When your class is “Zoom-bombed” and other stories from the frontlines of online teaching

published 2021-03-05 updated 2021-03-05

2020 has been the year that many workers in education had an emergency catch up course in teaching via video conferencing. We've all learnt a lot - using different (often changing) platforms and teaching strategies - trying to do our best for our students.

This has had effects on us physically and psychologically.

One of my reasons for going into teaching was the possibility of a range of movements through the day that I wasn't able to have in office based work. Basically - once I started teaching in the 90s - the repetition strain injuries which had blighted me the years before were more or less sorted. I just had to plan marking peaks - but these could usually be nudged into our 'holidays'.

2020 was the year when the strains and pains of my 20s came back with a vengeance.

If my physical body coped well with teaching - my memories of starting off 25 years ago are marked by the immense personal stresses involved in learning to be an effective classroom practitioner. I often found it emotionally battering - and sometimes reduced to tears of frustration. Support from colleagues and the ability to reflect helped me get through, and develop strategies that worked well - even with difficult classes.

One of the things that helped was the physical separation of work and home. After a few years I became aware that the visit to the pub in between wasn't always the best idea - I began going to the the pool instead! Apart from the closure of swimming pools - the lock down and distanced teaching, has broken down this division.

I work in a small German city. My family is lucky to have enough space so that each child has a (bed) room to work - my partner has a study and I use our bedroom. Most of the time I've only had a few on line lessons each week, most of my classes of the (not always easy) young adults at a vocational college that I teach are exam groups which have been taught face to face in half groups through the lock down this winter.

Despite not doing a lot of online teaching I've been 'zoom bombed' twice … although we use MS Teams so maybe “MS Teams torpedoed” is more accurate. I certainly had a sinking feeling each time.

So what happened? The first time was before Christmas, an unknown person came into a chat pretending to be a student who wasn't there. We didn't enforce a 'cameras on' rule - many students have no private space at home to learn ... and being Germany - student representatives had clearly stated that protecting the privacy rights of students was a priority. Of course maybe I could recognise the student from their voice – but maybe only after they all have high quality internet connections!

The lesson started off with a range of disturbances, including the use of foul language. I battled on attempting to use the central on off microphone options to bring the lesson to a successful completion. To be honest the challenges of doing a new online technique with a new programme was beyond me. As soon as I left a microphone on by mistake it seemed to be the one that was cutting into the rest of the lesson. After 25 minutes I'd worked out who it was who was most to blame for the disruption, and finished the lesson with the request that this person should stay online for a debrief. No luck there - with a “Heil Hitler” he was off - never to be heard of again.

Clearly it wasn't a student in the class - but someone in the class had given the code for the meeting - and then enjoyed watching the resulting chaos. And for me - there was then the report to be written, discussions with the school management, the school management making a police report, the application to be allowed to give a statement, and then the police interview with the state's constitutional security police … lots of wasted time and a bad taste in my mouth.

There's lots of places in Germany where one can hear fascist rubbish - and our local neo nazis thoughtfully make sure that we don't forget the 'Führer's' birthday by putting up stickers outside our home to celebrate too. But psychologically when it comes inside one's door - that's a new level.

I'm told that in the class' student WhatsApp group there were some students who criticised what went on and said that the fact that I was Jewish made it worse - so maybe there's some learn-effect taking place. Here's to hoping!

In that class we introduced ID checks at the start of lessons. I also introduced a halving of the online groups to make sure that I could see all the participants. Things were going OK - at time I could even look at the education 'product' I was offering to the young people and think that in the middle of a pandemic - it wasn't too bad.

Some weeks in February later the MS Teams torpedoes were launched again in a different class.

This time it escalated more quickly. A student who sounded out of place said he couldn't turn on his camera to confirm his identity because he'd just gotten out of the shower. Great. Remove from video conference. Then another person - he mumbled a lot in real life too and so was very effectively camouflaged - posted an inappropriate picture in the chat.

Multitasking is the order of the day - remove that one too. … and then … and I didn't think they had access to screen sharing - the cinematic programme really got started. It certainly didn't meet my notions of erotica.

Blood pressure shooting I try and take back control of the screen, but to no avail ...after 30 seconds … one of the students - bless - says - “Mr Teacher maybe we should just all leave.”

Good idea. Teams shutdown.

Very little in my teaching career had prepared me for this. I'd like to think that I'm broad minded,  but when it's something that comes into my home - my bedroom – it's invasive and very unpleasant.

Maybe it's an avoidance mechanism but I also wonder what the effects of such events are on other colleagues. Certainly everyone says - it doesn't happen to me - but I suspect if it were to there would be a certain shame that they were unable to deal with the situation better - unable to protect their students. I fear it's a more common problem than we think.

I know for me, 'visiting the pub at home' isn't a good solution for re-establishing the protective barriers between work and the rest of my life - I suppose I'd just better hope that the outside pool here reopens in May.

Note: The author wished to remain anonymous, given the ongoing police investigation.