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Education is changing. How am I going to change with it?

By The SHARE Team

Editor’s noteLearning in the Time of Coronavirus is a multi-part video interview series where, in each episode, we interview folks with a unique perspective on how Covid-19 is affecting education across the world – and how we can keep learning in spite of it.

In this episode, Tom, an American citizen currently living in Berlin, talks to us about his experience living between two cultures and how his decades of experience in creating online learning experiences shaped his opinion that teaching online is not a radical departure from classroom teaching. Tom also provides some practical guidance about how we can remain thoughtful and clear-headed in confusing times.


Click or tap here to see the full transcript.

Patrick: Welcome to Learning in the Time of Coronavirus. I’m Patrick York, Head of Learning Design for SHARE professional learning. In each episode, we interview folks with a unique perspective on how Covid-19 is affecting education across the world – and how we can keep learning in spite of it.

My guest today is another old friend, Dr. Thomas Armbrecht, who is a former professor of French Literature, has been involved in online education since its inception, and a current principal contributor to the SHARE professional learning platform; and our curricular architect for the Moving Beyond Trauma series.

Hey Tom.

Tom: Hello!

Patrick: You’re in Berlin right now, but you’re an American citizen. What’s the experience been like being abroad while all of this is going on?

Tom: Well, I have a longstanding familiarity with both Europe and with Germany, so I’m not on vacation here. And I have, let’s say, infrastructure to provide me with support. For example, this amazing place I’m in right now is a friend’s house. My house is not this cool, hahaha. So my point being is that, for a lot of people, the experience would be different than it is for me.

But it has been an extremely interesting experience. Berlin is a very big city with people from all over the world. And it’s been quite civilized here. We keep distance, we’re calm. There’s been toilet paper hoarding, but nothing too extreme. I don’t whether behavior has anything to do with it, but Germany has had very few deaths relative to cases. It’s actually quite remarkable.

Patrick: What do you think is the difference, because you’ve also been back to the States before things got too serious. What’s the difference between the way people are reacting in Germany and the way they’re reacting in the United States? Or is there one?

Tom: Hard to say. For one thing, I think that it’s important actually to distinguish between Berlin and the rest of Germany, just as distinguishing between New York and the rest of the United States. And that’s not to say that Berlin isn’t really German – it’s such a big place that has a culture unique to it.

Is there a difference? Um, I would say one thing I’ve noticed about life here, in general, is that people really work hard to keep in touch with one another. I’m surprised how my community of friends here has grown in part because of a willingness to communicate. And among my friends in the United States, there’s definitely goodwill but it’s not this kind of daily communication or chatting and things. I think that it’s allowed me to create community more quickly, and it’s definitely been reassuring.

Patrick: Yea. So a lot has been written recently about the alienating effect of living life online.. because we’re forced to if we want to stay in touch with people that we care about. What’s your experience been like with that? And, especially as someone who’s been involved with distance education, someone who works from home. What’s changed, and what’s the same?

Tom: Hmm. I never thought myself an optimist, but technology has always made me very optimistic. And I think that we’re living.. we witnessed the invention of the Gutenberg, you know, printing press. I was trying myself to imagine what it must’ve been like in 1918 during the Spanish Flu when we couldn’t either receive or send information so easily. And so, personally, I think that technology is making this crisis bearable. Although, of course, it can make people hysterical, literally or very unhappy. It depends on how you use it, how thoughtful you use it. I actually have kind of an internet practice myself that I’ve definitely been strict about during this experience. Would you like to hear about it?

Patrick: Yes, absolutely!

Tom: I had made a decision a long time ago that I wouldn’t get my news visually or even orally. I’d prefer to read it. And that is because I think the tone, generally speaking, is either more neutral or you can have a distance from what is being said because you’re reading it. That doesn’t mean I think that.. part of that is my taste. But I don’t think that radio or TV is bad. But I will say that, by reading things, it doesn’t make me upset in the same way because of the empathetic response, the mirror neuron response where we actually do respond to the acts that other people are displaying.

