Value the unexpected

Let me just start by saying that this isn’t a failure post like I promised – however, some small degree of personal disaster was involved, so I hope that will do for now.

I’ve been watching some of the IATEFL tweets and happened upon this one by the lovely and fast-tweeting Sandy Millin on “preparing for spontanaeity” from a talk by Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley (you can read a great summary of the whole talk here):

Although I was reading this out of context – and there is a slide that follows on as well – this immediately struck me as pretty good advice, not just for teachers, but for anyone. It seems to me to be essentially a lesson in letting go, and this reminded me of a recent Twitter conversation I had with Retno Sofyaniek (@NenoNeno) about my first ever lesson as an employed teacher.

I was fresh off the CELTA (then called CTEFLA), and in my particular course, rather than teach you to use (and rely upon) a coursebook, you were simply given the target language/skill and topic area and it was up to you to find, create or adapt materials for your lesson. While this was intimidating at first, I loved it: it sparked a lifelong interest in materials development, it encouraged me to be creative and independent, and from the start to feel that I was 100% responsible for my lessons. On the downside, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was horribly materials dependent – I felt the lesson was only as good as my materials, and so planning and teaching became more about that than about the students. In my mind, my job was to deliver the prescribed target language or skill in as interesting a way as possible. It would never have occurred to me, back then, that my students might not give a toss about target language, that they might have more pressing needs, or that they could guide the content and focus of the lesson. So, in a nutshell, I was all about the materials.

I got my first job through the fairly typical TEFL scenario of ‘No we have no vacancies’ followed swiftly by ‘Ah yes, we do have vacancies, can you start in about 30 seconds?’ Only it wasn’t really 30 seconds, I actually had a whole weekend to get ready for my brand new class of 15 students – and it really did take me two full days to prepare for a single, three-hour lesson. I even arrived at the school on Monday three hours early to make sure I had everything copied, knew where I was going, etc. I was PREPARED. And it was a damn good lesson. I had very warming warmers, pairwork, group work, a jigsaw reading – the works. Interactive, check. Fun, check. Varied, check. (Didn’t really care about aims in those days but) target language/skills, check. The first student arrived, a young Columbian kid of about 17, whose name I’ve forgotten, but whose face I still remember. We chatted for a bit. A bit longer. A bit longer still. And finally I realised: @#$% – only one student is turning up for this class. I looked at my painstakingly prepared materials and my heart sank. But I knew I could still do some of it because there were two of us and I would just have to make up the rest. And off I went. It wasn’t as lively and interactive as I had hoped, but it wasn’t bad. Actually, I’m not sure what my student learned, but I certainly learned a lot that day.

This is what Maley and Underhill’s advice reminded me of:

1. Bother less about trying to control, encourage connectivity

I had to give up my control for the first time, on my first day in my first lesson. I think I probably was still quite controlling in how we went about the activities, because there’s only so much you can ask a person to let go of all at once – but I did learn I could let go.

2. Work with what is happening rather than what you wish was happening

You had better believe that there was some fervent wishing that just ONE other student would turn up, some fervent wishing I could just blink and snuggle back up with my lesson plan – but no. I’m proud that it didn’t take me too long to just get on with it.

3. Start conversations about whatever matters to whoever is there

Of course, when there is only one student there you don’t have much choice, but this was a first for me in simply connecting in the classroom.

4. Give up trying to be interesting, and reach out and connect

This was my first step on a path that I still get lost on. It’s not so much that *I* am trying to be interesting, but I still tend to spend a lot of time finding/creating those “interesting” materials. For me the challenge still is [insert megaphone and police siren here]: PUT THE MATERIALS DOWN. STEP AWAY FROM THE MATERIALS. But that day I learned that students can be a resource too, that they have their own stories to tell.

5. Make plans but don’t expect them to happen – value the unexpected

This was really the big lesson for me that day. What I especially like here is that Underhill and Maley don’t say “expect the unexpected”. Don’t be ready, because you can’t be ready – not for anything, which is exactly what walks into your classroom every day: infinite possibility. But value the unexpected. See what happens and play it by ear. You will be alright. And you can end up learning some great lessons yourself.

How have you learned to “let go” as a teacher?

Desks in an Empty Classroom

Why we should celebrate Failure Fest

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????So the bad news is: at IATEFL this year, they have abandoned pecha kucha night (boo!) The good news is they have replaced it with something I think sounds brilliant: “Failure Fest”, ie people talking about what they have learned through their teaching failures.

There are a couple of reasons why this strikes a chord with me. First, I’ve had some truly spectacular classroom failures (of which more in a future post!) and it’s fair to say that the lessons I learned from them stay with me. And I’m proud to say that I go on failing, professionally and personally (although hopefully not so spectacularly) on a daily basis, because “failure” is what drives learning. We would never talk about our students as “failing” because they haven’t produced a perfect utterance in English. We know from Selinker that this is part of their interlanguage, we know from Krashen and Vygotsky that trying to do something beyond their level of ability helps them move forward, we know just from our instinct as teachers that it’s ok for students to make mistakes, that making mistakes is good because it means they are pushing their boundaries, and because realising something has gone wrong can help fix things. So it’s ironic really that teachers don’t extend nearly so much compassion and understanding towards themselves, when they make mistakes in the classroom. OK, we might have learnt to (try to) look forward instead of back, to focus on “next time” rather than “should have” – but reflective post-lesson analysis is often, well, analytical – cold, somehow. I’d love it if we could recreate for ourselves some of the warmth, encouragement and positivity that we create for our students who are making mistakes but trying.

Another reason I like the idea of showcasing Failure Fest, is that conference sessions, teacher training input and in-house PD sessions so often seem to take the form of a knowledge gap: an expert with certain knowledge disseminates it to those without. That’s ok, I don’t have any problem with that per se. But what I like about Failure Fest is that it says: “I am human, just like you”. It focuses on our similarities rather than our differences. Finding a shared emotional experience creates a sense of solidarity, mutuality and possibility. Because we are alike – human – I can learn from your mistakes – and your achievements – as if they were my own. What is possible for you is also possible for me. No matter how qualified or experienced you are, we are more alike than different. Think about it: have you ever had a worry, feelings of self-doubt, anxiety about what the right thing to do is – then you find that someone has gone through, or is going through, the same thing as you? It is such a blessed, wonderful relief to know that you are not alone, even if you still don’t have all the answers.

This is a psychological reality. Learning through a shared personal experience has an emotional “stickiness” (to borrow a marketing term) that non-personal learning misses out on. As parents we know this: we tell stories that help children relate and integrate new information to their existing worldview. As teachers, we know this: we take care to personalise, and to try to find materials and topics that our learners will find engaging. I’m just not sure we do the same with each other on a professional level. Why is this? Perhaps it’s just not “professional” to show your human flaws. Perhaps we are conditioned to feel superior or inferior to others with different contexts, specialties, qualifications or experience. Perhaps it’s just human nature when in a group to try to make oneself look as strong as possible – even though, as a consequence, others may end up feeling small, isolated, or afraid to speak up.

Hand ReachingIf you are delivering a PD session, and you are asking people to jump a knowledge gap, some will and some won’t. Some will care and some won’t. Some will be listening and some will be texting. But if you are engaging people on a personal level, if you can find the meeting point between their experience and yours, you can bring them on a journey with you. Groups where everyone is trying consciously or subconsciously to outdo each other don’t feel good. But the groups that feel amazing are those where someone has spoken up – admitted weakness, asked a question, put out a hand to  others, and ended up giving everyone a voice. Because we are more alike than we are different.

Do you feel the same? 🙂