A Day in the Life of a Freelance Multitasker

Theodora Papapanagiotou
Theodora Papapanagiotou
By Theodora Papapanagiotou

It’s 6:30 a.m. and the alarm clock goes off. First coffee of the day and work begins.

I love waking up early in the morning, the peace and quiet are wonderful and I am ready for my first task. I am working on a translation now. One of my “jobs” is translating medical and sports-related texts. I work with trainer schools and sports professionals. I truly enjoy this kind of texts: I learn so much about the human body, the way it functions, methods how to improve our performance and avoid injuries, whether you are an athlete or not. There are so many sciences combined to actually train somebody (or yourself) – physiology, physics, sports science, medicine, chemistry, psychology… the list goes on. I admire sports professionals for using this knowledge to actually help their athletes improve. That’s also what we do as teachers, I guess. Combine the English language with technology and other subjects to make our lessons more useful and interesting.

Nine o’clock and I am off to class. Recently I have started working for a non-governmental organization. At the moment they are holding seminars and sessions for senior citizens, such as yoga, health-related seminars, as well as computer and English language lessons, and that’s where I come in! My class consists of eleven wonderful ladies over sixty. They were all very active during their youth, working and enjoying life, and in fact they still do. Although I do have a leaflet created by the organization with basic vocabulary and phrases, we usually improvise dialogues with related vocabulary, role-play trips to stores to buy stuff and going to restaurants. We focus on the language that they are going to need when travelling abroad. The funny thing is that, being “old-school” people, they are used to learning more grammar and rules, so they find it a bit bizarre to actually talk and communicate with each other in English, but it’s a lot of fun!

It’s almost noon and I am rushing back home to prepare lunch. If I lived alone, I wouldn’t be bothered, but having a kid makes all the difference. I am not good at cooking but I try to make something out of fresh ingredients, avoiding junk food and taking care of myself in this way.

Since it is summer, I don’t have a lot of one-to-one students, only a couple of adult learners a few times a week in the afternoon.

My first student is a teacher preparing for a literature exam, so I always bring excerpts from classic English literature, such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We talk about the plot, analyze the characters, and compare the books with one another. The preparation I have to do at home is pretty demanding but I love every minute of it, because I get to read books and I have no excuses since I have to use them in my work.

My second student of the day is a businessperson who needs English to get around. I look for articles about food and drinks, travelling, and different cultures on the Internet. I create reading comprehension and vocabulary exercises and then we talk about the subject I have chosen for the day. My student has travelled almost everywhere in the world, so the experiences he shares are very interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes enlightening. Working without a coursebook is a great experience for me because it keeps me motivated to create new things myself. Not that I don’t like coursebooks – I do use them for my lessons with children and teenagers, as well as preparing for exams, but when you teach ESP you have to be creative, I guess.

After my private lessons, it’s spinning time! Well, for those of you who don’t know what it is, I will explain. Spinning is a gym class on a stationary bike. You may tell me, “What kind of class is this, you just get on the bike and ride!” But it’s so much more than that. You can have a complete workout with sprints, climbing hills, or even jumps with great music. I love this class so much that a few years ago I actually went to a spinning instruction school and got my own trainer diploma. I learned about human physiology, heart rates, different kinds of bikes, and all about beat and music used in the process. Spinning combines my three big loves: teaching, music, and movement, and that’s why I love it so much! So every weekend I try to spend a couple of hours discovering new music and creating my “lesson-plans” with the right moves. What I find really challenging in this type of teaching is that you never get to have the same students like in a normal language class, and the fact that their levels are different never makes it any easier. You can have an athlete, a pensioner, and a housewife all in the same class! So, when planning, you have to create different versions of moves, a lighter one and a more difficult one. This reminds me of mixed ability classes and the need for us teachers to have activities that cover the same language phenomenon while catering for different language levels and individual abilities of our students.

It’s late in the evening. I am back home, to tidy up and talk to my kid a bit more. Tomorrow is another day. And a new challenge.

Teacher, Learner, Supporter

Theodora Papapanagiotou
Theodora Papapanagiotou
by Theodora Papapanagiotou

…Or what are the roles of teachers and what can we do to get better?

