“Video conferencing link for class? CHECK ✔”
“Class documents pushed out via Google Classroom? CHECK ✔”
“Lesson plans posted on our LMS for students and parents to see? CHECK ✔”
“Links to tutorial sessions posted? CHECK ✔”
“Positive attitude??? CHECK ✔”
I was excited yet apprehensive as I prepared to teach my first on-line class during the pandemic last March. I had been a high school Spanish and French teacher for over 18 years and was working at one of the best International Baccalaureate schools in the state of Texas. Long before that, at the age of 22, I conducted corporate language training programs for high-level business executives at Fortune 500 companies. I knew what I was doing. I had the reputation of being a highly-engaging instructor who achieved amazing results with her students. I had very high expectations for myself, but I knew my stuff. So why was I so nervous?
I was anxiously awaiting my first video class session, when one by one my students began logging in. “This is going to be AWESOME!” I told myself. “It will be like normal. I can do this! WE can do this!”
Then I greeted my highschoolers with a resounding “🎶 ¡Bueeeeeeeeeeeenos Días! 🎶” (sung to the tune of “🎶 Hallelujah 🎶) as was my normal, high-energy greeting at the top of each and every class period. This greeting was always a bit of a game, you see: I would sing my greeting and a few kids would quietly “mumble sing” a response back to me. Then I would mumble something in Spanish about how I didn’t hear all of them and I would sing my greeting again. And again. And again...each time with more gusto and enthusiasm….until each and every student sang the greeting back to me energetically. It became my tradition to engage the kids from the very top of the class period. And when I sang my normal greeting online that first day, the kids seemed relieved….like this truly WAS going to be normal Spanish class! ¡Vámonos!
So I did it. I taught a class to my 11th graders. I introduced the Colombian writer Gabriel García-Márquez and his literary style known as “Magical Realism.” I barely got through all of the introductory information I wanted to cover before the 45-minute class ended. (During the initial stages of the pandemic class times were limited to 45 minute sessions two or three times per week, as to not overload or over-burden the students, many of whom had younger siblings at home who were also attending on-line classes and needed assistance, as many parents were trying to work from home while their kids were “in school.”) This was the beginning of a literary unit that is required in IB instruction, and I had some serious concerns about trying to teach something as difficult as Spanish literature via distance learning. But we had no choice other than to press onward. That first day the students were “present” in every way possible and they gave my introduction to Magical Realism their full attention. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all, I thought.
By the third or fourth virtual class, however, I started noticing a strange phenomenon occurring. After our energetic “welcome song” a few students no longer turned their video cameras or their microphones on. During a “direct teach” this was normal protocol, so that the network wouldn’t lag….but even during “class discussions” I found myself talking to faceless rectangles with names on them. When I asked students to turn on their cameras and microphones, I was often told, “oh it stopped working” via the chat feature in the video conferencing platform we were using. So now I couldn’t see some of my students, and I couldn’t hear them either. Wonderful. I am supposed to be building fluency in Spanish as per the rigor of the IB program. What could I do?
In an effort to have the students be the “do-ers” during our short class periods, I kept my “direct teach” down to just a few minutes then divided the students into virtual breakout rooms so that they could discuss the literary segment they were supposed to have read for homework. This seemed like a good idea…...have the KIDS talk about what’s going on in the story we are reading….en Español!
But my great idea was an epic fail (does anyone even say that anymore?). Soon I discovered that, on the video platform that we were using, I could not supervise all of the breakout rooms at the same time….I had to hop from one virtual room to the other. And when I joined a breakout room, not only were the students speaking in English (GASP!) but they also were not on task. As soon as they saw me “appear” in their break out room they immediately switched to Spanish and “pretended” to be on task. The few students who truly WERE on task were frustrated at their lack of ability to accomplish anything. Then as soon as I left one breakout room to join another, I quickly realized that the students would switch back to English when they knew they were no longer being supervised. I mean, kids are going to do what kids are going to do, right?
