The Hardest Part of Teaching Online

Secrets and lies

The eighth circle of hell from Dante’s Inferno where fraudsters get thrown into a pit to be tortured for eternity by serpents.

Between 2012 and 2015 I moved from the UK to Thailand.

The sun rose and set at the same time every day. It was warm. I had a stress-free job that paid me enough to live comfortably. I had lots of friends, holidayed in exotic destinations, and got to sample foreign cuisine. Life was good.

In my youthful naivety, I didn’t know there was a price to pay for all that.

Of course I had expected it to be hard to keep in touch with friends and family while I was gone, but I wasn’t expecting those bonds to imperceptibly erode away like the face of a cliff. We spoke over Skype. We emailed. But it wasn’t enough to keep the relationships intact over those years.

When I eventually returned to the UK, those bonds had well and truly crumbled into the sea. We could make small talk over a drink in the pub, but I felt no sense of love there. We were strangers and it took years to fully win them back round again.

I thought about this recently while trying to put my finger on why teaching online has been so hard.

Like my jaunt to the Far East, teaching from home had at first felt like a teacher’s dream come true: no commute. No classroom management. No duties. No lesson observations.

But it didn’t take long for the bond between myself and my students to unspool.

A few weeks ago I emailed the parents of my Year 11 students who had not yet submitted any work. The responses shocked me – Lies. Blatant lies. Massive plain-faced obvious fibs, slinking one after the other into my Inbox:

‘My son didn’t understand what to do, but now he does,’ read one parent’s reply (Really? Just like that?).

‘My son didn’t do it because he was worried he’d get a low mark,’ said another (What, worse than zero?).

‘My son didn’t see the work. He’s seen it now and will send it to you this week’ (Spoiler: he didn’t).

Not to mention replies I received from the students themselves:

‘Sir, I’ve looked but I can’t find the lesson – when did you ask us to do this?’ (In the lesson… Wait, you mean to tell me you didn’t even attend the lesson?!)

‘Sorry Sir. I didn’t know I had to submit it. Can you be clearer next time?’ (Well, I’ll do my best, but on Show My Homework not only did I select ‘online submission’, I also wrote ‘submit this to me’ in large bold font on the task itself. If that wasn’t enough of a clue you may recall that strange last third of the lesson where I repeatedly screamed ‘SEND THIS TO ME!’).

And then there’s the plagiarism: one boy wrote, ‘Priestley uses the character of Mrs Birling to represent the corrosive influence of power in the hands of unfeeling authority.’ It’s an excellent line, but it’s also the sort of writing that springs from the mind of a student who is on the proverbial ball, not one who has to be chased onto the pitch at half-time.

After a week of quietly stewing (read: loudly complaining to anyone who’d listen) my anger finally subsided, but I’m left feeling depressed by it all. It’s not that my students and I had the best relationship before lockdown, but I didn’t expect things to get this bad so soon. More surprisingly, I didn’t expect to be so bothered by their lying.

I feel betrayed. So much so I’ve even started to question their intentions at every turn. Now, at the end of each online lesson, when I receive a couple of ‘Thanks Sir’ messages I just reply: ‘Et tu, Brute?’

Psychologists argue that this kind of dishonesty has a de-stabilising effect, causing us to question the very nature of reality itself. Being lied to is bad, but if my students are so willing to deceive me, was there ever anything between us at all? Were they all just pretending?

I’m like Macbeth just after he’s murdered Duncan. The betrayal has left me standing disoriented in the dark unable to recognise the familiar sounds echoing around my castle.

Perhaps it’s true what they say: long-distance relationships don’t work. Despite the magical wonders of digital telecommunication, we still need to gather in the same room once in a while.

To look each other in the eye if nothing else.

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