I am the one who is going to show you how to learn things. I am the one who is going to guide you while you are attempting to learn. I am the one who is going to provide a cosy environment for you to shine. I am the one who is going to set the limits and make you realise that life comes with responsibilities. I am the one who is going to lend a sympathetic ear when you are in trouble and get you back on track safe and sound. Wonder who I am? I’m your teacher!

Nowadays, more and more educators are coming to realize that there is more to being a teacher than just teach. Actually, they become aware of the ugly truth… that a teacher is the epitome of multitasking! Most teachers do not just enter the classroom carrying a book, preaching its holy content and cursing all those who do not abide.

Curious to find out what it takes to be a teacher nowadays? Grab your pen and start making a list!

A teacher is a person who has to keep up to date with what’s happening in the world, possess a vast knowledge about countries, politics, history, technology, and be ready to apply the acquired knowledge and adjust their work depending on the students they have in the classroom each time. An interest in lifelong learning and flexibility are the definitive characteristics of a modern teacher. Role: Source of Language and Knowledge

A teacher is a person who has to create their own materials or adapt the materials which they have to use according to the needs of their students. Scaffolding the learning process requires a lot of thorough planning and painful adaptation of materials, which automatically sets this process as the least favourite for many of us. Role: Facilitator of Learning

A teacher is a person who is going to set the standards against which the generation of tomorrow is going to be assessed. They are going to evaluate learners’ efforts, praise them or warn them, and get them to work harder to reach their full potential. Role: Assessor and Enabler

A teacher is a person who has to be the one to detect any early sign of learning difficulties or problems that may impede their learners’ progress. They are the ones to guide learners and parents and mitigate the problem. Role: Evaluator and Tension Relief Helper

A teacher is a person who has to run a variety of activities for their classes. They are responsible for taking initiative and running projects. Without the skills of organization and negotiation, they would not be able to make it through. Role: Manager and Leader

A teacher is a person who, under unfavourable circumstances, such as teaching in refugee camps, war zones or in areas that have been stricken by complete poverty, rises above and strives for the greater good and the welfare of society. Role: Source of Inspiration

A teacher is a person who has to learn how to handle different situations, deal with students’ problems, be there at any given time, understand, empathise, and take action. Role: Rapport Builder

The list could go on and on, but I need to draw the line and conclude. I know that sometimes money may not be enough, time may not be enough, resources may not be enough, and that your intrinsic motivation may not be enough. But you can only become better if you care about what you do. Teaching is a profession that centres around humans, hence the ability to empathise, communicate, inspire and lead can make a tremendous difference. Just remember that tomorrow is a new day. Do not endeavour to make a difference…BE that difference!

P.S. Sometimes we all get burnt out and find ourselves facing a block. I would like to thank my dear colleague and very good friend Theodore Lalos for his support and for taking the time to edit and even rewrite some parts of this article, enhancing it with his own ideas. It is not the first time he’s been helping me out and I know it is not going to be the last one. I hope I can be there for him when he needs it. That’s what being part of a community means to me!

Mentor? Guide? Friend?

Theodora Papapanagiotouby Theodora Papapanagiotou

In my previous post about feedback, I started off by quoting a dictionary to get an understanding of what feedback is. This time, since “mentor” is an ancient Greek word, I’m confident that I don’t need to refer us to dictionary definitions. I can do the job of explaining quite well myself.

The word “mentor” takes us back to the Odyssey. Mentor was the person that Odysseus was confiding to. He was the person who helped his son Telemachus and Odysseus himself in crucial moments during their life journey. Mentor was, in fact, goddess Athena in disguise. As you can see, ancient Greeks gave a great significance to the role of Mentor and, in my opinion, that’s how a great mentor (as we know them now) should be.

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In my 20 years of teaching experience, I have come across some wonderful people who have helped me a lot and have given me strong incentives to continue on my path. I definitely look forward to the day when someone will consider me their mentor in their teaching career, but for now I will talk about three of my mentors who have shaped me as a teacher I am now.

