by Matthew Noble
When I heard about the theme for this month’s iTDi blog, I was reminded of a Buddhist story called “The Tip of the Fingernail”. In it, a monk asks the Buddha if there’s anything in the world which is not subject to change. In response, the Buddha picks up a tiny bit of dust with the tip of his fingernail and says, “There isn’t even this much that will stay just as it is”.
Reflecting now on my 2015, this story resonates. What has changed for me this year? What hasn’t! Which changes have impacted how I teach? Which haven’t! I simply can’t seal my teaching away from being influenced by experience and omnipresent change both in my personal life and the world at large. For this blog I’ve chosen three out of the many things which have instigated shifts in my beliefs about teaching and my classroom practices in 2015. They are: moving across the country, participating in an iTDi course with Luke Meddings, and probing a new approach to building a dialogue with trainee teachers.
Moving is moving…
Relocating to a new place usually has a way of being, in one way or another, a “moving” emotional experience. My wife and I moved from Boston, Massachusetts in coastal New England straight across the USA to Tacoma, Washington in the wet but wonderful Pacific Northwest. I’ve both cried for missing ‘home’ there, and laughed joyfully feeling at ‘home’ here. How has this impacted my teaching? It has increased my interest in and sensitivity to what’s really going on in the lives of my learners outside of class. Everybody in the room is going through something just like me. Earl Stevick wrote that “success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom”. I think that I’d previously accepted this intellectually, but after this year it feels like a guiding ethic to bring to the task of teaching. I’ve also realized that movement can be a multi-faceted guiding principle. I now make sure to have students stand, walk, and gesture much more while doing tasks, because we’re so often moving when we’re talking, aren’t we? I also try to be more attentive to what ‘moves’ my learners emotionally, aware that even tears can be safely shed when the classroom invites real life and learners feel comfortable enough to share what’s most important to them with their classmates and teacher.
Space is the place…
I attended my first iTDi advanced course in 2012 with John F. Fanselow’s “Breaking Rules Live” and have counted on iTDi for online professional development opportunities to refresh, renew, and inspire my teaching and teacher training work ever since. This year I was lucky to be able to participate in Luke Medding’s course “Learning Space: A Guide to Unplugged Teaching”. It was an experience that had a deep impact on my teacher beliefs and resulting behavior. Luke’s “Learning Space” concept was both subject and object throughout the class. During the live sessions there was a palpable sense of ‘space’ as Luke presented and supported ideas through extremely uncluttered graphic illustrations. He also very consistently spoke in an unrushed way with epic wait time when posing questions… I noticed that it gave me truly sufficient time to consider the input and respond more mindfully and articulately. I could feel, with each passing second, a multiplying sense of trust – trust in the teacher, peers, myself, and in the process of questioning and answering itself. I see now that questions worth asking elicit answers worth waiting for, and so I take into my classroom an enthusiastic appreciation for space and silence as teaching tools par excellence.
I’ll meet you at the mirror…
Working as a trainer on an initial teacher training certificate course, I’m keenly aware that the transmission of expert knowledge “from above” is at the heart of the work. Yet, as I gain my first full calendar year of experience in this role I’m learning that perhaps the most crucial part of my personal function is to instigate dialogue with trainees “from across” as a fellow teacher. Among other things, that means tempering terminology with more plain English, acknowledging emotions, and expressing empathy around challenges as much as possible. We’re digging deeper into the process during guided lesson planning time, and I’m making more room for trainees to share more personal, relatable reflections on teaching practice. What is the impetus for this shift? It’s the spirit and creativity the new teachers consistently bring into ELT. In turns out inspiration and change come from the bottom up!
Each of these three things alone might seem relatively insignificant or even as small as a speck of dust on a fingernail. But if change is a constant, growth is always a possibility. You never know what big or small things will have a meaningful impact, so bring on 2016…and all the change to come!