I wish I’d known it was all right to let things go

Stewart Gray

I wish I’d known it was all right to let things go
by Stewart Gray.

 

Watching what happens around you and within you and not intervening, letting go of the urge to fix things and people – this is “powerful meditation” for a teacher (Farrell, 2016). When I consider my early years in the profession, there’s perhaps nothing I wish I had known more than that I could let things go. As a matter of fact, I’m still striving to internalise this. I reflect on my most troubled times in teaching, past and present, and very often they were the times I was most unwilling to let go: of control, of conceit, or of conflict (all C’s – carefully chosen words for the present writing, I must confess). This writing is a reflection on those times when I failed to let go, or when letting go turned things around for me. I hope my experiences will speak to the reader.

Control

I still remember, it was some years ago, my eyes were opened by a tweet. The tweeter was Anna Loseva. She talked about the liberating feeling of not trying to control students: “letting go helped get closer,” I believe was her wording. This was an excellent time for enlightenment to strike, as around then I happened to be agonising over a class. It was a Monday morning, 9 a.m., three-hour-long class, with undergraduate students enrolled in English class against their preferences. At the start of each week, I’d been walking into class at 9 and walking out again at 12, utterly broken, with like I’d been in a fight kind of feeling. No matter what I said or did, the class did not readily respond. They did not pair off when I told them to; they did not open their books when I told them to; worst, they did not speak or write when I told them to. Their apparent resistance filled me with a burning professional anxiety. I was becoming genuinely afraid of Monday mornings. So, one day, I gave up on telling them what to do. I wrote a few options on the board: writing, speaking, etc. I let them know they could choose the way of approaching the day’s materials for themselves. And then the most unbelievable thing happened – this class of students, whom I’d dreaded even seeing, calmly arranged themselves and set to work. I was stunned.

Conceit

Exercising control over students is, of course, not necessarily bad. As teachers, invested with power, possessing symbols of authority, we are positioned to compel students to study where they otherwise might not (Makino, 2017); and if we grant that studying is basically a good thing, then teacher authority must be a somewhat good thing, too. That said, the drive to control students contains, you could argue, certain conceit: that it is within my power to create benefits for students if they will only heed my instructions. If they do well on a test, that success is mine, in a way. If they don’t seem to get better at speaking English despite months of classes, that failure is mine, also. If these notions are believed simply, it makes sense to be quite strict with students.

And indeed, I’ve been strict. I’ve chastised countless students for failing to follow my instructions; even, in the early years, outright yelled at them in front of their peers. Intellectually, I now recognise that non-compliance may be the result of unclear instructions, or activities that are too difficult, or dull. But when a participant on a teacher training course I’m leading decides to chat about her day in lieu of participation, and when my undergraduate conversation students quietly switch to their L1 when they think I’m not looking, my primal reaction has often been that they are being “disrespectful.” Frankly, with the benefit of experience, it seems doubtful to me that what I am trying to do in class will reliably yield benefits for students, that my pedagogical goals are important enough to warrant forcing students to fulfil them, or that student compliance signifies respect for me. Over the years, I’ve held on to lots of painful, tiring anxiety about respect for my authority – so far as I can say looking back, this hasn’t produced anything of value.

Conflict

What respect-anxiety has produced for me in abundance is conflict, and not just with students. It is with aching regret that I consider how relationships between me and certain of my former co-workers soured as time went by. We used to disagree a lot about the best way to teach students for whom we shared responsibility. Even I am surprised when I recall the personal, venomous nature of many of those disagreements. In retrospect, I believe that both they and I were feeling the need to be respected as professionals, but instead of respectfully compromising, we each argued for our own positions. These arguments grew and deepened, until instead of respect we heaped scorn on each other. And eventually, in some cases, we stopped talking altogether. I still carry a lot of shame about those difficult days. I suppose I felt at the time I was arguing for what I believed in, pedagogically speaking. I suppose I felt I was advocating for myself as a legitimate professional in the face of my colleagues’ oppressive behaviour. I suppose I felt I was arguing for something. In fact, I walked away from those arguments with nothing except perhaps a little wisdom and a few psychic bruises that have yet to completely heal.