Ms. Mary

The first important person in my life that I call a mentor came really early. I was 12 and started taking German lessons. To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to take up another language. I cried and whined and refused flatly to attend those classes. My parents almost literally forced me to. But then I met her, Ms. Mary Karazisi, my first and only German teacher. She was a really strict teacher with a stern look, who was assigning tons of homework, but I just loved it! We talked about Germany, its culture, the trips that she had been taking. She set an example for me and since then I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. That experience was the beginning of my studies of the German literature and language. I changed the language I teach in the process, but Ms. Mary has always been my role model. I deeply regret the fact that I didn’t manage to keep in touch, but I feel that I owe a big THANK YOU to her.

Olha

Olha Madylus was my first teacher trainer in English language teaching. A few years after I’d started teaching the German language, I was trying to find new ways to make my lessons more interesting. Back then, there were not a lot of seminars conducted in German for a teacher of German, so I attended a course in English at the British Council, hoping to find ways to adapt my German lessons to a more modern approach. That’s when I met Olha, the friendliest trainer I know. Her joyful attitude and simple approach made all the difference for me. On the first day of the course, she made sure that we all call her by her first name because we are colleagues, not trainer and trainees. It was very different from what I was used to, since all professors I’d had by then would prefer to keep a distance from their students. Olha taught me about games, projects, and songs. She taught me about having fun while teaching. To this day Olha is the liveliest person I know, ready to motivate and help teachers around the world.

Chuck

Last but not the least, I would like to give a shout out to Chuck Sandy. We are a million miles away but he has always been there in my difficult times, the times I needed a friend. Although Chuck has not officially been my teacher or my trainer, he has been my guide. Whenever I hit my blues, he always finds a way to cheer me up and give me a purpose, something to work towards, something to be excited about. His amazing talent to break up the ultimate goal into smaller, more achievable chunks, makes me forget the reason of what caused me much distress in the first place. I don’t know if this is a kind of strategy, but it works. I know that Chuck has been helping a lot of people in this or other ways and I know that he keeps doing it again and again.

Obviously, I don’t have a rigid or well-shaped idea of who a mentor is. I do know that for me a mentor is not just a person showing you how something is or should be done. Maybe my perception of a mentor is that of a person whose whole philosophy and life attitude can make a difference in this world. There may be just a few people with this skill and I’m really grateful that I have met some of them.

There is no failure, only feedback

Theodora Papapanagiotouby Theodora Papapanagiotou

If we lived according to the dictionary, feedback would be “helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance…” In reality, what we do is grade our students’ tests and exercises and point out what was wrong, mark their essays, and write correct answers. That’s what we often call and consider to be feedback. It looks like we use this F-word in a wrong and utterly inappropriate way…

I am afraid that in the majority of school systems the notion of feedback has a lot to do with grades. If the grades are good, the student is doing well. But is this always the case? Does a grade actually show the ability of a student? We realize that each student is different, and their unique personalities have varied interests, likes, dislikes, and ambitions, which all have an impact on students’ learning that we put to test. How can a limited set of grades clearly and extensively determine their abilities? More than that, if grades are the only feedback we give our students, can we ever be sure they benefit from it?

Feedback should not be about how we control the students, nor should the students perceive grades as feedback. It is crucial, at least in my own humble opinion, to monitor our students both for their general performance and results in specific tasks, to praise them for their hard work and effort and, ultimately, scaffold them to new extremes. And then turn to them – do they actually understand our praise, our criticism, our support, our positive and negative feelings?

If we want change, it’s important to involve our learners more actively, make them think critically about their learning and take part in the feedback process. For example, when we tell them how we assess their performance, the students themselves have to realize what’s in it for THEM. Why do they have to learn? Why do they have to do the tasks they do? How do they benefit from these tasks? The answers to these questions might give a bigger picture of learning for both students and the teacher.

A simple and effective way to involve students in their own learning is through working with a KWL chart. I have recently been doing that with my students and trainees and found this technique engaging and beneficial. The chart asks to think and note down answers to three simple questions:

What I Know

What I Want to know (to be answered before the session)

What I Learned (to be answered after the session)

By using this chart, from the very beginning we can activate and assess their schematic knowledge on a subject, not to mention enthuse them and get them curious, motivated and encouraged to learn something new. By the end of an activity or a session we can get students to analyze their learning experience themselves, match their objectives with the results, and in this way give self-assessment.

