Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Back to school.

Picture Source: atbaker and Animal Photos!

Reading Ania Kozicka's excellent guest post on Ken Wilson's blog this morning, the thing that struck a chord with me was not the main topic of her piece, but something she mentioned at the end in her biographical information.

"When you see me you may catch me…- writing a script
- listening to music
- dancing
- enjoying the sun – the best source of energy
- reading a book
- watching the Smurfs – they always make me smile!
- sitting with a Spanish grammar book - I believe a teacher cannot understand their students unless they are students themselves."

It's that final point that got me to thinking about my own experiences as a learner as opposed to a teacher. I absolutely agree with Ania's point, but my relationship with language learning has always been complicated.

Like almost everyone, my first experiences were at school, studying French. My memories of the lessons are very hazy, as you would expect after 20 years, and aside from my almost unrelenting cheekiness (Mr Sheppard, if you're reading this, I apologise for being an irritant of monumental proportions), I'm not sure at all of what we actually did in the classroom. 

Nothing unusual about that, I don't remember the make up of any of my other classes either, but as a language teacher I am especially curious, particularly as I know I studied French for at least three years, got a B for my GCSE and yet at no point in my life could I honestly say I could speak French, or even be close to it. If I was to join a French class today, and I've just moved to Belgium so this isn't entirely unlikely, I would have to be in the beginners class. So now I'm burning with curiosity, trying to fathom what we could have been doing for those years that, even if you take into account my own reticence to study the language, led to a situation where I can just about read a menu and say "Le singe et dans l'arbre". If you can answer that question for me, I'd be grateful.

My next experience was after moving to Brazil, some 15 years later. I took Portuguese classes for a couple of months before I became a teacher, which I quite enjoyed, although I was by no means the class swot. That experience was invaluable to me, because I can still remember the feelings of inadequacy and frustration I had as the class happily sung along with a pop song while I understood absolutely nothing, and had to sit there in stoney faced silence. I remember the repetitive annoyance of being asked a question by the teacher and overhearing the answer muttered under her breath by another student who was quicker than me and impatient of my slowness. And I also remember the pleasure I got from getting the answer right, of pair work with an anarchic New Zealander, and the general amusement at the man who refused to stop speaking Arabic.

In other words, I think it's essential for a language teacher to have these experiences so they can know what it feel likes to be an adult language student with all the occasional frustrations that can involve. I'm not someone who loves to learn languages, for me it's a struggle and I'll never be one of those people you hear about who 'pick up' a language in no time at all. That's my reality, and I'm not complaining about it, it's just something I have to accept. But what it has done is enable me to understand that all students aren't wide eyed enthusiasts who just can't wait to learn. 

When you teach adults, there will always be a percentage of your students who are there because they have to be, or think they have to be. As a result, I can understand their frustrations and feelings, and there are two benefits of this.

Firstly, it makes it easier to empathise with their situation. I have worked with teachers who talked about adults learners who "need a kick up the backside". To me, this simplistic approach fundamentally misunderstands the complex nature of language learning. If you've been there, and had that bad day, or forgotten to do your homework, or said soap when you meant to say ice cream, you are more likely to understand that this can lead to sensitivity, shyness and embarrassment. 

Secondly, an awareness of the students situation leads to a greater understanding of how the teacher can act as a motivator in trying to engage them in the class and their studies. Rather than dismissing them as lazy or too quiet, the teacher can think about their own role in stimulating the students by perhaps encouraging a more positive learning style and subsequent outcome. (The subject of learner motivation interests me, and I'll come back to this at a later date.)

These experiences, I think, have been essential in helping me to become a better teacher. As a teacher of adults, disciplinarian is a role that I never feel the need to occupy. Friend, adviser, and counsel, however, are positions that from time to time are required. Without understanding their feelings this is impossible, and the experience of being a student makes this much easier for the teacher.
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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

How I accidentally started my teaching career unplugged.


If you are not familiar with the term 'teaching unplugged', you should read this, Scott Thornbury's excellent article from 2001.

I arrived in Brazil in May 2006, and after some time waiting for my work visa, I started looking for teaching work. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Sara Walker (have a look at her CV and you see what I mean by lucky), who kindly made a couple of phone calls to help push me in the right direction. One of those phone calls led to my first contracted teaching job, which I'll write about at some point in the future, and the second, to the boss of a language school, led more immediately to my first lesson.

