A letter to my younger teacher self

message-in-a-bottle-413680_1280Hi Soph!

What date is it?? What YEAR??

Just kidding, I know it is 1997 and you are into your second year of teaching in lovely London town. Now look, don’t be freaked out, but this is totally a letter from the FUTURE, and it’s written by YOU, only ‘you’ are now 40, significantly wider and living in Singapore. This letter has been sent back in time by the Resistance, headed by Joanna Malefaki, to give you some advice on¬†a few teaching-related matters. I wish I could tell you more but it might destroy the very fabric of the universe so better not.

So – hey, enjoy that school you are working at right now. It’s great to be starting off in a brand new school and get to be there from the ground up. Enjoy growing in confidence as a teacher, enjoy teaching pre-intermediate from a coursebook, and enjoy getting to meet your young, fun, and generally awesome students from all over the world too. Life is pretty good for you right now.

Don’t worry excessively about those weekly/fortnightly/monthly student evaluations. Sure, take a look and see if anyone has something specific to say, but remember that students aren’t trained to evaluate teaching and learning. Their ‘evaluations’ often tell you more about how (un)happy they are in their life in general, or that they simply click less with you than that ‘fun’ teacher who does songs every lesson and takes them to the pub afterwards. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with you or with what you are doing in class. I know you have that thing where you can get 14 good evaluations and 1 negative one and all you will think about FOR DAYS is that negative one. Please don’t. If you always have a rationale for what you do, if you are providing what students need as well as what they might (think they) want, if you have been observed by your line managers and they support what you do, and if you are always reflecting on your teaching and trying to figure out ways to do it better – then you are doing all that it is within your power to do, and you are doing FINE.

In the same way, don’t let negative colleagues get you down or draw you into their drama. Like that one negative student above, they are just unhappy, but don’t let their shadow loom larger than they are. Hang around with the positive people, the constructive ones, the optimists. You will have a much better time ūüôā

Don’t be afraid of teaching Business English, Academic English, or¬†any¬†kind of special purposes English. It is still just English and you are still a teacher who knows how to plan with students needs and contexts in mind. You will be great.

Well,¬†sometimes you definitely won’t¬†be great¬†– but that is OK too and you will survive. Don’t be too down¬†on yourself when things go wrong in class, it’s all part of the learning experience. And speaking of learning experiences, try to look on observations as something positive, a fresh perspective and a chance to try new things¬†rather than merely something that literally makes you throw up with nerves. In fact, try to take up any professional development opportunities that come your way – workshops, conferences, webinars, peer teaching, peer observation – it’s all good. There might come a time when you don’t have as much access as you used to, so take it when you can.

Accept¬†challenges, try to enjoy¬†them, and do them NOW. Don’t be afraid of presenting or of becoming a manager or of doing your DELTA. If you’re going to be staying in this job, then why wait? Throw yourself in, the water is warmer than you think.

Don’t get too jaded by the many issues in this industry (lack of standards; not being considered a ‘real’ teacher; never making enough money; zero-hour contracts rather than permanent ones; upper management who care more about money than sense, etc.). Try and be the change you want to see. In the future, the walls will start to come down and you will may start to see more transparency, support and sharing in the ELT community.

But¬†if those things really bother you, yet you¬†want to stay in teaching, start making some concrete plans for your future as soon as you can. Maybe you should get your ‘proper’ teaching qualifications and at least open up those pathways to more secure and recognised employment. Maybe you need to start a savings and pension plan, or buy a house. You won’t be footloose and fancy-free forever and I don’t want you to wake up when you’re 40 and wonder what happened.

Having said that¬†– there are zillions of people out there who hate their work. You’re lucky to have something that you enjoy that is ever-evolving. Go to new countries, meet amazing people, expand your skills, and don’t be afraid to start¬†weaving together a working life out of many different strands.¬†You’ll never be rich but you will always be learning something new.

So, Soph – I wish you lots of good times and all the best for the next 20 years or so. By the way, it is totally OK if you want to wait till you’re 40 before taking some of the above advice, I know I have.

Lots of love

Soph xxx

Notes:

  • This post is inspired by a blog challenge started by Joanna Malefaki. Click here to read her original post and find links to others who have taken up the challenge. There are some great responses and each is very different. Mike Griffin’s post made me want to write my own.
  • This is also a terrifically motivating writing idea to do with a class – though I also like the idea of limiting it to an area like learning English or getting to know¬†a new country, unless you really want the hankies to come out (Regrets! I’ve had a few…)
  • If you are into this sort of thing, do yourself a favour and check out the Big Issue’s regular feature Letters to my Younger Self¬†when you get a second.¬†Warning: hankies required.