And I don’t look at things like Facebook and things like this, personally. And, again, I have nothing against those things, but it’s my way of saying, “Alright, how does technology inform my understanding of this virus and the experience? And what do I want from it?” And for me, what I want is to use technology to stay, to have support, to not freak out, haha. To tell people I care about that, who.. I have friends who live alone. So in order to not continuously use the computer or my phone, I limit my technology in other ways to the meaningful ones to me. And I block out things that upset me. I would highly recommend that people do that. Figure out what is upsetting you in technology and what you’re getting from it. And then adjust your use of it accordingly.

Patrick: Yea. So, more specifically about online education – you’ve written fairly extensively on creating online presence for our blog, Learning Objects, but also elsewhere. What advice or guidance would you have for people who really aren’t used to or inclined to teaching online precisely because they can’t create the same level of teacher presence that they rely on in their classroom?

Tom: Well, first of all, I would say that.. the blog is called Object Lessons, which is funny because you named it.

Patrick: Oh! Hahaha, what did I call it? Learning Objects?

Tom: Yes! Haha. Which isn’t bad. Now wait a minute, I’m going to lose my train of thought. How is teaching.. What should people who’ve never taught online do in the face of a situation where they cannot interact with people the way they have? The key, as you implied, is creating presence as though you are online. When you are in a classroom with students, we automatically have a rapport that’s based in space and time with them, they’re in front of us, right? It’s easy. Not easy.

But in an online medium, you have to think about how can you be present in people’s lives? Because you can’t depend upon physical interaction. Personally, I think it’s easier than we think. We do it all the time, right? And we do it in a variety of ways. Sometimes we call people; we send texts constantly. Sometimes we video, sometimes we don’t. We look at what people post. We post our own things. All of those types of communication are perfect for online learning. Because they’re communications, and that’s what learning at its most basic is about – the exchange of ideas and helping people who know more.. well, no, the exchange of ideas, really.

So the task is to figure out what do you do, already, that you know how to do. What do you feel confident in, and how can you use the tools you know about to make those things happen? So that might mean a really radical rethinking of what you normally do in class. I’m thinking, organizing small group chats that last for 15 minutes instead of a whole class period, with maybe five students instead of 30. Or having a two-hour period when students can text you and chat you as much as they want, and that counts as class period.. where you, everybody has to ask three questions.. I don’t know! It’s about ingenuity, I think, and self-confidence. And realizing that you are a teacher, and you know how to teach. You just have to figure out how to do it in this new and difficult way. But there are a lot of resources for it online. And a lot of people have done this, are doing it.

I think there’s a real opportunity here actually, as well, for people to realize technology can be quite useful. Education is changing, how am I going to change with it?

Patrick: Yea. We were having a conversation elsewhere before this interview, and the topic of conversation was how some teachers across the country are kind of burnt out on the idea that they have to keep burning the candle..

Tom: Mm..

Patrick: .. even though they can’t go into their classrooms. And we were looking over a Reddit post recently where a teacher, I think anonymously said, “I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care at all.” And some educators are saying, “I’m losing sleep because I can’t teach my kids.” Other people are saying, “People are dying. Should we really care about, like, continued education over a couple of weeks? Is it really that big of a deal?” What’s your take on this?

Tom: Well, first of all I think that this is a process – a little like grieving. I think it is related to grieving because we’re living through a very traumatic situation right now, in which we’re in the middle of it. Right? It’s not as though it’s over and we’re recovering from it. We’re still doing it. I noticed in myself, for example, my first reaction was not to communicate with everybody. I would sort of withdraw. So I think that if people are feeling, for example, “I’m away from my class and I don’t want to teach it right now because I need to tend to my own emotional and practical needs, and those of my friends and family,” that makes perfect sense to me.

However, I think that things will change. I mean, what a teacher feels they can do maybe different in a week. Right? Or they may have more energy. I did. I do. But that’s not necessarily addressing the idea of burnout and what’s happened, which I think is a different topic. As a teacher, I will admit, who is burned out myself – I left the profession, as you know, voluntarily, despite having tenure. Again, it’s a realistic situation for many teachers, and this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak. Why should a person who is already burned out, or is in the process of doing so, where can they find the energy to reinvent their way of teaching in the midst of a crisis? That’s a really good question.