Gradually, fortunately, I’ve learned to eschew conflict and yield control, to understand other teachers’ perspectives, and to compromise when needed. As yet, I’m still learning. I wish, though, I could go back and have a word with my earlier self about the peace that comes from letting things go.

 

References

  1. Farrell, T.S.C. (2016). Contemplative practice: From letting go to letting come. The English Connection, 20(1), 8-9.
  2. Makino, M. (2017). My black robes. Available from: https://futurealisreal.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/my-blackrobes/

No regrets! Just a few wishes…

Matthew Noble

No regrets! Just a few wishes…
by Matthew Noble.

 

I wish I’d known, earlier on, what a more realistic and practical lesson planning process looked like. I’m not sure if my course trainers ever really conveyed the idea that the fashion in which we were required to knock out full-on multi-section lesson plan documents, one after the other, furiously and sleeplessly, during the entirety of the one-month course, was not what would be expected of us on the job. I really wish I’d known that. And I wish it had been explained to me why we were planning the way we were planning while in training, comparing it to how we would likely plan lessons on the job. I wish I’d had chance to perhaps explore what was most and least likely transferable. Instead, I didn’t know the difference and attempted to apply the approach to planning I was trained to take during the course – and quickly burnt myself out with it. This resulted in unnecessary heartache and an enduring confusion about the nature of effective planning.

I also wish I’d known that “anticipated problems” (as they are described on the lesson plan pro forma on that initial training course) don’t really represent problems but rather very salient learning opportunities. I wish this whole area of classroom/lesson experience was not set aside as in any way “problematic,” but instead faced directly as the primary concern for us developing teachers, even if total newbies. I think that as a result I spent far too long treating students’ inevitable, natural, ultimately productive confusions as something to avoid or at best ensure. I wish I’d known – or at least had more models and evidence for recognizing – that these incidents are, in fact, ground zero for learning. Instead of spending all my time and energy preparing for a (hopefully!) smooth sail through clarification of any particular language point, I wish I knew to spend more of that time and energy preparing to give the best targeted, responsive feedback I could at the very moments my learners demonstrated that they were ready for it.

I wish I’d realized sooner that doing lesson planning and preparation alone all the time was a bad idea. Perhaps I should have; we didn’t do too much isolated planning on my training course and we almost always at least checked in with the trainers to review our ideas and get guidance. We were also encouraged to cooperate with our peers in our planning process. We were just never told to continue doing so on the job and we never really explored what this might look like beyond the course. I went on to approach planning as a fundamentally private affair for far too long. I wish I’d known, in those early days, to burst that bubble and engage interested colleagues in staff rooms – at the very least, talking more about general and specific challenges as I thought about what I’d be teaching the next day. It’s not as if I didn’t spend an entire month doing exactly that, day in and day out, for a full month of training!

I also wish I’d been able to better appreciate my course trainers as the models of ELT professionals they were. Having clearer, closer models of mature ELT career professionals would have helped me. There were multiple times during my early career when, despite my interest in and passion for teaching English, I doubted the feasibility of a career in ELT. I couldn’t see any obvious path onwards and upwards from being a classroom teacher forever. How did those trainers, for instance, get where they were? I certainly learned quite a few things about them during the month I was with them, and I’m pretty sure they supplied us all with their CVs. But somehow I don’t remember a sense that their professional example was an intentional object lesson for us. This was likely them being so “trainee-centered” and avoiding the spotlight, and of course that was a good thing (they were great trainers). In any event, I wish that I’d focused in more on their professional routes and roots in order to fill certain empty spaces of my professional imagination. I could have simply approached them (and any number of potentially early-career mentors in various staff rooms) and asked. From day one of my course onwards, I certainly felt that I wanted to be like them. Now as a trainer myself I make sure that I’m “trainee-centered” too, and I also make sure to highlight, in a personal way, what it’s like to surf the inevitable waves of doubt and confusion in this field and ultimately find calmer waters.