As the weeks went on, trying to keep my students engaged became painful. I mean, it seriously hurt. I tried EVERYTHING: games, music, self-paced PowerPoints, 3-minute “mindfulness” breaks, group calisthenics… you name it. I integrated application after application into my instruction (a total of 7 different platforms!). But the sad truth was that my students were not achieving the learning objectives that I had established for them. They were not even close. I kept reminding myself that we were in the middle of a pandemic, that it was okay! We would catch up later! The important thing was to keep them engaged and learning ANYTHING that I could manage to communicate. So I shifted my focus to exactly that: simply keeping them engaged in reading, writing, listening to and speaking as much Spanish as I could possibly squeeze out of them.
As time passed, however, and as weeks of virtual class turned into months, our focus as a faculty--indeed as a nation--shifted again. As the pandemic progressed and the nation realized that we would finish the school year on-line, we saw our students sinking into the dark, dismal abyss of depression caused by uncertainty, a lack of real contact with their peers and a lack of “normalcy.” In all honesty, the last six weeks or so of the academic year consisted of caring for the social-emotional well-being of our students using any method possible under these very strange circumstances. Adolescents are vulnerable to begin with, but they are social creatures. Their social contacts keep them whole. But last spring our students lost their sporting events, their school musicals, their senior trips abroad, their proms, even their graduations. Many kids were simply not functioning well. As a nation, we simply had to look out for the well-being of our students….at the expense of reaching those learning goals and objectives that we had written out so nicely in our lesson plans. I couldn’t engage them, but I could take care of them. After a certain point, the learning simply was not as important as the lives of these students that we were guiding into adulthood.
And so the school year ended. There was no signing of yearbooks, no social gatherings or celebrations for a year’s worth of accomplishments, no hugging my graduating seniors and celebrating with them….nothing. Summer was here, but nothing had changed. We were all still at home….we just didn’t have the lessons to plan, the virtual classes to teach or the endless stacks of papers to grade. The further we got into summer, and the more likely it appeared that we would be starting the new academic year virtually again…...the more I simply was not sure that I wanted to continue down this road.
Honestly, I had been on the fence about K-12 education for a few years before the pandemic hit, as the demands placed on teachers these days have become excessive and almost unmanageable. The reasons why I ultimately left K-12 education are many and are not the focus of this piece (don’t get me started), but suffice it to say that self care, a better work/life balance and a reduction in personal stress levels was becoming necessary. I was also frustrated with my inability to engage my students in a virtual environment with so many limitations. I...who was known to be one of the most energetic and engaging teachers that my students had ever had...could NOT keep my students engaged the way I had become accustomed to and the way I needed to in order to maintain the rigors of the IB program. I felt powerless. But there was a new opportunity on the horizon. I just needed to be brave enough to take the leap.
Flashback to March of 2018, to the SXSW.Edu conference in Austin, Texas. My school had sent me to the week-long educational conference as part of our campus professional development. As I am always looking for new ideas, I was excited to check out some of the latest developments in Educational Technology.
I was sitting in a session that was basically “let’s all share various EdTech tools with each other so that we can all take away something new.” The group of fellow educators that I was surrounded with was incredible, and we all went around the table sharing various tools that we use beyond the obvious ones that everyone uses. When it was my turn, I was excited to share TES/Blendspace, which was a tool that I had been using for years to create digital lessons and units.
I was presenting one of my instructional units to my group when a young, well-dressed gentleman pulled up a chair next to me and started listening to what I was saying. He seemed to be super-interested in what I was showing everyone. When the session was over and everyone was leaving he asked me if he could “pick my brain” for a few minutes. I didn’t have another session for awhile, so we just continued our conversation.
That young man was Matthew Hightower, the Founder and CEO of Class2Class™. Matthew went on to explain to me that he was an entrepreneur who was developing a platform to facilitate virtual exchanges between students and instructors around the world in order to keep students engaged in meaningful learning on a global level. He was very interested to hear what I thought might be some important features in such a platform, since I am a language and culture instructor. So we talked for quite awhile, and met to further our discussion the following day. I didn’t know it at the time, but meeting Matthew turned out to be a turning point in my career.