The optimistic answer is, “They’ll figure it out! We’ll do it together!” Right? But the other aspect of it, and I think this is important right now, is that people need to take it easy on themselves as well. Not only in self-care but in being realistic about what they can do. I came to a point in my career where I thought I cannot do this anymore, despite all the positive aspects of being a tenured professor. Coming to terms with that was harder, to my surprise, than actually getting a new job, wonderfully speaking. So, yea, that doesn’t really answer the question directly. But maybe this is affecting change in our entire society, in our entire world. Perhaps it will bring about good change in people’s lives eventually.

Patrick: Yea. And in the meantime, you had a great recommendation about how we should be consuming our news. Do you have any other strategies or ideas about how, in the midst of the uncertainty, we can kind of keep our heads about us? Are there things that you do on a daily basis that help keep you.. mindful?

Tom: Yes. And I actually think that.. I hate the word ‘mindful,’ although I love the practice.. It’s become one of those words that lost meaning because it’s used in so many contexts. However, I have my own practice of trying to be in the world intentionally, which is the, for me, being mindful of what’s happening about me.

I can, again, only talk about the things that work for me, but they’re not necessarily that hard. I do a lot of things you’re supposed to. I exercise every day, although that has been hard recently. I had to reinvent my practice, reconceive of what I think exercise is. As you know I like to lift weights, but now I’ve gone back to doing something yoga and intense stretching, and calisthenics, which is what I used to do.

I also write every day, which is very natural to me. But it’s something I would encourage people to try. And again, we can see a lot of advice about this, but just write. It doesn’t matter what you write, it doesn’t matter what you sound like, don’t reread it, just write. And because.. there are two reasons. First of all, words are ideas, and so when you interact with words, you have ideas. And then writing is a mirror of your thoughts, your state of mind. Maybe it’ll make you realize you don’t want to self-reflect, that’s alright! But, maybe, I don’t know.

I find, here’s the thing to write about, an exercise that I have used in the past, a practical one. It comes from cognitive behavioral therapy, and it involves writing down what are you worried about right now. And then write, in steps, the worst thing that could possibly happen and it can end with your death and the destruction of the planet, it doesn’t matter. 

But write down, let’s say, I’m worried that I’m going to.. run out of toilet paper, right? That means that I am going to be dirty and unable to control my body in a time where I can already not control my body, and that means that I’m going to be disgusted with myself. And that means ultimately people are going to reject me, and I’m going to be disgusting and hate myself. I don’t know, maybe that’s not a good example.. I’m trying to figure out why people are buying toilet paper.

Or.. let’s say about losing my job, yea that’s a realistic one. I’m going to lose my job because of this crisis. And I’m going to then.. I’m not going to be able to pay my rent. And then I’m not going to be able to.. then I’m going to have to move in with my parents. Then.. go down the list and write down all of the things that maybe could happen and are terrifying. And I think the further you go down the list, you realize how unlikely they are, or what a series of events would have to happen in order to get there. And then you can reflect on what might happen differently. Like, okay I am not going to be able to pay rent, so I could ask my landlord or maybe I got to get a roommate, or someone I don’t live with. But you know, it’s a way of confronting what really worries you. And I would recommend writing about that, if you don’t know what else to write about. Face it directly. What’s freaking me out? What could be the worst thing that could happen? How am I going to deal with it?

And the last thing I would say is that when I walk around, I make a concerted effort to look or listen. I actually just try to look around, and if it’s the same route I go all the time, I try to see something I’ve never seen before. I mean, it could be like branches in a tree, or a plastic bag sticking somewhere. But really just to look at the room as if I’ve never seen it. And sometimes I do hearing and seeing separately.

Patrick: Very helpful. And it feels like those are things that people could do, like I’m doing it right now. I’m hearing someone with a..

Tom: Hahaha..

Patrick: .. leaf-blower. And there are a lot of birds.. and I’m also..

Tom: Exactly. Look around your room! I’m going to sound like the wacko I am – I like to dust! In part because it makes you, if you do it thoughtfully, you look around and you see the things you have, and that’s also interesting to see what they’re made of, I don’t know! You can interact thoughtfully with the stuff you got. And then you can make decisions about how you feel about it.

Patrick: Well that’s very helpful. And thanks for taking the time to be interviewed for..

Tom: I can’t believe I just admitted..

Patrick: What’s that?

Tom: I can’t believe I just admitted I like to dust.

Patrick: Hahaha. And now the world will know. Alright, thanks, Tom.

Tom: You’re welcome! Bye.

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