Peer Observation

blog161018

Alexandra Chistyakova
Alexandra Chistyakova
By Alexandra†Chistyakova

How important is peer observation for teachers?

In my case, the peer observation I went through early in my teaching career became a turning point in my professional development. In fact, most of what I know about and can do in the classroom in terms of teaching a foreign language I owe to peer observation. Itís through observing a highly professional teacher that I learnt how to teach.

However, the way I did my peer observation was somewhat non-standard: I wasnít just sitting at the back of the class observing another teacher and her class. I was exceptionally lucky to be both the observer and the recipient of teaching – I was a peer observer disguised as a regular student. No, that wasnít my plan to fool my teacher in order to spy on her in secret, that would have been the meanest thing to do. As a matter of fact, I was a student in the English Conversation and Pronunciation course at Oxford House College in London. I went there simply to improve my English skills and in no way could I imagine I would be improving my teaching skills as well.

By that time I had already been teaching English for two years. But as I hadnít been trained to be a teacher, all I was doing in my classroom was to diligently copy my own university teachers. I should admit here that in many respects it was some kind of grammar-translation method with bits of communicative approach. Actually, I didnít even think that it was possible to teach languages in any other way since it was the only way I had experienced and observed (talk about the importance of observation!) as a language learner.

Now you can imagine my utter surprise when after the first week of my English course in Oxford House College I realized that without any homework and drills I could effortlessly use the vocabulary and expressions we studied in class. It felt like pure magic! I decided to meticulously record everything my teacher did in class in order to unravel the magic. That was the start of my two-month peer observation and the beginning of my transformation as a teacher: I would carefully write down what activities we were doing and in what order, I would number the corresponding worksheets and handouts, I would note down some bits of instructions and my own comments to the activities. By the end of the course, I had a detailed outline of each and every lesson we had. Thus, I could look back at my notes to analyze and reflect on the classroom procedures and teaching techniques and to learn from them.

When I came back to my classroom at the start of a new academic year, I felt motivated to teach like I had never done before because now I knew how the magic worked and I knew how to work this magic! I had a much clearer understanding of what should be done in the classroom and why this should be done.

All in all, it seems to me there are two types of peer observation: when you observe what is happening in the classroom without taking part in the classroom activities, and when you actively participate in the process and evaluate the learning and teaching processes from the inside. I believe both ways are worth trying. The first type allows you to see the broader picture and also notice some subtle developments that you may overlook while being engaged in the process. However, doing the classroom activities yourself can give you an invaluable opportunity to look at things from a learnerís perspective. Moreover, the second way of observing your peers largely prevents you from being too judgmental and jumping to conclusions too quickly. Itís necessary to note here that the latter two tendencies (being judgmental and jumping to conclusions) should be avoided as much as possible because they are the biggest obstacles to effective peer observation as they make you biased in what you see in class.

So, how important is peer observation for teachers? From my perspective, itís highly important because non-judgmentally observing others may help you find out new teaching techniques, may make you reconsider your own practices, and undoubtedly will help you develop professionally and extend your arsenal of teaching tools and tricks. In addition to this, peer observation may lead to a constructive dialogue between teachers and has the potential to help teachers build a collaborative and supportive community.

This was my story of peer observation. Whatís yours?

Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT – Alexandra

Believe in Your Students, not in Myths
Alexandra Chistyakova

Alexandra Chistyakova
 

Myths, biases, and misconceptions seem to accompany almost every aspect of human life. Some of them are based on preconceived opinions, some stem from misinformation or distorted facts, while others are formed in a slapdash manner simply out of laziness.

Teaching is no exception to this rule: it is also surrounded with myths and beliefs. As many of us have been through some educational institutions we have some certain ideas and notions of the educational process. Certainly, our ideas are largely based on our own first-hand experience and depending on how successful or not our experience has been, we hold various, sometimes opposing beliefs about teaching and learning. Also, our views depend on the roles we play in the process. As learners, we tend to look at learning, teaching and our teachers, in particular, from one perspective, while, as teachers, we see the other side of the situation. Not surprisingly, learners and teachersí perspectives do not always match. Rather, far too often, teachers and learners are found on the opposite sides of the barricades.

However, the fact that there are so many various and sometimes contrasting ideas about teaching and learning is only beneficial as it helps all parties involved to reflect on and reconsider their attitudes and practices, thus making education more efficient. However, when some ideas are spread around without decent critical examination, they may turn into myths. This is especially alarming when such myths take root in teachersí minds and influence teaching practices. That is why, these are teachers who not only can but, in fact, should look at the educational process from all perspectives and try to be open-minded and flexible as possible.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes, teachers are inclined to look at the learning process mostly from a teacherís standpoint disregarding studentsí views and wishes. Such one-sidedness is a trap because it leads to a biased opinion of learners and the teaching profession, in general. In other words, one-sidedness breeds myths.

