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.

The One Resource Every Teacher Needs

The kindness of strangers

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

Working from home these past two months has been much harder than I anticipated.

I’ve struggled to put my finger on precisely why. Is it the difficulty of establishing a work/life balance? Or the increased time I find myself sat in front of a computer screen?

While both of these have contributed to making my usual workday that little bit harder, I’d argue that it’s in fact the absence of my colleagues which has amplified the struggle.

While teaching can feel lonely at the best of times there was always the respite of having lunch together; a shared duty or free period; a chat after school or banter outside our classroom doors while the students filed in.

Those are now gone. Like breaths of fresh air, I took them for granted when they were in abundance. Now that they’re not, it’s all I want. That’s not to say I don’t hear from them at all – our days are punctuated by back-and-forth WhatsApp messages. And while these little pockets of air help sustain me to a degree, they’re no substitute for the deep breath of a post-work chat over a cup of tea.

‘There is no desert like living without friends. Friendship multiplies the good of life and divides the evil.’

Balthasar Gracian, philosopher

Why should building good relationships with colleagues be a priority?

Pre-Covid I liked to wind up my colleagues by calling our relationship a ‘friendship of utility’. I’d tease them by saying that we only got along because we had to, and we pretended to like each other because it was of practical benefit to us all.

And like with all jokes, there was probably an element of truth to that.

Why then do I long after them? What exactly is it that I miss?

They provide a refuge against suffering

My mum once told me: a problem shared is a problem halved. She’s right about most things and she’s right here too. Whenever I was struggling it was always reassuring to hear that they were too. It can feel lonely in the classroom, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely job.

They provide guidance

I’ve lost track of the number of times my colleagues have come up with a solution to a problem I’d have never considered in a million years. Whether it be a strategy for managing behaviour or a new way to approach a topic, my teaching practice has only been enriched by the wisdom of those teaching around me.

They cancel out my defects

I’ve been rescued by my colleagues over the years. Literally saved on a few occasions from a rebellious class. Not to mention the last-minute lesson resources they’ve shared or the times they’ve helped me fill-in confusing paperwork. Many times they have taken on some of my marking burden without complaint. They picked up my slack when I couldn’t and I like to think that sometimes, although never really enough, I’ve been able to re-pay the favour in kind.

They’re fun

More than anything, my closest colleagues are a source of daily enjoyment. We joke around and make fun of each other. We gossip and we laugh a lot. When the job of teaching has felt stale, a few minutes of gentle buffoonery has often provided me with that much-needed shot of energy to get me over the finish line.

How can you begin to build these relationships in the first place?

As an inexperienced teacher, I was a big bag of neediness. Most new teachers are. In the beginning you take more than you can give which is not the best dynamic for establishing a fruitful mutual relationship with those you work with.  

But that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer. If I had my time as a trainee again I would be more generous with my time and with my thanks. If I made a decent lesson resource, I’d share it just on the off chance they might want to use it. I’d do a better job of listening to what they were telling me and try not to feel quite so resentful when feedback was rushed. I’d work harder, even when I didn’t feel like it. I’d be more honest. I’d apologise when I was wrong.

Trust between strangers takes time to establish, but the process is sped up when we’re trying our best.


Once Covid is under control and schools re-open, it’s tempting to think that I’ll have nothing more to complain about once my colleagues and I are re-united.

Except I might. I have worked in my school for five years now and conventional wisdom suggests I should be looking to further my career in a new setting. Which is a challenge I’m up for, in theory.

But I hesitate at breaking the bonds I’ve formed over half a decade. No matter the polite promises we’ll make to one another I know the likelihood of us staying in touch is very slim. I’ve been burnt before, spending years in other workplaces with colleagues I’ve seen get married and whose children I’ve held.

And years later they rest peacefully on Facebook; a graveyard of individuals I once knew but from whom I have since drifted apart.

