The thing about a $hit observation

I had my first ever on-the-job teaching observation after I’d been in my first job for a while: long enough to garner a bit of confidence; to love my class; to feel that they at least liked me a lot; and long enough to be out of my probationary period. On-the-job observations of non-probationary teachers are meant to be ‘developmental’. In practice, teachers often seem terrified of observations, unable or not helped to see any underlying developmental purpose, and generally harbouring a quiet suspicion that their job may be on the line.

And so it was with me in my first teaching observation. I spent hours preparing every day, but I prepared this even harder. It was a grammar lesson on the past continuous vs. past simple, and it was my best CELTA rendition – I presented, I controlled practised, I freer practised and I was terribly winning throughout. I came out feeling buzzed.

I sat down with my DOS, and he started with that horrible (but useful) CELTA stalwart question: ‘How do you think it went?’

Actually – I thought it went pretty well. I thought I’d explained the concepts well. I thought I’d shown the form clearly on the board. I thought the students had had a few problems that were highlighted during my photocopied controlled practice task from English Grammar in Use (Intermediate), but I thought I’d explained these clearly in feedback. It was a shame there hadn’t been much time for the freer practice in the observed lesson, but (I assured him) they were all using it really well in the next lesson. [I will always remember a much later observer, teacher trainer and friend telling me, tiredly: ‘It’s always better in the next lesson…’]

You may be able to spot some issues with the above. Maybe not – there were certainly good things there: awareness of (some) aspects of target language aims – identification of (some) appropriate material – good rapport. Anyway I tailed off after a while and asked my DOS: “How do you think it went?”

He said, and I quote, ‘To be honest, I thought it was pretty shit.’ [He was a northerner, if that explains anything]

His main points were:

– ‘Your aim was to get your students using the target language, yet most of the talking time in the lesson was you explaining things.’

– ‘There wasn’t very much talking time anyway, as you kept giving them paper exercises.’

– ‘It’s not about you or what you did. It’s about the students got from the lesson.’

Me (feebly): ‘But didn’t you think the exercises were useful? They highlighted [this or that] error and they really needed help with that.’

Him: ‘Yes but – you do know that Raymond Murphy is a self-study book for students right? If students can do something at home and check the answers themselves – why are you making them do it in class? Spend your class time doing useful things, things they can’t do by themselves at home!’ [Flipped Learning – still a thing in 1996, people]

He added: ‘You didn’t do anything on pron for instance.’

He was right. It wasn’t even on my radar. And it was a really good point about Murphy – I hadn’t realised that just because I had relied the crap out of this book to learn the grammar of my own language while doing CELTA, doesn’t mean that students needed that from me. They’d had years of controlled written practice of grammar points already. What they wanted, needed and were paying for was a chance to really use, relate to, internalise and engage with the language.

My DOS topped this off by saying, ‘Right. Here’s what we’re going to do. Next lesson, you observe me. I’ll show you some of the things I want to see you doing in class, and you can take notes on what/when/why and then we’ll talk about it afterwards.’

What I then saw wasn’t my first time watching someone elicit, model, drill and write up target language on the board – but it was the first time that I had been ready to see why and how it was useful, why it worked. Plus I got to see someone with my class; I got to see how quickly they could establish rapport through confident teaching rather than handouts-and-niceness-over-time; I got to see them modelling and drilling in a really fun and dynamic way; I got to see how students enjoyed and appreciated that; I got to see how easily a personalised task can be plucked from the air; and I got to see how easily students launched into it and loved it.

(Why aren’t more new teachers observing experienced teachers instead of [or as well as] being observed themselves? A question for another time…)

We met again after class, and talked this over, and it was good because my DOS conveyed that he was sorry for being so ‘northern’ the day before, and it was also clear that my job wasn’t on the line – he thought I did have the right stuff – but he wasn’t going to let me get away with just ‘having my awareness raised’. Being aware is not the same as putting into practice.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to come and observe you every day for a week. And each day you have to teach the whole lesson based on just one page from the coursebook. No, not a double page. Strictly no supplementary materials. No, not even the workbook.’ [Dogme – still a thing in 1996…]

This was terrifyingly incomprehensible for a super planner who had to have 9 zillion handouts just to feel secure in any lesson. ‘But,’ I stammered, ‘the next page only has a couple of speech bubbles on it!’

