taught online have embraced the challenge and adapted with incredible speed.

I think we need to acknowledge what is really happening now. This is not normal ‘online teaching’, which is an area with a great deal of research and scholarship. Courses designed specifically for an online environment are planned over months and even years. Teachers are trained and given time to get used to the new technologies in order to maximise the tools they have to deliver quality courses. Support systems are put in place for both learners and teachers to ensure effective teaching and learning.

What has just happened to us is quite different. The training has been, at best, minimal, and the support systems have been thrown together at the last, if not after the last, minute. Syllabuses haven’t been designed but adapted from the face-to-face versions; as have the lessons. This isn’t a criticism. It is a completely pragmatic and understandable response to an emergency. 

With this in mind, I think it’s useful to term what teachers are doing now as ‘Emergency Remote Teaching’ (ERT) as opposed to ‘Online Education’. This new term is being used to describe the current situation, and I believe its value lies in the fact that it enables us to get a better understanding of what is required. By realising that “the primary objective in these circumstances is not to re-create a robust educational ecosystem but rather to provide temporary access to instruction and instructional supports in a manner that is quick to set up and is reliably available during an emergency or crisis” (Hodges et al, 2020), we can realistically appreciate what teachers and learners are able to achieve. 

A crucial aspect of ERT is creativity. Teachers have to be quick on their feet and be able to respond to unpredictability in unfamiliar environments. New solutions need to be found in settings where teachers need to balance the limitations of an online classroom and the vast and overwhelming amount of resources available on the Internet.

What has been clear in the last few weeks is that this creativity is not in short supply. It has been remarkable to see how teachers the world over have responded by creating and sharing links, ideas and tools. Coupled with a sense of community and collaboration, teachers have taken what is undoubtedly a terrible situation and addressed it with resilience, camaraderie and collaboration. This should make all of us in ELT feel proud and hopeful.

Unfortunately, it is very likely, especially if we work for private companies or freelance, that our market, like all others, will contract in the next few years. If we work in public education, we will probably find resources even more difficult to come by. Of course, we need to be mindful of this, and prepare ourselves for this new world. We also have no idea what further impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on how we work in the future. It is entirely possible that for some of us this switch to online teaching is here to stay, and will not be reversed. But I’m not overly concerned about how our profession will react because, based on what we have witnessed in the last few weeks, the creativity and resilience I have seen on the part of ELT colleagues have demonstrated what remarkable and resourceful people teachers truly are.

Thanks to my colleague Claire Venables for introducing me to the concept of Emergency Remote Teaching.


About James

James M Taylor is an EFL teacher, teacher trainer, & materials writer based in Brasília. He produces the ELTON nominated TEFL Commute podcast. In 2018 he and Ilá Coimbra created the Raise Up! Project, encouraging diversity in ELT materials. He has recently co-written ‘Our Languages’ for FTD Educaçao. He’s a committee member of BRAZ-TESOL Brasília & IATEFL TDSIG.

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