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?

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 – 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.



*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.

How to make your students cry (Part 2)

IMG_1821Don’t mention the war?

In the first edition of Headway Advanced (OUP, 1989) there was a chapter called “War and Peace” (mostly war). In the teacher’s book, the authors say:

We have tried to adopt a liberal, objective attitude to the subject, and although it can fascinate, it can also repel, so you need to exercise a large amount of caution in the way you approach this unit.

Take a minute to think about that.

I’m not here to slag off Headway – I actually love that book, which is why I still cart it round from country to country with me. But while it may not have been immediately obvious in the Eurocentric teen-heyday of EFL, it’s obvious now that a coursebook can’t dictate the objectiveness of anyone’s experience, and that such material may be, for some people, pretty damn subjective indeed. To say: “although it can fascinate, it can also repel”, is to assume that the teachers and students using the book are outside the reality of war, that the worst that can happen is that their sensibilities may be offended. Of course this is not the worst that can happen. Of course some people in a class of adults will have experienced the violence and loss of war directly or indirectly. Of course none of us are “liberal, objective” observers, no matter how distant we may feel – we are all part of countries and cultures that have had a role to play somewhere along the line and, as individuals, we continue to make our choice – do or do not* – every day. None of us is getting away with this.

That’s not to say that I didn’t use the chapter – it really is fascinating and has some great content – but I was very selective and VERY cautious (and it didn’t surprise me to see that it had disappeared from future editions). Maybe I could have used the opportunity to be a subversive teacher, to combine politics and pedagogy to critically examine perspectives on war in our current climate . . . but if that thought had even occurred to me back then I dismissed it outright because I couldn’t take the risk of upsetting any more students with my bad material choices. Maybe I just really wanted to avoid that and just teach English and not have to deal with any terribly un-British crying.

However, whether you use a Headway-style “objective” approach (Here are a number of words connected with defence . . . put them into chronological order) or adopt a blanket “don’t mention the war”** policy, the elephant is still in the room. Perhaps avoiding it prevents both teachers and students from learning from each other. Uncomfortable segue to . . .

In 2008, I was teaching on a TESOL course in Australia which almost entirely consisted of young South Korean females. The exception was a single much older Japanese lady, who unlike the others, had been a teacher for many years already. It would have been easy for her to feel alienated by the age of her classmates, by their inevitable use of Korean both in and out of class, by their lack of teaching experience – but no. She threw herself in 200%. She’d planned and saved for the course herself and she really wanted to make the most of it.

During the course, something of great significance happened in Australia: the Prime Minister made an official apology to the Stolen Generations of Indigeneous Australians. All classes were allowed to gather in the school’s reception area to watch this live. When we got back to class, my “So what did you think?” was met with an emphatic silence. It didn’t surprise me; they didn’t really know what it was about, and I could see some were itching to get back to their lesson plan, concerned about upcoming observations. But suddenly Akiko stood up and announced she wanted to say something.

I couldn’t really understand her at first. I could see she was upset, and my first thought was that something had happened between her and the other students that had upset her. In a way it had. In stumbling English, she said she wanted to do what she felt her government had not done properly, and apologise to the Koreans for their sufferings at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. She was crying.

I’m ashamed to say that up till that point, despite many years with Korean and Japanese students, I had never really considered their shared history or taken the trouble to learn about it. I don’t pretend to know much more today, but I have at least had my Eurocentric eyes opened – I’ve learned some things that I almost wish I hadn’t and I realise that even today the question of Korean-Japanese relations remains problematic. But at the time, even though I didn’t really understand how meaningful this was, I knew I was seeing something very personal, very vulnerable, very important. There have been tears in my classroom that I’m not proud of. But these ones, I was.


* Yes, that is a Yoda reference.

** A famous Fawlty Towers reference. If you watch the original clip, you may find the cringe-worthy offensiveness outweighs the comedy – I know I do. The series is a classic though and can, in its less offensive moments, be very funny. In any case, it’s been influential enough for phrases like this to pass into common usage.

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