We were talking about this page, or something very like it:

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 10.52.42 PM

from New Headway Pre-Intermediate, Liz & John Soars (OUP)

At the time I literally could not imagine how it could be done.

But it could.

My warmer was a dictation. Normal style (read, listen, write, read, listen, write etc) for the first text, followed by pair check and group feedback on the board [Nowadays I’d do that as ‘the teacher is a recorder’ where students can shout ‘Stop! Rewind! Play! Fast forward!’ – one of the best no-mats activities ever).

The second was dictogloss style, again with pair check and feedback to the board. We then used the board text to examine the target language, ask concept questions, and elicit the form to the whiteboard. When we’d discussed the meaning and form of the target language I then copied my DOS and managed to focus attention, model clearly, beat the stress, and conduct choral and individual drilling in a really simple and clear way.

(I was amazed that my DOS’s arcane pron magic worked for me as well as it had for him. It was the first time I really ‘noticed’ pron for myself rather than as something just  to churn out in a CELTA observation. It meant something, the students enjoyed it, wanted it, needed it – and couldn’t really get it from elsewhere.)

We then did a simple personalisation activity – I asked students to write a short description of their own life, e.g. I live…I work…I have…I go…They then swapped their paper with a partner who read their original sentence completion, then crossed it out and substituted it for something imaginary, writing a two-clause second conditional sentence (If I worked at X, I would Y etc.). Then they got together, read out their sentences and basically talked about their own realities and dreams.

For the first time in my teaching life I had the impression that a lesson flew by. Also for the first time I saw myself as a facilitator rather than the ‘sage on the stage’. And it was a big realisation that I had enough to offer as a teacher that I could carry a whole lesson without ever even opening the book; that materials aren’t an imperative but something to be exploited, turned around, made the most of, or ignored, depending on what would be of most benefit to the students.

The thing about having a ‘shit’ observation is that it can be the best thing that has ever happened to your teaching – and being observed every day for a week by someone who’s genuinely interested in your development is an amazing opportunity.

Have you had any eye-opening moments result from an observation?

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How to make your students cry (Part 3)

Reading the signs

Don’t worry, this post marks the end of Blubfest 2014. But one of the best things about embarking on this little blog series has been hearing other people’s stories. While I still cringe at night thinking about some of the things that have happened, I can rest a little easier knowing that other people are doing the same thing 🙂

The lovely Anne Hendler (#makingkidscrysince2002), reckons she’s the Wicked Witch of the West for all the times she makes her students cry: “No, you can’t change your seat. Yes, you have to do your homework. No, you can’t go to the bathroom every five minutes. If you do that again, I will call your mother . . . ” But she added: “To be fair, they sometimes make me cry, too.” Ain’t it the truth. [You can follow Anne on Twitter @AnneHendler, and she also writes an excellent blog – reflective, honest and thought-provovoking.]

Anna Loseva wrote: “In the recent 2 years I’ve made 2 adult students cry in class. In both cases no extra discussion material was necessary, just my impertinence and directness in asking questions about holidays and weekends, and my thick skin. Was it terrible? It was.” [Anna’s Twitter handle is @AnnLoseva, and she blogs at http://annloseva.wordpress.com – there are some real gems here, expected and unexpected, so do have a wander through.]

And Laura Phelps (@pterolaur) wrote: “I’ve had grown men weeping in class. I once had to stop a physical fight. I remember one particular group of 16-18 year olds – mostly unaccompanied minors – I had for a year, I asked them to prepare three-minute presentations on anything they wanted and loads of them went really personal and ended up in tears. And I count myself lucky for the hundreds of stupid comments I made that ought to have ended in tears and somehow didn’t.” [Laura is a writer and teacher, and her very funny and always interesting blog is here.]

What struck me about these stories though was that in most cases teachers are just pootling along doing the sorts of things that English teachers do, when BAM! Drama strikes. So is there a way to avoid this?

Scene 1:

Class of young adults in London in the 90s. In an effort to shoehorn in some contemporary cultural content, and as a “treat” for the students, I had prepared a listening lesson on Creep by Radiohead (I said 90s already, right?) Not wanting to get too personal, I deliberately stayed away from discussing “relationships”, and focused just on who was singing/about what/if they liked it, and some vocab follow up work. However, playing the song through for the first time I realised that one of my favourite students, a beautiful, smiley Italian girl, wasn’t actually just incredibly focused as she bent over her paper, hand over her eyes. In fact, her shoulders were shaking alarmingly. Yep, she was crying her eyes out.