I’ll find new colleagues in the future, I’m sure. Knowing of their fundamental importance, I’ll make sure that I do.

But it doesn’t remove the sting of having to leave old ones behind.

Why I Spend 3 Hours Planning Lessons Every Day

I may have a problem

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People are horrified when I tell them how much time I spend each day planning lessons. I now get them to sit in a chair before I do just in case they pass out from shock.

I’m five years into my career, but I still spend about three hours each day planning lessons. At least. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t.

And those aren’t lessons for the whole week either. Just the next day.

If Ofsted handed out medals for hours invested on Microsoft applications, I’d have the Victoria Cross by now.

If that doesn’t make you cringe in disbelief, then let me share something even more embarrassing: I never plan at school. I always do it late at night between the hours of nine and midnight.  There, I said it.

Missed opportunities

Do I recommend you do this? God no. It’s just as exhausting as it sounds and every minute I spend with Microsoft Powerpoint is a minute of opportunity lost elsewhere in my life. I should be spending time with my wife; making memories that I can look back on fondly from my deathbed. Not formatting backgrounds, re-sizing pictures, text boxes and fonts.

In forty years’ time will my adult children huddle around my rocking chair, squeeze my hand and say: ‘Dad, tell us that story again – the one about the time you spent 15 minutes looking online for the perfect gif’?

No. They won’t.

But those children (who won’t exist if I continue to ignore my wife) will be the ones missing out because I’ve created some stonkingly good resources over the years. Really – you should see them. They’d fetch a pretty penny on TES Resources if I ever got round to uploading them.

Which of course I won’t. Because there’s that voice in my head (the one who won’t let me use last year’s lessons) who tells me that next year’s lessons will be even better.

A good investment?

I tell myself it’s time well-spent, that it’s okay to spend so much time planning because this is the year I’ll get the lessons ‘right’; that next year I won’t have to work quite so hard; that these will be the lessons to trump all previous years’ attempts.

But then I load up a lesson I taught a year ago and want to set my laptop on fire.

So I plan it again. Often from scratch.

Results

Part of the problem is that the lessons I spend all this time planning are just better. Having spent a significant amount of time thinking the topic through the night before, I’ll teach it really well because I know the material inside out. I’ll have pictured myself, aged 12, sat at the back of the classroom on a rainy Tuesday afternoon and wondered what I’d have wanted or needed in that lesson.

So when I spend all this time planning, I find my students are more engaged, behave better and learn more. I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time.

Who’s it really for?

But here’s where it gets odd – I’m not just motivated by the intention to create good lessons. Crafting Powerpoint slides late at night has become a bad habit. And like all bad habits, it serves me well in some way. Like an alcoholic who needs a finger of vodka in their morning orange juice just to start the day, I can’t turn the lights out unless my USB stick is choc-a-bloc with lessons I’m proud of. They help me sleep at night.

And I enjoy making them. Really! The magic act of conjuring a lesson out of thin air gives me a sense of joy that offsets the numb feeling I get from lesson delivery, marking, emails and meetings. My lessons are not beautiful or particularly sophisticated, but I made them with my own fingertips. They came from me, and that act of generosity is real and special.

In my first couple of years teaching, my lesson slides were a life preserver; a certainty I could depend on amongst the chaos. In some ways, I suppose they still are. I don’t need them for the exact same reasons as before, but they’re still my way of saying to the world: ‘I can’t be a bad teacher because – well, just look at all my hard work!’

And if I’m being truly honest, after years being told I wasn’t a good teacher, I’m probably still spending all this time lesson planning to convince myself that I actually do measure up after all.

Any sensible teacher reading this will say the amount of time I spend planning is unsustainable. That chalk and talk is perfectly fine, that good is good enough and when it comes to lesson resources I should beg, borrow and steal.

I know they’re right. I’ve heard it all before. But I expect I’ll continue for some time yet.

Anyway, enough of this – I have gifs to find.