I wish I’d understood what a big, big deal listening is. Listening has been called the “Cinderella skill” because of how neglected it is but for early-career Matthew it might as well have been the “Invisible Man skill”. The only way I understood to approach it, based on my early training, was awkwardly top-down: testing general and specific comprehension of various spoken passages rather than actually teaching listening strategies or using listening work to illuminate aspects of phonology, morphology, pragmatics, etc.  Did I at least make what I could out of what I had in my newbie’s tiny toolbox? No, even my limited top-down listening comprehension exercises were managed pretty poorly. Far be it from me to give my learners even a five-second delay after the disembodied two-minute conversation they just heard from a CD in order to mentally review the eight questions they were trying to answer about it. Repeated listenings? I’d never allow for that as it would surely be “cheating” and totally unrealistic! CD player not working? Okay, we’ll just have to wait until it works then. A “live listening”? Get outta here! Sure, I was trained to build some context around what my learners were hearing: the scene would be set, the characters perhaps sketched on the whiteboard. I did that…usually. I was also trained to allow for pair-checks after each time listening. Sage counsel. Did I follow it?… Usually. But because true qualities of listening were still invisible to me then, what I did with it early in my career very rarely lead anywhere. I wish I’d known then that listening actually leads everywhere!

I also wish I’d recognized:

…that professional development needs are never satisfied passively.

…that students certainly want to be engaged and active, but there’s no reason to fear the occasional mini-lecture.

…that the whiteboard belongs to the learners as much as it does to the teacher.

…that the teacher is a perpetual learner of the very language they teach (and it really is okay for the learners to see you learning, too).

…that there’s plenty of readable research out there that offers practical insights on the whats, whys, and hows of language teaching and learning.

…that PARSNIPs aren’t poison. Rather, they’re (sometimes spicy) seasonings that, if applied carefully and thoughtfully, make otherwise bland classes flavorful.

…that I’d be able to write about just a small selection of “things I wish I’d known when I started teaching” over a decade down the road with a heartful sense of appreciation for the continuing journey of both discovery and letting go that being a teacher offers.

Something(s) I wish I had been told

Chris Mares

Something(s) I wish I had been told
by Chris Mares.

 

The thing about teaching is… you learn through experience. You have to put in the time. You have to feel embarrassed when you can’t answer a question and you have to get all hot and sweaty when there is a technical glitch that you can’t fix. That is how you learn. And it takes years. In fact, it’s a never-ending process. I’ve been teaching for thirty-eight years and I’m still learning. 

A true teacher is always a student. Richard Feynman, the famous American theoretical physicist once said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.” A similar thing might be said of teaching, “If you think you have arrived as a teacher, you haven’t.” It is an art and an ongoing process. 

So, is there something I wish I had been told? Or perhaps things, even. I was certainly told a lot. However, a lot of what I was told created a tremendous amount of stress in me. I had to prepare rigorous, minute by minute lesson plans. I was castigated for going over time in my warm-up activity and berated for not following my lesson plan to the letter. 

The answer then is yes, there is something I wish I had been told. Forget about present, practice, produce. Sure it has its place, but what is more important is what I am about to tell you. 

Teaching is theatre. It’s drama. Think performer and audience. Think improv. Think stand up. 

Someone should have told me that so I could have immediately given myself permission to be me and get on with the show. Stagecraft is all about schema-raising, engagement, and storytelling. These are the things that excite and motivate students. 

And now the genie is out of the bottle, there are a lot more things someone could have whispered in my ear. For example, “Don’t just stay in your comfort zone. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Take risks. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Come on? What? A minute of mild embarrassment, or the class laughing at something you failed to do or got wrong? Big deal.” 