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‚Ķ’]

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‚ĶI work‚ĶI have‚ĶI 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?

Review: Big Questions in ELT, Scott Thornbury (the-round, 2013)

Unknown-1Back in 2006, Macmillan published An A-Z of ELT, a Scott Thornbury volume that aimed to outline the key concepts, terms, approaches and issues in English language learning and teaching in an accessible way for the practising English language teacher. The simple ‚Äėdictionary/encyclopaedia‚Äô approach of the original book evolved into a hugely popular blog of the same name, which quickly took on a life of its own. From late 2009 to earlier this year, when Thornbury finally called time in order to focus on other projects, the posts from this blog lit up the online ELT community on an almost weekly basis, not only in terms of sharing, but also in terms of the fascinating and sometimes heated debate that inevitably opened up in the comments ‚Äď some 7000 over the the lifetime of the blog.

Fortunately, for those feeling the tumbleweed blowing through their brains now An A-Z of ELT has retired, Thornbury has revisited some of the most interesting posts, and reworked them into a 21-chapter e-book with the irresistible title of Big Questions in ELT. The old alphabetic titles (“A is for Aims”, etc.) have been reframed, naturally, as questions, and surely ones that have crossed many a teacher‚Äôs mind, for instance: Are there different learning styles?, Is the use of the learners‚Äô mother tongue a good idea?, Is there anything wrong with rote learning?, and How does identity impact on language learning? Of course if you‚Äôre looking for “big answers”, you won‚Äôt find them, but what you will find is an engaging and well-considered discussion of the issue, mixing anecdote with reflection and more than a sprinkling of relevant reading which draws on seminal works, popular articles, and the latest research and developments in the field.

While most of the chapters are fairly similar to the original blog posts online, and indeed the whole e-book could be read through in a hour or two, one of the key differences is the addition of eight ‚Äėquestions for discussion‚Äô after each entry, which aim to help curious readers to create links between their own experiences and the research findings, to refine their stance on an issue, to explore grey areas, and to refocus their future practice. These questions make an excellent springboard, in short, for reflection, research and professional development.

However, whilst the time-poor will appreciate the bite-size nature of the chapters, which are just a few pages long, others might feel frustrated; brevity works well in the blogosphere, but do (e-)book buyers expect more? It‚Äôs a shame, perhaps, that some of the original comments could not be included as these fleshed out the arguments and uncovered many more perspectives. Obviously it‚Äôs impracticable to seek permission to reprint hundreds of individual comments; however, Thornbury has done the next best thing and included the the original link so interested readers can explore further if they wish, and I would strongly recommend this ‚Äď the number of incredibly knowledgeable and self-aware teachers out there is phenomenal, and comments also come from well-known names such as Stephen Krashen, Jill Hadfield and Jane Arnold.

Having said that, Thornbury’s reworkings of the original posts do take into consideration the ways the discussion developed, an evolution that is also reflected in the discussion questions and the reference list. Again, this latter comprises only of texts mentioned in the chapter and so is generally limited to between three and eight references, a fact which may disappoint the more academically-focused. However, it must be remembered that Big Questions in ELT isn’t meant to be an in-depth, cover-all-angles view of a particular issue, but rather a starting point, something to provoke, to spark interest, and above all, to raise questions in readers’ minds.

One thing I have always liked about Thornbury’s writing is that he combines wide-ranging reading and intellectual discussion with actual classroom practice; he has never forgotten his roots as a EFL/ESL teacher and trainer. Accessible, intelligent, engaging writing remains a rare commodity in any sphere, but particularly perhaps in ELT, where there often seems to be a great divide between theory and practice, researchers and teachers. Bridging this divide with ease and clarity is Thornbury’s great strength. I would absolutely recommend this book to any teacher who is interested in understanding, exploring and questioning what we do in the classroom, and who wants a springboard to direct their reading of recent, relevant research in the field. It would also be an ideal starting point for workshop sessions or professional development discussion groups. And at just a fraction of the cost of a typical ELT resource book, this is professional development that’s within every teacher’s thinly-lined pocket.

This review was first published in the English Australia Journal 29(1). To find out more about the English Australia Journal, or to contribute, please click here.  

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? ūüôā