Among all possible misconceptions and false beliefs teachers might have about learning and learners, there is one I particularly feel strongly about. This is a belief that there is no use worrying too much about what learners take from your lessons because they wonít retain what you taught them anyway.

I remember being told this by one of my colleagues a couple of months ago. I also remember that it made me absolutely stunned and literally speechless. I didnít know what to say in response, but I immediately knew that this idea was totally wrong.

A teacher is someone who does care. This is someone who is there to help learners to move towards their learning goals and ambitions. And while in teaching, it takes two, the teacher and the learner, to tango, this is the teacher who should outline and create the most favourable conditions for learning to occur and thrive. If learning doesnít happen, especially consistently, itís the teacherís responsibility to stop and reflect on what is not working, what is standing in the way and what should be altered or improved.

If your learners take little if anything from your lessons, is it solely the learnersí fault? Should learners be blamed for the absent-mindedness, lack of motivation and indifference? Are the learners the root of this problem? Unfortunately, some teachers are convinced in this myth.

This is extremely upsetting to see teachers stick to such limiting perception of their learners. Such attitude undermines the very nature of teaching. How can teachers keep on giving and sharing if they do not believe in their learners? How can teachers truly invest in their learners if they depreciate the learnersí potential by default? How can students succeed in learning if teachers themselves do not believe in their success?

Ironically, this myth maintains itself quite easily. Teachers who hold it find the confirmation of it in their everyday practice: they see poor results, they feel discouraged and frustrated, but instead of trying to reflect on the real causes of low grades or mediocre outcomes, teachers put an accusing finger at learnersí unwillingness to learn. This way, the myth is cemented. However, what really happens in such situations is that once teachers lose faith in their students and stop taking care of the learning outcomes, they build up a wall between themselves and their learners. This, in turn, leads to the growing feeling of dissatisfaction and detachment in learners. Thus, there are low grades and slow progress.

To dispel this myth and break the vicious circle of mistrust and poor results, teachers should never lose faith in their learners. Teachers are here to strike a spark and ignite studentsí desire for learning. This initial impulse and genuine care are all that is needed to secure successful learning. And trust me, once students are awakened and engaged in learning, they will take care of their learning themselves just fine. This will happen because insatiable curiosity is in the human nature. I strongly believe in this.

 

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More Leadership – Alexandra

Alexandra Chistyakova

Towards A New Generation of Leaders†
Alexandra Chistyakova

 

As we go through life, we state and re-state our beliefs; we question the notions that once seemed clear-cut and obvious; we reconsider and redefine our concepts. This reconsideration and revision of ideas is the guarantee of our development towards better understanding of society and our role in it. †Itís no secret that social phenomena are sometimes the most elusive and difficult to define. So is the concept of leadership. Who is a leader? What qualities does a leader have? Are we born or made leaders? What is the relationship between a leader and other people? Is it a benefit or a burden to be a leader? All these and other questions went through my mind as I sat down to write this post.

 

In the post below I would like to share with you my ideas on and understanding of what a leader is and what leadership means. It might happen that some time later I will look through these views of mine, find them insufficient and alter them in accordance with my new worldview. But for now, this post is a sort of a snapshot of the beliefs I have now.† You are most kindly invited to reflect on the above questions and see if you agree or disagree with my observations.

 

When you hear the word leader, what image comes to your mind? Do you picture in your mindís eye a political or religious leader? Or do you see a boss or a successful businessman? Perhaps, you recall a person you know and who you have always looked up to? Or maybe an image of a ringleader or a cheerleader pops up in your mind just out †of the blue? From a quick glance at this incomplete list of possible kinds of leaders, it becomes clear that various aspects of life or life situations require various sets of qualities from a leader. But is there a quality that all leaders have in common? I believe there is. More so, this quality is the very core of leadership, and this is the fact that a leader is someone who is at the forefront and ready to go further. Sometimes it seems that a leader has an inexhaustible inner source of energy, a burning idea or a wish Ė something that drives them forward and makes them take action. Very often, this inner impetus, the invincible urge, stays inexplicable to leaders themselves Ė so natural it is for them to be willing to act.

 

For me, the willingness to take action is the key characteristic of a leader. This quality sets leaders apart from the rest. However, leaders should not necessarily be prominent public figures but common people like you and me. They are the leaders we can come across in our everyday life or the leaders we can become ourselves.

 

So, are we born or made leaders? I think that on the one hand, we are born with some innate character traits, some of which can or some of which cannot make us potential leaders. However, on the other hand, we all have the ability to voluntary shape and mould our character, developing the skills and qualities we would like to possess. I hold the view that nothing is impossible. So, technically speaking, we can make ourselves leaders.

 

But do we need to? Why would one want to be a leader? And what would our society be like if everyone was a leader? I have no doubts that this would be a much healthier society. And here is why.