How to Wake Up Early For School

Rise and shine

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but neither of those matter. School starts at 8 o’clock sharp so you had better be up in time. While the ability to hop out of bed before dawn seems to come naturally to some, it is a habit I had to learn.

My inability to get out of bed proved to be more than a mild inconvenience – in fact, in my first couple of years as a teacher, I arrived late to school more than once. I lost a lot of credibility for that, with colleagues and students alike, and swore to myself that it wouldn’t happen again. And, so far, it hasn’t.

Here’s how I now manage to wake up at 6am every day:

Go to bed early

This may seem obvious, but it’s the biggest mistake I continue to make. I’ve written about the importance of sleep in a previous blog post. It goes without saying that the more sleep you can get, the easier it can be to wake up in the morning.

Cut out alcohol

Abstaining from a drink on a weekday evening makes it so much easier to wake up. Even a couple of drinks can play havoc with your sleep. Best leave that beer in the fridge until Friday.

Set two alarms

I have the tendency to turn off my alarm and then fall back asleep. To work around this problem I now set a secondary alarm to go off 10 minutes later.

Use a gentle alarm sound

I used to hate being woken up by the obnoxious beep of a traditional alarm clock. On my Android phone I use an alarm sound called ‘Awaken’ which I find very subtle and pleasant to wake up to.

‘Awaken’ – my preferred alarm sound

Look through the options on your phone and choose one you find the least jarring.

Put an alarm out of reach

I put my phone on the other side of the room rather than next to my bed. Having to get out from under the covers and onto my feet to switch off the alarm signals to my mind that it is time to wake up.

Have something to look forward to

If there’s something that does make me spring out of bed, it’s the thought of the coffee and croissant waiting for me in the kitchen. This doesn’t have to extend just to food though. Perhaps you might enjoy listening to some music, a podcast, some brief meditation, reading, or yoga. Whatever you enjoy, use this to lure you out from under the duvet.

Sleep with a morning person

Somehow my wife has no problem getting up at 5.30am. Fortunately for me, the sound of her moving about wakes me up. Plus, because she is up early, it feels like an ordinary behaviour to have, which makes me more likely to get out of bed myself. 

Remember why you’re getting up so early in the first place

I chose to teach over other ways of making a living and I’m not going to be able to deliver on that promise from bed.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180, once wrote:

‘At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’

I often think of this quote on the mornings when I really don’t want to get up.

I try to remember that I’m here to serve. That there are people who need me. And they can’t do it alone.

Getting up doesn’t seem so bad after all.

8 Simple Ways To Stop Procrastinating While Teaching Online

Don’t delay any longer with these tips

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I used to believe that I could beat procrastination through sheer willpower alone.

I relied on it to write passable essays as a student. Then I relied on it to scrape by as a newly-employed graduate. But when I tried to use willpower to get work done as a teacher, I become so overwhelmed I almost failed to qualify.

There was simply too much work to do and willpower alone couldn’t tackle all of it.

So if you’re a teacher working from home facing hours of planning, marking, phone calls or emails, and can’t bring yourself to start, here are some ways that have helped me feel more motivated:

Have a ‘work zone’

I used to work sat on the sofa or in bed. But because I was in the habit of using these places for relaxation and comfort, I couldn’t get in the right frame of mind to work.

I now have a small desk I only use for work. This is my ‘work zone’.

Ideally, your ‘work zone’ would be a whole room like an office or spare bedroom you don’t use for any other activities. But if, like me, you live in very modest accommodation, try to find at least part of a room (like a corner) you don’t use for anything else. The aim of this is that when you sit in your ‘work zone’ your brain thinks ‘time to do work’ and expects nothing else.

Remove visual distractions

Have you ever gone to the kitchen with the good intention of making a healthy lunch only to find yourself suddenly eating crisps? Odd, isn’t it? The visual stimulus of seeing the crisps is so powerful, they become almost impossible to ignore. And even if you can, you’ll be expending lots of energy trying.