Am I being clear? No? OK, let me put it like this. Just because you can’t sing is no reason not to sing. Giving it a shot is the key. Students love that. And you can bet there’s someone in your class who can sing. The same goes for drawing, or dancing, or playing the guitar. 

I have got swirled up in my own enthusiasm, so I will slow down, in order to clarify. Generally speaking, teachers tend to teach how they were taught, or not how they were taught, or how they were trained, or not how they were trained, or any combination of the above. 

One of the other things I wasn’t told is that the process and practice of teaching is about our students, not as a hypothetical demographic with their requisite needs and interests, I mean as living, breathing human beings with lives and histories. It is these students as humans who we must connect with and engage. We must enthrall them with what we do and also with us and themselves. Needless to say we do this with intentionality and purpose. We recycle and give meaningful feedback. We note down what we have actually done and we point out to students what they have actually done, in terms of language practice and development. 

Students want and need a teacher who is passionate, engaged, perceptive, responsive, and reliable. 

I wasn’t told that. But I learnt it. And I try to spread the word to my trainees and mentees. 

Be you. The rest will come in time. 

 

It takes a year…

Anne Hendler

It takes a year…
by Anne Hendler.

 

Two months after my university graduation, I found myself teaching in a kindergarten – the same ten kids, five days a week, four hours a day. It was frustrating. I wasn’t trained. I didn’t know how to teach or manage a classroom. The recruiter had told me that the school would train me. The first thing my predecessor showed me was a game where he sits in a chair and the kids run around the room as fast as they can and try not to get caught by him. The second was one where the kids rearranged all the furniture in the classroom and made it into an obstacle course and tried to avoid getting caught by him. I observed his class for one day and then I was on my own.  

Slowly over the first year I built up the skills and confidence to be effective. I learned to adapt the curriculum to the kids as I got to know them. I learned classroom management skills that didn’t involve throwing a temper tantrum worse than the kids’ one. I learned to use repetition and set routines. I learned that just because kids don’t get something the first time doesn’t mean they’ll never get it or aren’t interested in it. I learned that kids change a lot in a year.   

At the end of the first year, having invested so much of myself in the school, the curriculum, and the kids, I didn’t want to leave. I stayed for five more years.  

Fast forward ten years. When I took a new job in a new country and a new context, I expected to walk in as the expert teacher that I felt myself to be when I left the kindergarten. What a humbling experience the reality has been. And once again it has taken a year to get comfortable with the curriculum, the students, the attitude towards English, the way language is learned in conversation schools, the expectations for students and teachers, when and how English is used in and outside of class. All these things factor into a very different experience. I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an expert now, or even thinking I might feel like one in five years. 

This year we have a new teacher starting at our school. She has never taught kids in Japan before, and my coworker and I were assigned to train her. And one of the things I want her to know is that it will take a year. A year to get to know her students. A year to get to know how best to manage the classroom and use the curriculum. A year to begin to understand the bigger picture of young learner conversation school teaching in Japan. And a year to feel comfortable. But we will help as much as we can. We will listen and learn from her new ideas and suggestions. We will all share our successes and failures and help each other out because we are better together.  

The Impact of ELF on Teachers and Materials Writers

Katherine Bilsborough

The Impact of ELF on Teachers and Materials Writers
by Katherine Bilsborough.

 

Where are all the ELF books? 

If you write “ELT books” in the search box of a well-known online bookstore, you’ll get pages and pages of suggestions, from grammar books to resource books, course books to methodology books and everything in between. The same is true for “ESL books”, “EAP books” and “ESOL books”. But type in “ELF books” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, you get a range of elf-themed picture books for very young children. And while “101 Things to Do with Your Christmas Elf” looks quite charming, it has nothing whatsoever to do with English as a Lingua Franca.  

