Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change
Day One of The Pandemic
Late morning on Thursday 12th March 2020, I was in The Ashling Hotel in Dublin, a stone’s throw from my house, with one of my picture book clients. We had arranged to meet for a one to one consultation. We chatted briefly about the ‘mystery virus’, and how the St Patrick’s Day parade would be cancelled etc. During the consultation, we kept our phones on because of the unfolding situation. More news flooded in through vibrating messages and updates… all schools were to be closed from that day, for initially two weeks.
Both being parents, we exchanged our fears and shock. However, we carried on with the intended business of mentoring my client’s work-in-progress picture book. It was a very disturbing start to the session and one I will never forget.
As I walked up the hill towards my home after the meeting, I continued chatting with my client as he was heading towards Manor Street. A call came in from The Irish Writer’s Centre where I have taught children’s picture book writing since 2014. All classes, I was told, were cancelled until further notice. It was the first day of the pandemic -in stark reality- for me and my son.
The Challenges of 2020
In August 2019, I had started to facilitate small groups of aspiring picture book-makers in my home studio. These were week-long workshops that included tuition, lunch, refreshments and use of materials. The last such course took place in late February 2020, a mere two weeks before we went into full lockdown. To compound matters, I had a young intern from Spain, working alongside me in my studio. She arrived in early March 2020 from Northern Spain but unfortunately had to go back home once we realised how serious the situation had become.
As the picture the year ahead started to emerge as being real and not a weird sci-fi dream, I felt sick. All my home-based workshops had to be cancelled, and students needed to be refunded. I had no summer classes to teach at The Irish Writer’s Centre. My Illustration and Picture Book Boot Camp classes, due to recommence in September, were left hanging in the air. How would I survive as a self-employed single parent in a pandemic? I have since renamed my business The Illustori Academy.
A Surprise Commission from South Korea
The Irish Writer’s Centre got back to me sometime later. They kindly suggested I teach my class online that July. By this time I was working on a new picture book commission that arrived in my email box on the 13th of March, from a large South Korean Educational Publisher. My thoughts were ‘the universe is looking out for us’, my teenage son and I. It certainly helped but in no way covered even a fifth of my outgoings. I postponed teaching online until the autumn when I had time to adjust to this strange new world.
Teaching Picture Book Writing on Zoom
I needed to totally revamp my website if I were to start teaching online. With over 25 years of experience teaching face to face, online was a whole new experience. I applied for an online trading voucher through my local enterprise board and got to work with a web developer. I had to make my website ‘e-commerce ready’. It took the best part of a year between the application process and actually finishing the website. I still need to learn search engine optimization and revamp my social media skills.
So the biggest challenge was to switch from the familiar face to face teaching to the alien Zoom platform. I had never heard of Zoom prior to now. I was just coming to grips with Skype, which is why I had decided to postpone the Irish Writers Centre online transition until I was in a position to ‘learn zoom.’
In a face-to-face classroom, we know, or at least we think we know, how to teach because that is how we were taught all our lives. Classrooms, desks, teacher up front, blackboards, whiteboards, daydreamers looking out of the window. With this sudden switch to online teaching, I had no prior experience to fall back on. I had to think through the most basic steps in ways I had never done before. This entirely new way of running classes was daunting. But, I had no choice but to ‘dive in the deep end’ and use friends and family as my ‘students’. That way I could at least envision how it all might work and what could possibly go wrong?!
The Irish Writers Center
It was early October 2020 before I had the necessary skills to teach an online class for the Irish Writers Center. I really surprised myself in that I didn’t disappear into cyberspace at the click of the wrong button! It would be a few more classes of my own at The Illustori Academy before I was brave enough to send my students to multiple breakout rooms…and have them return happy and unscathed!
Transitioning the courses from in-person to online took some work. I created new lesson plans and assignments to facilitate the ‘new way’ of working. This, along with marketing the new online courses on social media, taking bookings and making sure the website payment platform was working, kept me on my toes.
A Teenager, An Aging Dog and a Pandemic
The situation was compounded by the stress of the pandemic and being confined to the house, or at least confined to 2km, a teenager at home 24/7, and our dog Tammy. She was developing extreme neediness, sensing all was not right with the world. Despite the added workload and stress, I found the work rewarding and challenging in a way I hadn’t anticipated. It certainly forced me to be more creative. This new way of teaching, contrary to what I initially felt, was actually expanding my world and pushing it and me in new directions. For example, prior to the pandemic, although I did have students who came to my classes from as far as Derry and Wexford. It was a massive journey and an even bigger commitment for them. It meant they often had to organise overnight stays with friends or hotel stopovers.
2021 and Going Forward
In February I had one student join my beginners to intermediate picture book course from Norway. I inquired how she found me. It was incredible. She was visiting Dublin in 2016 and happened to pick up one of my course brochures in Tales for Tadpoles children’s book store on Drury Street, Dublin. She saved the brochure, wishing she could do my course in person, but as she lived in Bergin, Norway it wasn’t possible. Once the pandemic hit the world, she remembered the brochure, checked out my website and made a booking online.
Another student who attended one of my courses eight years previously now lives happily in Vancouver. She booked her place on my March Follow-On course, which finished last week.
The follow-on classes cater for students who have previously attended one of my courses, or those who have a picture book project work-in-progress. Now over 60% of my students are from all over Ireland. I anticipate that will expand worldwide within the next two to three years. None of this would have happened pre-pandemic! It also dawned on me that I can now work from anywhere, once my son goes to college in 2022.
The challenges I faced required innovation, nimble thinking and a willingness to try things that might fail. Like for example the breakout rooms in Zoom.
Having to change the course so dramatically gave me the opportunity to really focus on what was meaningful and important. Finding ways to support group interaction, peer group book reviews and lots of sharing were the areas I spent time on. I needed to make my classes more interactive by spending more class time working in groups, solving problems and discussing issues. This meant less time lecturing but providing good backup with notes.
Further Challenges and Opportunities
When it comes to teaching practical hands-on illustration or collage classes I will be challenged once more. I know I will be dealing with two cameras and will need a better camera and sound system for this. However, unlike last time I am a lot less daunted by the prospect. I know from talking to friends and colleagues, a lot have found it far more draining to teach online or not as fulfilling as teaching in person. If I was teaching 6 to 8 hours a day I would probably feel the same, but for now, my courses are once a month, limited in numbers, Monday to Friday 7 pm to 9 pm. The evening hours seem to work pretty well, especially for those with day time hours, parenting, and home-schooling.
A Whole New World
If the pandemic thought me one thing about teaching – it is that I can take absolutely nothing for granted. It has upended a multitude of assumptions, one after the other, which we held without enough deep reflection. I am happy to teach online but when the world reopens I might try the classroom or my home studio once more. That said, I will continue to keep my finger on the Zoom button for the foreseeable future. After all, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, including travel that I could never have dreamt of. For example, I could invite guest lecturers to join the class from anywhere in the world!
I am really excited about the opportunities that teaching online will bring. I have grown a lot as a teacher by being forced to think outside the box. Pedagogically, it has certainly been an exciting time.