I believe our feedback to students must be:

  • descriptive – describe the problem, do not accuse them of making errors but instead provide with strategies that will enable them to improve and avoid such errors in the future;
  • in-time – students need to know how they have done on a task almost immediately! Assess the occasion and decide when would be the most appropriate time to do give feedback. Don’t wait too long!
  • sensitive don’t discourage your students by being overly critical, praise them for their effort instead.

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It is our job as teachers to educate our learners on how to evaluate themselves and encourage peer assessment. It is our job to offer opportunities to give each other feedback in group and pair activities. We should teach students how to receive, ponder on and apply the constructive criticism which they are exposed to.  We should encourage them to use this technique in all aspects of their lives. Most importantly, don’t forget:

Keep improving – Κeep learning – Κeep moving!

What is failure anyway?

Theodora Papapanagiotouby Theodora Papapanagiotou

A definition from Cambridge dictionary says:

Failure (noun) – the ​fact of someone or something not ​succeeding.

The meeting was a complete/total failure.

I’m a bit of a failure at making (= I cannot make) cakes.

I feel such a failure (= so unsuccessful).

The dictionary does not help me much, though. Trying to find the definition that would be right for me was a complete failure. In my understanding, not meeting a goal does not mean being unsuccessful, it is not the end of the world. It just means that we were not ready at that particular moment, or that it was not the right time for us, at least not yet! When we feel a failure, all we want to do is give up. I believe that, on the contrary, that’s exactly when we need to try one more time, and then maybe once again… and again, if necessary.

As a teacher, I tend not to use this word and I will tell you why. Foreign language teaching in my country is absolutely exam-oriented. Students learn one or two foreign languages at school, but they also attend courses at private language schools to actually “learn a language”. “Learn a language” in this case always means “pass an exam in order to get a certificate”. Certificates are everything, they last forever if you want to work as a public servant. As a result, students start learning English at a very young age (usually 5 years old) and keep going until they get the desired certificate. EFL exam industry thrives in Greece and children take C2 CEFR level exams at 14.

And yet they “fail”. They fail because the language level  is way too demanding, because they have loads of homework assigned either by school or by private tutoring centres, or maybe because they have taken up more extracurricular activities than ever. They fail because they are too young to understand texts in C2 level – they do not even read newspapers or watch the news in their own language. They fail because they are taught to prepare by studying three test books and learning huge lists of vocabulary by heart. In the end, most of these students do not pass the exam…

But does this really mean failure? And if so, failure for whom? Failure for the student who has not passed the exam? Failure for the teacher? Why have we failed?

theodora pic

In my opinion, we have missed our goal. Our goal is to make students use the language, develop their basic interpersonal communication skills as well as their cognitive academic language proficiency. In the real world, having a certificate means nothing if you cannot use what you have learned. Of course, certificates are a mere necessity in order to study, get a job, have an officially documented proof to indicate your knowledge. But what happens, for example, if you passed your language exam at 14 and have not used the language ever since? I have seen so many people not being able to communicate in English after years of learning the language. It is certainly sad, but it is not failure. You are never a failure if you are willing to improve yourself.

So, what can we do in order to meet our goals? As teachers, we should:

  • Promote communication among our students and with peers from other countries. Let them realise that we have more similarities than differences. Let them learn how to tolerate people and how to handle situations with different mentalities and cultures. Show them the power of language.
  • Make them use the language everywhere they can. Watch movies and videos, listen to songs, read books, magazines, newspapers, and websites. Make them interested!
  • Create real life situations. Let them see why they need the language. Try role plays – take them out and have them pretend they are tourists and cannot speak their native language. Let them play!
  • Have them use the vocabulary they have learned by playing vocabulary games to revise it. Make it fun!
  • If they have to take an exam, make them familiar with the exam format, devote some time to making them work with certain strategies. Talk about the topics you find in the books. Organize debates, use group work, and let them take decisions and find solutions to problems.
  • Use technology. There is definitely some kind of an app to help you with your goal!

Whatever you do, remember this: not passing an exam does not make you less intelligent, as well as having students who did not make it in an exam does not mean that you are a bad teacher. “Failure” is just a word which is overrated. Keep moving!