Jul 21, 2020

First-Hand Lessons of a Virtual Classroom: A German Teacher Abroad in the US

Fulbrighter Focus



Teaching abroad comes with many unexpected chances to not only teach, but also to learn. For German Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Caroline Bussmann, her time in New York at Bard College came with lessons in connecting to students, learning new cultures, and even extracurricular subjects like how to adapt to a pandemic. We talked to Caroline about her experience and what she learned abroad about teaching, digitalization, the physical vs. virtual classroom, and about herself. Read all her insights in the interview below.

Hi, thanks for talking with us! To start off, could you introduce yourself and what you do?

Hi, thanks for having me! My name is Caroline Bussmann, and I am in teacher training for German, English, Drama, and German as a Second Language with a focus on inclusive teaching techniques at the University of Bayreuth. My long-term goal is to become a professor for German Studies at an American college or university, which is why I decided to take part in the Fulbright FLTA Program.

You were abroad for the last year, can you tell us what you were up to?

I applied for a Fulbright scholarship and worked as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant at Bard College, New York. During that time, I had the opportunity to teach, but also to learn a lot about teaching, about other cultures and my own culture. Thanks to the Fulbright network, I attended numerous conferences to educate myself on various topics.

Besides that, I had the chance to volunteer as a Global Classroom Guide for the One to World Organization. They connect NYC-area institutions with trained, international university scholars to learn about world cultures and global issues through interactive presentations. I went to a primary school to talk with the students about human rights in Germany through discussing the wishes and hopes of refugees coming to Europe.

Learn more about being a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant in the US here!

Where were you when the coronavirus pandemic started and did it have an impact on you personally or professionally?

I was at Bard, where the topic was focused on way earlier than in the rest of the United States. We have many international students, especially from China, and our conservatory orchestra traveled to China during the winter break. Therefore, the situation was already analyzed and discussed in January.

The week before spring break, the administration decided to send all students back home who had the chance to do so. Students and teaching assistants who were not able to go home were allowed to stay on campus. The decision had to be made over the weekend and most of the students quickly decided to leave the campus.

Personally, it was disappointing for me to not be able to say goodbye to my students in person. The same goes for the friends I’ve found and the colleagues I worked with. And on the professional side, a conference that I planned to attend was canceled, the Global Classroom Project went online, and at Bard, we switched to remote teaching.

As you were already active as a German Foreign Language Teaching Assistant before the pandemic, were there any changes to your daily experience and routine at your school?

Since most of the students left the college, the daily experience changed a lot, but the routine almost stayed the same. I was still able to pick up my food from the dining hall, I taught and took classes (just online), and spent time with friends. But the conversations with students between classes and the sound of people chattering or laughing on campus were missing, and the German language regular meetup during lunchtime had to be canceled. In general, the campus felt abandoned.

On the other hand, I lived together with eight teaching assistants from around the world and our sense of community increased even more during this time.

Can you tell us about your experience with the virtual classroom and how it compared to the regular classroom?

The Bard Language Center organized a workshop on online language teaching for all language professors and teaching assistants. We joined our forces, explained different teaching techniques and online platforms to one another, and discussed asynchronous teaching methods as an alternative to digital teaching.

Even though I was well-prepared, technology is seldom on the teacher’s side, and there are numerous spots in online teaching where it seems to be sheer luck whether it will work or not. But surprisingly, remote teaching went way better than I thought it would. The students, especially for the early morning lessons, were more punctual. Also, it was very easy to include media via screen sharing. But there was less spontaneous interaction and all the chattering that happens before and after the course decreased. I did not feel as connected to my students like when teaching in person.

Fulbright FLTA Caroline Bussmann spending time in nature in her free time outside of teaching German abroad in upstate New York.

Are there advantages to the virtual classroom as we’ve seen it come out of the pandemic?

What I loved about online teaching was that I did not have to print all the material. I could just share it on screen and the students did not have to bring their books, which is also more sustainable. Another thing that I like about online classes is the option to record it. It would feel awkward to set up a camcorder in the classroom but clicking on "record" before the online lesson started was no problem at all. Therefore, students were able to re-watch classes if they wanted to repeat a certain topic, and students that have missed a class could easily catch up on everything.

Additionally, I had to step out of my comfort zone and try new platforms and approaches. While coming up with new ideas on how to impart grammar or new vocabulary, my style of teaching became even more inclusive. I hope that this transfers into our physical classrooms and we do not see the pandemic as an obstacle to teaching but as a challenge to rethink the way we teach. A deconstruction and reconstruction of teaching.

Is there anything that digital teaching tools can’t replace about the physical classroom?

Digital teaching cannot replace spontaneous, context-sensitive teaching. Before, I often took the things that I saw in the classroom and integrated them into the lesson, or maybe something that a student said or brought, like an instrument. The whole lesson was interactive and driven by the students and our surrounding. When teaching online, this was not possible to the same extent. Furthermore, the interactions between the students were significantly less. In general, the campus, which functions not only as an institution but as a social living space, almost lost its special sense of community due to the regulations. With the changed atmosphere, the conversations were no longer as personal and casual as in the physical classroom, which is essential for language learning.

Do you have a favorite digital teaching tool that you may have not discovered without the (digital) experience abroad?

I do not have one favorite digital tool but a sum of many. At Bard, we decided to work with Zoom. But apart from that, there are many tools I knew before, but I never considered using them for teaching. One example is WhatsApp.

Really? WhatsApp for Teaching?

It was the perfect tool to train pronunciation because students could easily record themselves. I was able to play their recordings several times to make sure that I listen closely and will be able to help them.

Besides that, we used WhatsApp to share the results of asynchronous tasks. For one class, I asked my students to record a short cooking tutorial of their favorite recipe. Afterward, they sent it to the group chat and everyone was able to watch the tutorials and cook the recipe themselves. On top of this, it was great to use WhatsApp for discussion threads.

The students were used to eLearning platforms like Moodle, but the problem with those platforms is that the students must log in, choose the class, the lesson, and the discussion thread. Discussing in a group chat on WhatsApp was way easier, and responses were sent faster. And since my students and I were spread around the world, I created a shared map with MyMaps (by Google), where we all set a pin at our current location and wrote something about our experiences during the pandemic.

How did the sudden change to physical distancing as a result of the pandemic impact your experience abroad and how did you adjust?

The sudden change was extremely overwhelming. Especially the decisions made by the administration, and having people leave from one day to another was challenging. The establishment of a new routine was the most important adjustment. Since buildings were closed and I had to teach and take classes from my dorm, I rearranged my place and created a working area to distinguish between working and leisure space, even though both were placed in the same room.

Besides this, Bard has a picturesque and spacious campus, and long walks in nature helped me to keep a mental distance from everything that was on my mind and all the visible change happening. Focusing on work, enjoying nature, and making music were the things that made it possible to adjust. Nevertheless, my biggest fear was to be forced to leave before I was ready to. Luckily, Fulbright gave me the time I needed to arrange the logistics and to prepare mentally for this unexpected early departure.

What was the most important thing you learned during your time abroad in the US?

During my time in the United States, I grew beyond myself. Not only on a professional but especially on a personal level. The most important things I've learned are to challenge myself, show initiative, and trust my instincts, no matter what. And that you only need half as much as you packed in your suitcase.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I just want to thank my colleagues at Bard and from the Fulbright network for the amazing support during the last months and for making this program the most life-changing experience.

Learn more about becoming a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant here!

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