With mics on mute, it's like teaching into the abyss

With her students' microphones off, Sarah Ledger spends an hour watching tumbleweed drift across cyberspace

Sarah Ledger

Coronavirus school closures: The challenge for a teacher of delivering an online learning lesson with students on mute

We’re never happy, are we? After years swapping top tips on how to keep our students quiet in the classroom, we’re now all complaining that our live remote lessons – strange to think that this time last year no one would’ve had a clue what that meant – are being greeted with stony silence.

In the classroom before a lesson starts – particularly at the start of term or after a disastrous lesson when someone had to be removed, eight ended up on detention and whatever was being taught went out of the window along with two shatterproof rulers and a pencil case (we’ve all been there …) – there’s a frisson as the anxious teacher runs through her itinerary.

Are the exercise books ready to be distributed? Enough worksheets? Green pens? Projector? Is the “everything you need to know about Alfred, Lord Tennyson” PowerPoint cued up? No – it’s Ted Hughes staring broodily back… What are they supposed to be learning today? Blimey…good question… 

There’s an adrenaline rush as the class files in and yesterday’s miscreant is redirected to a seat as far away from the window as possible without actually leaving them in the corridor. And another hour flies by. 

Online learning: A row of mic symbols with a bar across them

It’s similar before a remote live lesson. We’re all familiar now with the drill of lining up documents to be shared or access to assignments. Then there’s that peculiar anticipation that builds as you stare at your own backlit image on the screen, pausing only for a moment to wonder what the blithers the dogs are up to in the garden behind you, before you blur your background. 

A click on “participants” to reassure you’ve sent the invitation to the right class at the right time, and a wave of relief as little initialised avatars spring up across the display. Your enthusiasm is only mildly dampened as you note the row of mic symbols with a bar sinister across each one.

You greet the class exuberantly. Silence. You up your positive regard. Nothing. You lightly quip “Is there anybody there? Two knocks for yes, one for no,” and tumbleweed drifts across cyberspace. 

You quote the first eight lines of Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners – “‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller/ Knocking on the moonlit door” –before grinding to a halt. If you hadn’t lost your audience by this point, knocking on the moonlit door will do it for you, no bother.

Time for a new tactic: direct action. You single out the least retiring member of the class: “Adam, how are you this morning?” 

But Adam’s avatar gazes unblinkingly back at you, mute as a spud. 

You soldier on. “Looks like Adam’s gone for a cuppa…” and the whole class – lined up in a neat little grid before you – radiate contempt at your lame attempt at humour. I mean, honestly, what teenage boy goes for a cuppa?

Like a stand-up comic dying on her arse, you gamely lumber through the lesson. By now it’s too late to order everyone to unmute. You should have thought of that before. If you’re lucky, some kind soul will turn their mic on to croak, yes, they can see the poem, but they will hastily mute themselves again before you can trap them into engaging in dialogue. 

When silence is no longer the dream

There’s a moment when you reflect: time was, this was the dream. No chatting, no tapping, no wriggling; only absorbed silence. The trouble is you have no idea what is absorbing them. 

At this point, a shatterproof ruler or two going out of the window would be a welcome distraction. You’re flustered and your words come out wrong. You have a fleeting – only fleeting, mind – sympathy for Gavin Williamson muddling up “open” and “closed” in his statement to the House. 

Sweating, you highlight the caesurae in yellow, and ask for comments: “You can type your answer in the chat…” you suggest. 

But, like ghosts, they remain blankly out of reach. You picture electronic devices on desks and tables all over the catchment area – speakers switched off – with your desperate earnest face mouthing pointlessly on the screens, while your students amuse themselves without you. Or, worse, they’re texting or Snapchatting each other about how ridiculous you look. 

In your head, you have a list of changes you’re going to make before the next lesson.

1. Ensure that you take a register at the start where everyone unmutes in turn to respond to their name. At least you’ll know they’re there.

2. Learn how to use Assignments on Teams or Whiteboard or anything that means you can detect participation and progress. 

3. Make “unmute” the default, just as you forbid “I don’t know” as a suitable answer in the classroom.

4. Create a routine where you give time for them to prepare verbal responses safely: “You’ve got two minutes to mute while you work out what you’re going to say, then I need everyone to unmute and be ready to speak.”

5. Stop laughing at your own pathetic jokes. You don’t sound like a chilled-out entertainer; you sound like an idiot.

Finally, the lesson limps to a close. You thank them for listening. You remind them to post their work on the VLE. You tell them you’ll see them again on Thursday.

And then a minor miracle occurs. One by one, the mics unmute: “Thanks, miss,” “All right,” “Bye, miss,” “Thanks for the lesson.” 

Then, one by one, the avatars flicker off, and you’re left contemplating your own weary face again. The sense that you’ve spent an hour shouting into a bottomless well disperses.

And then – if you’re anything like me – you check the school remote-learning policy and discover the expectation is that all cameras are on at all times. Put it down to experience, and move on. 

Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton, Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years

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