Reduce the friction to your work by removing anything within sight that might distract you from it. Put you your phone on silent and in a drawer. Remove the browser icons for social media and games on your computer. Unplug the television and put it in a cupboard.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Begin with something fun

Whenever I had a task I didn’t want to do, I’d put on some headphones and play some music or a podcast. Since I enjoy doing these, it was easy to begin. It’s a way of ‘greasing the slide’ into work.

After ten or fifteen minutes I’ll reach a point where get frustrated that what I’m listening to is preventing me from concentrating on the work, so I’ll turn off what I’m listening to, leaving me engaged in the task I was avoiding to begin with. I’ve been doing this for so long I now only have to put some headphones on to get in the zone. I don’t even have to listen to anything.

Reward yourself afterwards

Make a contract with yourself:

‘Once I do [something I must], I’ll get to do [something I want to]

An example might be:

‘Once I [plan one lesson], I’ll get to [watch a video on Youtube]’

Then once you’ve planned the lesson (or whatever the task is that you need to do) make sure you honour the contract and follow through with the reward. You’ll be tempted to continue working, but don’t – if you make the contract count for something it’s more likely to be effective in the long-term.

Writing it down at first can be helpful as that makes the deal feel real.

Use a Pomodoro timer

Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato. It’s very common, I’m told, for Italian homes to have a tomato-shaped timer to help manage timings in the kitchen.

A Pomodoro timer

How a Pomodoro timer works is simple: you start a timer (let’s say 20 minutes) and you have to concentrate on a task for that duration of time. When the timer ends you can take a short break of no more than 5 or 10 minutes. Once the break is up, it’s back to work for another 20 minutes. Repeat as much as necessary.

There are dozens on Pomodoro Timers on YouTube you can use. Some are as brief as 15 minutes, while others go up to an hour. Choose what you think is achievable for you and alter if needed. There are also websites like Pomofocus which does the same thing.

I find I can work for more of a sustained period, not giving up so quickly, when the time to have a break is decided for me. It allows me to get into a deeper state of concentration. Often to the extent that when the time for a break comes around, I want to carry on working.

Use the Paperclip technique 

This method is as simple as it gets, but incredibly powerful nonetheless. Put two jars on your desk with paperclips in one and nothing in the other. Each time you complete a task, move one paperclip from the full jar to the empty jar. This could work for anything. Let’s say you need to assess ten pieces of writing. Put ten paperclips in one jar. Once you’ve finished assessing each piece of work, you transfer a paperclip to the other jar. I’ve found it makes the smallest of tasks really satisfying (especially when you can get a nice ‘plink’ sound).

It was this technique that helped me knuckle down and begin writing this blog. As you can see – it works!

Stay in touch with colleagues who work hard (and politely avoid those who don’t)

As social creatures, we instinctively want to fit in. The more I hear from other colleagues, and how productive they’re being, the more motivated I am to work just as hard.

On the other hand, if my colleagues are telling me how they’re doing the bare minimum, I start questioning whether I should be working any more than they are.

Remember why you became a teacher in the first place

I never imagined I’d be teaching online when I started teacher training several years ago. And yet here I am.

Sometimes I need to channel my inner coach in order to talk myself into making the right choices. This is positive self-talk: I remind myself why I chose to become a teacher over other ways of earning a living; how being a professional means remaining engaged and showing up even when I don’t feel like it.

The reason I chose to teach may be different to yours, but whatever it is – keep it in mind as this reason can help you stay motivated when the work gets stale.

I wouldn’t recommend you try all of these at once. Maybe pick a couple that you think sound helpful for your circumstances and give them a try.

Nowadays I’ve found the satisfaction of doing the work itself has taken over and I rarely need to use these as much as I used to. But they changed my life for the better a few years ago and I just wish I had learnt about them sooner.

I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me.