Patrice Palmer profile pictureTeaching During Challenging Times: A Canadian Perspective

Patrice Palmer


When I was asked to write this blog post, I thought about what the word challenge means. The Cambridge dictionary definition is:

challenge (n): the situation of being faced with – something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person’s ability

When I reflect on living and teaching during a global pandemic, challenge is definitely the right word to use. I know for me, the last year has required great mental and physical effort to be active, well, and function at my pre-pandemic level. It hasn’t always been easy and I’m not alone.

Challenges teachers face

In preparation for this post, I asked a few colleagues to tell me what their greatest challenges were for them in the last year. Here’s a short list:

    • lack of curriculum guidelines
    • finding balance and letting go of trying to do everything
    • keeping the online students engaged
    • helping students who struggle to maintain structure

It’s no surprise that we perceive “challenges” in different ways, and that the last year has been full of them in our personal and professional lives.

Depending on where you teach in Canada, you may be in class, teaching online, or in a hybrid model. I currently teach at a college and in March 2020, faculty had a week to get all course content online, including final exams. It was incredibly stressful to pivot so quickly; however, teachers being the professionals they are, made it possible.

Teaching into the abyss

More than a year later, I have yet to step foot in a classroom, and I believe it will not happen in 2021 since we are in a third lockdown in my province. I do like teaching online and haven’t really missed having a physical classroom but I do miss personal interaction with students. Because I teach adults, cameras are optional so I usually teach to black squares. A few brave souls will keep their cameras on. My son, who is a college student, told me one of his professors begged students (even a few) to keep their cameras on since she found it hard to teach into the abyss.

One challenge for me has been changing how I teach. In-person methods do not easily translate in Zoom which I quickly learned. In the first week or two, I was speeding through my Powerpoint slides. It wasn’t until a brave student unmuted her microphone and asked me to slow down, did I realize what I was doing. Because I couldn’t see students taking notes, and then looking up when they were done, I went through content too fast. Now I make sure to stop sharing my screen every few slides to check in, ask questions, and hopefully engage students enough to contribute a comment or ask a question.

Although I’m getting used to not seeing students on Zoom, I do find the silence difficult.  I’ve taken advantage of webinars and articles that provide tips for increasing student engagement. “Zoom fatigue” is described as the tiredness, worry, or burnout associated with using virtual platforms. It’s real for both teachers and students who are feeling weary. Occasionally, when I’ve finished my online class early, students have reacted with joy and quickly logged out.

The importance of social presence in online learning

Dr. Robin Kay is a Dean at a Canadian University and has written about the importance of social presence in online learning. It is defined as “the ability of participants to identify with the community, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment and develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their personalities”. I agree that having a strong social presence is important so I have built in discussion posts and weekly break out rooms. Kay suggests that maximizing social connection among and with students can occur with quick feedback, responding to emails, short videos to the class, and establishing a virtual presence. I’m definitely adding more discussion posts, and a break out room activity in every lecture. Students tell me over and over how much they enjoy break out rooms.

I have also been learning to use new tech tools, like Slido and Wheel of Names  to provide some novelty. Our brains can quickly become tuned out to the mundane so I try to shake things up a bit.

Teacher and student self-care is essential

For the most part, I feel I’ve mastered the challenges of teaching online. However, as a teacher self-care advocate, it’s important for me to be aware of my mental health. Daily walks are a must no matter how cold it is here in the winter. Frequent calls to friends lifts my mood. Cooking with my son and watching NBA basketball is an activity that makes me happy. Reading fiction as an escape has been pure bliss. As we enter the second year of the global pandemic, I’m more conscious than ever about my own health and well-being, and making sure students are supported, encouraged and treated with compassion and kindness.

I do believe that at some point, life will return to normal but in the meantime, it’s important to remain hopeful. This quote by Dr. Charles Snyder, a psychologist and renowned hope researcher, is a good message during challenging times.

A rainbow is a prism that sends shards of multicolored light in various directions. It lifts our spirits and makes us think of what is possible. Hope is the same – a personal rainbow of the mind.


Cambridge Dictionary.

Kay, R. (2020). Thriving in an Online World: A Guide for Higher Education Instructors. Faculty of Education Ontario Tech University, Canada.

Lee, J. (2020). A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue.

Snyder, C. (2002). Hope Theory.

Published by

Patrice Palmer

Patrice Palmer, M.Ed., M.A., has more than 25 years’ experience as an ESL Teacher, TESL Trainer, and Writer in Canada and Hong Kong. She has taught students from 8 to 80 years in a variety of programs such as English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and language courses for new immigrants. She is the author of The Teacher Self-Care Manual and Successful Group Work.

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