Matt and I stayed in close touch and I actually had the opportunity to do some translation work for Class2Class™ as they made their website and platform multi-lingual. Over the next two years I watched Class2Class™ grow and develop partnerships with instructors, consortiums and organizations all over the world as they facilitated collaborations through virtual exchange. Being a language instructor at an IB school, I was all about building international-mindedness and 21st-century skills while engaging my students in real-world tasks, and these goals meshed quite nicely with the mission of Matthew’s company. I became fascinated with the kinds of instructional collaborations that were going on across the globe, all facilitated by Class2Class™. I began to feel that perhaps, somewhere down the road, there might be a need for someone with my knowledge and skill set in an organization such as Class2Class™, where I could potentially help make a difference on a global level.
Fast Forward back to early 2020. The pandemic hit and suddenly instructors around the world found themselves teaching on-line, most of us for the first time. We all discovered how truly difficult, frustrating and non-engaging distance learning is without the proper organization and tools. Class2ClassTM must have had an uncanny “sixth sense” regarding the need for a platform that could connect instructors, students and organizations and help them organize collaborative, project-based tasks that would engage students on a global level rather than merely having them stare at their computer screens to receive an information dump from their instructors.
It is said that progress cannot be made by staying within your comfort zone...and this is absolutely true. I started thinking (oh no...not that again!) and coming to terms with my own internal struggle: How are educators supposed to model global-mindedness and nurture the development of this important 21st-century skill in our students if we can’t engage them sufficiently because we have been forced into distance learning and all of its limitations? As educators, we can do so much better than delivering lectures to little rectangular boxes without faces that sit idly through a class with little to no interaction. We can help far more students to be successful in their online courses and in life on a global level if we look at implementing true Virtual Exchange...not mere distance learning.
As Class2Class™ grew, they soon found that they needed a person like me (with my background in education, marketing and language instruction) to come aboard full-time. In June I made my decision official, and resigned from my teaching position. I gave up my job at an amazing school, during a pandemic no less (gasp!) when the economy was tanking and unemployment was soaring. Believe me, I agonized just a bit over this decision. But in the end, it really was a no-brainer: I could regain my control of my life rather than be at the mercy of a job that required an insane number of hours per week just to stay afloat….a job where I was losing my ability to truly engage my students due to the limitations of the tools that were available to me.
I gave up the relative security of a traditional classroom job and chose to join a team of hard-working professionals with extremely diverse backgrounds who are working to build the infrastructure of a global classroom that will serve millions of students over the next decade and beyond...a global classroom that will enable students to problem-solve and collaboratively engage with the world in a way I would never have dreamed possible just a few years ago. I went from trying to teach “faceless rectangles” to helping instructors and organizations all over the world connect and collaborate despite the current global challenge of limited physical mobility. There has never been a greater need for continued collaboration on a global level, and I wanted to be a part of it.
Sometimes it takes a global pandemic to shift your perspectives. And when the shifting is over, you finally see the light. I know it sounds cliché, but it IS possible to be the change you want to see, even in the midst of a pandemic. Change is good. Especially global (ex) change. So get out of your comfort zone and let the magic happen.
Before teaching in a traditional classroom, Suzanne Orzech was an instructor for Inlingua School of Languages in West Hartford, CT. She became a trainer in Direct Method Language Instruction for Inlingua in West Hartford and Chicago, and conducted Corporate Language Training programs for business professionals at Motorola, United Technologies and IBM. Suzanne then relocated to Silicon Valley, where she worked as an International Marketing Coordinator for Mercury Interactive Corporation (eventually purchased by HP) for several years. She then spent 18 years as a traditional classroom teacher in the greater Austin area, teaching all levels of French and Spanish and specializing in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate Instruction, Assessment and Evaluation. Suzanne is now happy to return to both her business and marketing roots as the Chief Marketing Officer at Class2Class™.