By Eric House
When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the way many of us live and work, the challenge of forging and maintaining connections became considerably more difficult. As an educator, Jeff Puccini knew this all too well. Pre-COVID, teachers were able to come to the teacher’s lounge, not just to grab coffee or eat lunch but to sit and chat with colleagues. It was a sanctuary of sorts, but it was also a place of connection, where teachers could talk face-to-face about their days, including their challenges and successes. In the new virtual age, where could teachers go to replicate the same need?
Enter the Online Teachers’ Lounge, a new project led by Puccini as part of his work as executive director of INTERLINK International Institutes, an organization dedicated to intensive English language training, academic preparation, cross-cultural orientation, and professional training. Puccini has an extensive background in teaching English as a second language (ESL), earning both his TESOL certificate and Master of Arts from School for International Training (SIT). While the TESOL Certificate is accredited by SIT Graduate Institute, World Learning provides training and certification.
Puccini says his “DNA as a language instructor comes from the TESOL certificate course.” He was first drawn to it when he was in Chicago, where he was craving an immersive, international educational experience. With his TESOL certificate, he taught abroad, loved it, and knew that a master’s degree was the next step to further solidify his career in teaching ESL. Through it all, Puccini says, both the TESOL certificate and master’s program provided him the experiential, reflective nature of education he desired.
Puccini also remembers the in-person connections he was able to cultivate with his fellow teachers while teaching ESL in California. He and his colleague would ride their bikes to work together every day, sharing ideas for teaching and reflecting on lessons, something Puccini describes as “invaluable and rare.” When COVID-19 hit, “There were fewer opportunities for teachers to interact with one another,” he says. “I personally felt disconnected and isolated from peers and students.”
By connecting teachers in a venue, they’re familiar with, the teacher’s lounge, Puccini and his fellow educators hope to rekindle their bonds in the online environment. When thinking of the lounge, Puccini points to in-person book clubs. “They can work, but some don’t,” he says, citing examples of situations where extroverts dominate the conversation and introverts don’t find space to share. With the technology of breakout rooms in the online teacher’s lounge, he hopes to strike a balance, enabling more satisfying conversations for all participants, no matter their personality.
One of the joys Puccini finds in teaching ESL is connecting with people from different cultures. An unexpected benefit of the Online Teachers’ Lounge has been connecting with English teachers, native and non-native English speakers, from different countries.
Above all, his goals with the Online Teachers’ Lounge are to allow teachers to connect with new people, reconnect with previous peers, and bring the watercooler conversations back. It’s these conversations and collaboration between colleagues that help teachers learn what’s working and what’s not working in their practice, an aspect that motivates Puccini as a licensed teacher-trainer and trainer-of-trainers.
“Teaching, ironically, can be very lonely for a lot of teachers, because being with students is not the same as interacting with peers,” Puccini says. Out of the pandemic, new ways to interact and connect have emerged. As teachers go back to in-person classes, Puccini hopes that the Online Teachers’ Lounge can continue to provide a space for educators to connect.
The Online Teachers’ Lounge launched this fall and meets monthly on Saturdays. To learn more, visit: https://interlink.edu/online-teachers-lounge/.