Emergency response:

When the song finished I quickly grouped everyone to check their task, and unobtrusively channelled her outside. In the corridor, she just leaned back against the wall and put her hand over her eyes. I rubbed her arm in feeble British fashion. I asked “Are you OK?” (more Feeble Britishness). She nodded. I asked “Do you want to tell me about it?” She shook her head. I asked, “Do you want to take a break?” Shake. I asked “Shall we just stop – we can do something else?” Shake. “OK, we’ll just finish this off as quickly as we can and then we’ll go onto something else. OK?” Nod. “If you ever want to talk to me about this, you know you can OK?” Nod. Eye-wiping.

I never learned what the reason was for her unhappiness that day. She was her usual self the next day, and while I tried to follow it up with her, I obviously wasn’t the person she wanted to talk to about it.

Could I have avoided this?

I don’t think so. It was just bad timing – wrong song, wrong day, wrong person. You never know on what particular ordinary day someone’s heart may be breaking.

Scene 2: 

Full-time CELTA, Monday Week 2. I am the trainer. In a four-week course, it was the first and possibly only session explicitly and exclusively on teaching listening skills. After a demo lesson we get into the nitty gritty of the staging and aims, and I utter the magic words “blah blah blah blah activate schemata”. The trainees look at me like if it was the middle ages I’d be in the stocks and they would be pelting me with rotten fruit. I open my mouth again and a lovely, older lady just says, “Stop! I can’t – ” and – tears. She is overwhelmed. [There is nodding and muttering]. They have all worked too hard over the weekend [more nodding and muttering]. There’s too much new information, there’s too much jargon [pitchforks waving]. It’s too hard to prepare lessons and write assignments and take in sessions. And so on.

Emergency response:

It’s a fair cop, guv. I stopped the session and just took the time to hear them, sympathise, get the venting done and finally talk through some strategies.

Could I have avoided this?

Yes. Though probably not by much. CELTA is a great course, but it can be a bugger of a course. Listen to mumble mumble, copy someone else’s notes, write generic assignment and go home with nice shiny certificate – no. You have to be firing on all cylinders in all different aspects, all the time. And echoing Anne Hendler here, that goes for trainers too – we’ve all had a few watery-eyed days. It is stressful. But I reckon these tears are OK. It’s good to get it out and good on you lovely older lady for saying what everyone was feeling and putting it out there. Too often on intensive courses emotions can go the other way and turn into resentment and antagonism, so I vote lacrimonious not acrimonious (I really, really wanted to say that). However, in later courses I tried harder not to overload trainees with information and metalanguage – to slow down, signpost and support – and I was much more aware of the existence of those bubbling emotions and more ready to address them before they got to the point of bubbling over.

 

So all in all, over the 3 posts in this series – this is what I’ve learned on how to (not) make your students cry:

  • Sure, engage learners by personalising content – but be wary of making it too personal or things can really escalate quickly (see Part 1). If you given a reasonable amount of thought to how students might respond to your material, and adjusted accordingly – well, at least you don’t have to feel too guilty when a student starts crying anyway.
  • It’s important to talk about genuinely meaningful topics, however PARSNIP-y* – (see Part 2) . . . but sometimes people just want to go to their English class, learn a few expressions and go home. Nothing wrong with that.**
  • In that couple of minutes’ space you have for chit-chat at the start of a lesson, it is absolutely worth taking the time to look each student in the eye and just try to get a feel for what signals they are putting out that day. It’s easy to blaze in all bells and whistles, busy being ‘dynamic’, caught up in what we want/need to do in class. But sometimes I’m sure some invisible flags are waving, and if we pay a bit more attention we just might be able to read the signs.

 

 Notes

*PARSNIP-avoidance is a well-known formula in the course book/teaching materials world. It’s an acronym meaning don’t talk about Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms (e.g. racism, sexism), or Pork. Lots of people have written knowledgeably and critically about this, including Scott Thornbury, Steve Brown, and Luke Meddings – in fact Luke went on to write a whole book (with Lindsay Clandfield) on subverting this sanitised  approach.

** Anna Loseva has written about this dilemma here.