Venturing in to the unknown (teaching on Zoom in lockdown) - Refugee Council
June 2, 2021

Venturing in to the unknown (teaching on Zoom in lockdown)

by Pamela Burton, Refugee Council volunteer

Unprecendented. Unknown. Unpredicted. Some of the defining words in the frightening year of Covid, as we began our Zoom lessons.

It was early April and there had been no lessons since 16th March, I think some of us teachers were filled with fear. I know I was. My technological abilities are very limited. My lack of interest, combined with laziness in all things techno, mean that I have developed a bit of a phobia. At least, that’s what I tell myself and tell everyone else. Sometimes, challenged with opening a file that stubbornly refuses to co-operate, I tussle and tussle, randomly clicking and highlighting and – bingo! – after ages and ages, miraculously I’ve opened the file. But then I immediately completely forget what I did.

Despite our fear, we teachers desperately wanted to support the young people who were not only coming from the dangerous, frightening life they had led before getting to the UK, but were now trapped inside their new homes, unable to meet other people or discover their new country.

But it was going to be’ interesting’. In the classroom, I have course books, a white board, handouts, authentic materials that can be clearly seen and touched. Most of all, there is human contact. I can see the student who looks lost or bored. Or tired and sad. I can move the students around if they are chatting in their own language. We can use the classroom space for games and activities and role play. How was I going to be able to transfer my teaching practice from this ideal ambiance to the weird interactive world of Zoom? When I spoke to some of my fellow teachers, they expressed the same anxiety as I had, which was reassuring to a certain extent.

In preparation for my first class, I assembled an array of about twenty everyday objects that could be clearly seen on the screen, such as a tin opener, comb, matches, teddy bear, scarf, etc. These were accompanied by A4 paper with the name of the object boldy written in felt tip pen. Basic, you may think. Luddite even. Yes, so did I, but it was my only option.  The second activity I prepared was a list, according to Wikipedia, of the world’s best footballers. Football is always a bonding topic. Finally, we would play a game called Celebrity where a person chooses a famous person to be and everyone has to ask questions to find out who the person is.

My lesson planned, the hour arrived. I was very nervous. There were four students, two boys from Afghanistan, a boy from Albania and a girl from Vietnam. We began the first activity and the students did well, knew quite a few of the objects and learned the names of a few more. They were engaged and friendly. We moved on to the second activity, the football list. This engendered, as I had hoped, a lively debate. Finally, we played the Celebrity game, which was fun, although they chose footballers who I had never heard of, as well as President Trump, and our one young girl student was Hermione from Harry Potter. So my first lesson was over and it hadn’t gone too badly.

The students were delightful, motivated, focused, and highly intelligent, although the Vietnamese student was very shy. 

The boys interacted freely and confidently. They didn’t scorn my A4 paper texts or mock my football list, although they politely informed me that it was very out of date. They agreed to do some homework.

And so the adventure of teaching over Zoom began. There are challenges. It’s often tricky with audibility – the combination of Zoom, shyness, sometimes distractedness. Instructions often have to be repeated several times. As they are all at home, there can be issues of late awakenings, going off for a cup of coffee or just the technology letting us down. My own lack of IT skills limited me in some ways but I tried to overcome this using other ‘creative’ tools.

And I discovered that there were major advantages. As we were in lockdown and there was no school or college for the students to move on to, and as the weeks went by and more students joined the class, we had a continuity that we don’t normally enjoy. I felt the students were able to confirm what they had learned each week. They got in to the habit of doing homework, presenting it to the group and getting feedback, which was positive for them and very useful for me.

Over the months we have covered many topics, including fashion, hobbies, jobs, personal ambitions, friendship, inspirational people, sport; I’ve tried to encompass all the skills by using poetry and songs as well as grammar. The students have written some beautiful poems, and one girl actually learned the poem Smile by Spike Milligan that we had worked on, and she was able to recite it by heart and it is a long poem. It was wonderful to see the students making progress, particularly the very shy ones, who began to come out of their shells and demonstrate their individual talents. Our young Vietnamese student, who loved fashion, produced some lovely drawings. They were able to debate with confidence and express their views.

We established a group of the most lovely students imaginable, who bonded and supported each other.

I have to confess, not every lesson was a roaring success. Sometimes the mists of boredom seeped through the screen, when a particular activity or exercise failed to grip the students’ attention. Sometimes after a lesson, I would feel blue having failed to ignite their interest or teach them some fascinating grammar rule. But that happens in the classroom too and, on the whole, thanks to the students’ strong desire to learn, after the lesson I would be very energized. I feel my main aim is confidence building and a balance between learning and playing and practicing all the skills works best.

I still wish my technological skills were better and that is something I should address. I do miss the human contact of the classroom. But I have learned a lot from this strange year of teaching over Zoom, I’ve had to adapt, be creative, be patient.  More than anything, I feel blessed and privileged to have known such an extraordinary group of young people. I have been teaching at the Refugee Council now for over five years. I will always remember the first group I had very vividly. But then, over the years, the children become one child, who I love, who symbolizes them all; but the group that I taught this year, like my first group, I will always remember; their faces, their names, their intelligence, their gifts, their humour, their sweetness, their courage and their determination.

In celebration of Volunteers Week and the amazing contributions of volunteers in welcoming refugees to the UK and helping them rebuild their lives, we are sharing stories from our own volunteers. 

Pam is a teaching volunteer with our Youth Development Project in Croydon.