After going for a meeting with a school administrator, one of her teachers called me and asked me if I would be interested in working for another school she was setting up. Obviously I was interested, and after meeting with me they decided they were prepared to completely overlook my total lack of experience and give me some private students. They would support me with coursebooks and materials that I could use, and they assured me that the students would also have their own books. As a complete novice relying only on my status as a native speaker, this was clearly important to me.

A couple of weeks later, I was still waiting for my first student when the phone rang. "We have a student for you," I was told, "but it's just a one off class and it starts in two hours". When I realised that the bus journey would take around an hour and a half, as you can imagine, I was pretty frantic. The student was a business woman who was having a phone interview in English the following day and needed to practice her interview technique. So I googled 'interview questions' and printed out a couple of pages of typical subjects for a job interview, and off I went to my first lesson, scared of getting the wrong bus, of getting lost, of being late, and of messing up the lesson.

Now I don't remember much of what happened in those two hours we spent sitting at her dinner table, apart from the amazing fruit smoothie her Mum made for us, but I do remember that we talked non-stop and that she had the opportunity to speak about many aspects of her life and work. Truth be told, there was almost certainly too much teacher talking time, but that aside, I think I did pretty well for a newbie who'd been dropped in it at the last minute with no preparation time or materials.

At the time, the experience boosted my confidence in my ability to 'be a teacher' or at least successfully pretend to be one until I could learn more about it. In the long term, I can look back on it now and see how I had inadvertently started my teaching the way I want to continue, by being able to walk into a classroom and use the material that the students generate to create dynamic, useful and enjoyable classes. The interview questions we used were just a springboard, and a natural conversation (class) followed, but it was never forced and there was definitely no strict lesson plan with a required grammar activity or a listening exercise. In other words, it was mainly student led (although this was probably because she was a very easy going, chatty person, and not because I had somehow opened up a telepathic link with Thornbury and Meddings, writers of whom I was not yet aware).

I have followed a fairly traditional path, if such a thing exists, in becoming a qualified ELT teacher by working in an institute, following their prescribed coursebooks and then taking the CELTA and learning classroom management and CCQ's etc. As with many teachers now, who seem to be moving away from the controlling influence of the coursebook to a more cooperative and occasional relationship with the published material, I too prefer to dip in and out of coursebooks and rely more on student generated content. This leads me to wonder if I need to unlearn some of these lessons I have learned in the last few years and go back to the naive happenstance of my first class, with just a handful of interview subjects and a willingness to learn, both for the student and the teacher.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that I regret the things I've learned between then and now. On the contrary, those experiences are precisely what have enabled me to reflect in this way. I am also acutely aware that coincedence was a big factor, with not just the personality of the student affecting how it went, but also the fact that she was an adult, that we shared common ground for discussion and there was only one of her, as opposed to the more intimidating environment of a classroom of staring and expectant faces. I was fortunate in a number of ways, most of all in that the class wasn't a disaster and didn't put me off teaching for life! Furthermore, although it took me some time to realise it, it provided me with an example of the possible effectiveness of a simple, materials light approach to teaching. And yes, she did get the job.

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Friday, 15 October 2010

Time to reflect...

As I have decided to throw myself into the ELT blogosphere, I think it's only right that I begin by telling you a little about who I am and why I started this blog. My name is James Taylor (@theteacherjames on Twitter), and I've been an EFL teacher to adults since 2006, when I went to live in Brasília, Brazil. I taught mainly one to one classes there for two years before moving to Seoul, South Korea, where, after completing the CELTA course, I taught local English school teachers.

Teaching is not something I had ever considered as a profession until I found myself in Brazil and in need of a job. Luckily for me, I fell in love with teaching English and the journey I have been on since that time has been the most rewarding experience of my life. To have the opportunity to find something that has had such a profound effect on me while also having had the chance to experience new cultures and meet some great people has been wonderful, but it has also been intense. I have read several times that a self reflection log is useful tool in a teachers development, and this blog will primarily allow me to reflect on the experiences of the last few years in a way that will, hopefully, encourage participation from other teachers and maybe even some of the students who were in my classrooms.

There are many things that have happened to me in the classroom in the last few years, and my hope is that by reflecting on them I will be able to improve myself as a teacher. If you'd like to join that process, then I'd love for you to get involved so please feel free to leave comments. Thanks. Now I have to choose the subject for my first proper post...hmmm...so many to choose from...
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