A few questions about ELF from a teacher’s perspective …  

How does the growing acceptance of ELF impact on the role of a teacher? Do we have to focus on different aspects of the language? How do we know what we need to teach and what we don’t need to teach?  

 … and from an author’s perspective 

What kind of things might need to change in teaching materials in order to make them appropriate for an ELF context? Do teachers need specific ELF materials? If not, how might they use traditional resources differently? Which aspects need to change? And how? Is there a need for self-published ELF materials to supplement resources that teachers create themselves?  

A teacher’s focus 

If I was working as a teacher today and my students were going to be mainly using English as a Lingua Franca, I’d probably start each new course with these three steps. 

Step 1. Conduct a simple needs analysis and include a question asking your students who they think they are most likely to be using their English with in the future. In all likelihood you’ll have at least some students who think they’ll be mainly speaking English with people whose first language isn’t English either: students collaborating on joint university research projects from around the world, businesspeople at international conferences where English is the official language, or even would-be travellers who see English as a language of communication in destinations from Scandinavia to Patagonia.  

Step 2. After establishing that your students will most likely be using English with other speakers of English as a second language, set up a class discussion with a list of statements or questions to make them think about what would be helpful and what might be a waste of time.  In my experience, students don’t always realise what it is they need. They just remember and repeat what they’ve heard others say over the years. This means their reasoning can be underpinned by a spurious premise. Some will be passionate about grammar. Others will insist on learning lists of vocabulary. And for many the goal will be to speak English like a native English speaker – whatever that might be.  

Some suitable discussion questions could be along the lines of: 

a) Which is greater – the number of people who speak English as a first language or the number of people who speak English as a second language?(More than a billion people speak English as a second language, while around 400 million speak it as their first language.) 

b) How many different accents are there in your language? Are some better than others? Should a learner of your language try and adopt a particular accent?(When students think about people learning their language, they are able to step back and see learning English from a different perspective.) 

c) If communication is the ultimate aim of a language learner, which skills are important to develop in your English lessons?(Hopefully, a discussion will help students realise that some things, like having perfect grammar, are less important than, for example, developing their listening skills so as to be able to understand a range of accents. While they need to learn how to speak clearly, they certainly don’t need to have any particular accent.) 

 

Step 3. I’d look for the best possible materials for my students. This might mean checking the audios that come with traditional course books to see what kind of speakers have made the recordings. I’d choose the one with a variety of accents and reject the ones that only include native speakers of English. I’d look at the pronunciation sections in the course book and see what kind of things are being taught and focused on. If I wasn’t sure which features of pronunciation were important for speakers to communicate intelligibly, I’d find out! The “Lingua Franca Core” (LFC) has, along with a lot of other interesting content, a list of these features and it’s a useful list for teachers to familiarize themselves with if they really want to help their students become competent communicators in English. You can find out some of the key points from the LFC and read more about it in a post on Katy Simpson and Laura Patsko’s Elfpron blog here. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca” is another excellent resource and a practical guide to the LFC. It comes with audio recordings of non-native speakers and lots of classroom suggestions.  

 

An ELT author’s perspective 

  1. In general, many of the teaching materials we write are based on native speaker models of English so parts of them might not be relevant for ELF. 
  2. There is a need for Listening materials with a variety of accents in the audio components.  
  3. We should write pronunciation materials after consulting the Lingua Franca Core to ensure that the aspects of pronunciation we are teaching are the most useful. 
  4. Digital materials might be better than print materials for ELF teachers because they can be more easily adapted for more specific needs.  
  5. There might be scope for writing “wrap around” materials that can be used alongside existing videos and audios1 with speakers from different countries speaking English well. Some of these could be generic, others more specific. 

 

As the number of people who speak English as a second language continues to grow, it’s inevitable that a growing number of teachers and students will turn to ELF as the most appropriate form of English to teach and learn. It’s my belief that in a few years time when we write “ELF books” in the search box of that well-known online bookstore, we’ll start finding the kind of books we’re looking for.