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

10 responses

  1. Hi Sophia. I had exactly the same experience in my first lesson at an ESL teacher – one student! And I was just as prepared with my own painstakingly created materials. Like you, I found this a great lesson as a teacher, but still occasionally have to remind myself to let the prepared plan go and work in the moment. I used to feel guilty about not sticking to a plan, but have come to realise I’m better meeting the needs of the learners in the room on that day if I go with the flow.
    Thanks for the great post.
    Cheers, Lesley

    • Haha really?? Now I wouldn’t mind at all, but then it was a disaster! I do agree that “going with the flow” can be an important, if not essential, aspect in a lesson’s success in what it helps the learner(s) achieve – yet we are not “trained” to even consider this, which is something I think Underhill & Maley’s talk was attempting to address. How can we help teachers feel confident enough to let the lesson plan go and focus on what learners actually need, then and there? Thanks for the comment and food for thought 🙂

  2. Another great post, Sophia. So glad you’ve taken up this blogging lark 🙂 I think there’s a life lesson here, not simply a classroom one. It’s fine to plan, and I for one feel much safer when I do. But at the same time, I know I’m really kidding myself because what happens in that classroom (and in life) is really unpredictable and unknowable and I’ll just have to deal with it as it comes.

  3. Thanks Rachael (so excited to see you here!!!) That’s exactly what I thought, life itself is unpredictable and you simply have to work with what you have – although unpredictability in the classroom is still quite exciting and positive, whereas I’m not sure I’m quite so optimistic about unpredictability in real life…I guess the unpredictable can be scary – and can lead to abject failure – but can also be the life-changing risk that leads to the greatest of rewards. Anyway, that’s the challenge. Either way, as you say, you have to deal with it – you can’t refuse to teach the lesson just because it didn’t work out how you planned…

  4. Pingback: From preparation to preparedness – Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley (IATEFL 2013) | Sandy Millin

  5. Ok, so I have to admit, and you may not know this about me, but I have a bigger than most, problem with all of this….let go, and so hang on to what?? I really can’t get my head around all of this. I know it sounds great and all very zen to ‘let go and go with the flow’ but what does this really actually mean?? I am pretty sh*# at being able to imagine all of this, as you can see/read.
    Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE all of this stuff and read avidly all of the ideas above but in a recent class of which there happened to be a bit of a ‘bloc’ thing going on with 3 distinct nationalities and age groups that didn’t appear to want to mix. Mind you, I wasn’t a 5 day a week teacher with them, so perhaps I felt more lacking in connectivity with them than they did with each other. I suppose I felt as if nothing much was happening in there (hmmm!) and to have conversations with one rather reserved student often meant that another more dominant would get in more often than not. Ahhh – so, how to go with what is happening, here??
    I’m sorry I am being a touch negative and not very helpful, but I am a bit despairing of trying to make the connect when it wasn’t necessarily wanted – or at least that’s how I felt at times.
    “How can we help teachers feel confident enough to let the lesson plan go and focus on what learners actually need, then and there? ” – I think also it’s not only about being confident, but it’s also about knowing how to respond to the needs, on the spot, like.
    Thanks for the space Sophia. I value this as an opportunity to connect with my peers.

    • Hi Kristin – thanks for commenting 🙂 I completely appreciate what you are saying as I’m not really a zen-speak person either! What I’m trying to talk about here is giving up control, essentially jettisoning the prescribed lesson plan/curriculum/materials because the learners at that particular point in time need something else. I spend hours planning but this means I am also quite controlling of how the class unfolds. Sometimes you just need to forget that and focus on the more human element perhaps. To give you another example, one time I was teaching on a CELTA course, and about 10 minutes in, one of the trainees just threw up her hands and said “I’m sorry I can’t do this, why do we have to know all this terminology, I just can’t take anything in, I was up all night planning my lesson…” etc etc, and suddenly everyone joined in and started getting all irate and I was just like, WOAH. I ended up doing an impromptu counselling session, letting them get things off their chest, sharing ideas on issues they were having, but most of all offering a) acknowledgement of the pressures they were under and b) encouragement and reassurance. From then on, in that course and in future ones, I was much more aware of the importance of addressing those bubbling emotions, and made a much more conscious effort not to overload trainees with information and metalanguage.
      In the class you describe, did you feel you should or had to abandon your lesson to be more reactive to the students in the class? Or is this really a different kind of problem? It’s hard as they don’t seem to be giving you much to react to – they are the ones not really engaging. I’m not even sure dynamics is always something we can address – but of course, we have to try! Perhaps some activities that focus on what they can learn about the others’ culture/experiences, something that motivates them to listen to the others. Eg, a favourite activity of mine is a song presentation, where each person/pair introduces a favourite English song (or food, or movie), prepares [listening] tasks, and guides discussion/vocab work after? How about more small group discussions and presentations of ideas where the dominant students are the notetakers rather than group leaders? You can circulate and try to ‘connect’ more while not in a whole-class forum? Even offering the students who really don’t want to work with others the option to work alone while others work in groups? I’ve done this and TBH the lone student who opted out was much happier and so was the rest of the class! Do you think they could come up with some communal language learning goals for the class? I’m sure you have already thought of all these things… Maley & Underhill’s talk I think emphasized this continual experimentation – hopefully by trying new things you will one day strike gold…and if you don’t at least you know you gave them every opportunity.

  6. Dearest Sophia – thanks so much for taking the time to reply in such a thoughtful manner. It’s a constant movement…. forward, back, side-step, ball-change lunge 🙂 that is both exciting and yet at times frustrating – good thing I like to dance! I love the dynamics of classes when they work, and perhaps this class was just one of those that didn’t seem, for me anyway, to get going, but every time I get a class I look forward to the possibilities they possess.

  7. Pingback: Pet peeves and new #ELT blogs | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

  8. Pingback: First week teaching post-CELTA: what I have learnt | BerLingo

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