 

Taking action is a serious deed. It often concerns other people, involves some risks, provokes criticism and leads to certain consequences. Thatís why real leaders are those who have good people skills, are mindful of others and, very importantly, are not afraid of people. They are alert and aware of the surrounding environment and situation. Leaders are not afraid to express their views and to stand up and be counted. Leaders are ready to face criticism and disapproval. They are not afraid to step beyond their comfort zone and push themselves to limits. Leaders are creative, resourceful and full of initiative because they often have to deal with complex situations and find solutions. So, stepping into the role of a leader, taking action and being in charge of other people, foreseeing possible consequences, creating opportunities and leading people to a certain goal teaches people to become responsible, confident, courageous and respectful of others. However, donít let me put you into an illusion that leaders are stubborn authoritative people who want to have things done their and only their way. Real leaders are flexible and prepared to reach compromises. To paraphrase from Russian Tsar Nicolas I, leaders are those who have first learnt how to follow and obey others.† All these aspects considered, Iím positive that nurturing and developing leadership qualities would result in a more harmonious society.

 

Here rises a question whether our schools and universities, our educational system in general, helps students to develop leadership skills and teachers them to learn to socialize and negotiate? From my 9-year work experience as a university teacher, I can say: there are very few opportunities for that if at all. The Russian educational system, for example, is mainly targeted at transferring knowledge from teachers to students but provides little opportunities for social skills development.

 

The educational process in Russia is chiefly teacher-dominated and centered. Teaching is commonly done in the form of big university lectures with seminars strongly resembling mini-lectures as well. Students are rarely challenged to do their own independent and creative research, neither are they taught how to work collaboratively with their peers and reach joint goals. A lot of Russian students feel embarrassed and awkward when they are asked to step to the front and deal with the audience, big or small. In Russian schools and universities, students are not encouraged to show initiative, think critically and form their own informed opinions. In many ways, Russian educational system teachers students facts but doesnít prepare learners for real life.

 

However, I wouldnít like to create an image of total gloom and doom. I always try to look at the bright side, and Iím sure the situation isnít all that hopeless and cheerless. First of all, we should be realistic and understand that any educational system is huge and has its inertia: it canít be changed overnight. But this no way means that we, teachers, canít do anything to improve the existing situation. We can. Gradually but steadily, we can teach our students social and leadership skills by giving them more autonomy in their learning, by involving them in various individual and joint projects, by welcoming initiative and creativity and by creating friendly and welcoming atmosphere in class to help learners build confidence. We really can do this. All we need to be leaders ourselves. This way we will raise a new generation of leaders.

 

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Teaching One to One – Alexandra

Alexandra Chistyakova

Some Guidelines For Teaching One-To-One
– Alexandra Chistyakova

There is an upsetting disproportion between the amount of available teacher resourses designed for teaching groups and those for teaching one-to-one. While there are a really huge number of materials for working in groups, the resources specifically written for the use in a one-to-one classroom are somewhat scanty. And though some of the group-oriented materials could be adjusted to the individual lessons, they sometimes fail to be efficient enough and to meet the specific one-to-one teaching and learning situation. As Peter Wilberg puts it: ďteachers face an almost lack of published materials written with them in mind. It is not very helpful to use course books with instructions such as Get the students to stand in a circle.Ē [2002, Heinle] The above disproportion concerns not only teacher resources but also the teaching methods and techniques for managing one-to-one classes.

All this makes one-to-one teaching a largely disregarded field of teaching. One may ask a truly legitimate question here: why is it so? The answer is that one-to-one teaching is a highly personalized and utterly unique process. Each student is unique, thus each one-to-one lesson is unique too. What works for one student may not work for another. Thatís why it is rather challenging to produce generalized materials. However, it could be only right and, in fact, really useful to put forward some general principles that govern one-to-one teaching.

Below are the guidelines I have derived when reflecting on my one-to-one teaching experience.

  1. Be flexible. Be ready in the lesson to drop your lesson plan all together. Be prepared for the lesson or classroom discussion to stray in unpredictable directions. Spontaneity and unpredictability are an integral part of one-to-one teaching. Do not resist it: rather let your student do, discuss or ask questions about what they are genuinely interested in at the moment. However, be also aware of subversive behavior of young and teenage learners who sometimes pretend to be interested in questions they are asking you but, in fact, are just trying to avoid doing the lesson. Thatís why teachers need to be flexible but at the same time they should not let the lesson get completely out of their control. Try to see a teaching and learning opportunity in everything that is happening in the lesson and try to gently steer your student toward their learning goals.
     
  2. Be patient. Be more patient. Never get tired of being patient with your student. Even when you have explained the same point dozens of times but your student still doesnít fully get it or shows no sign of really making an effort to use it and all this makes you want just to explode Ė be patient still. Take a deep breath and start all over again. Try to find a new approach for explaining or illustrating the point. For this end, you will need another quality Ė creativity.
     
  3. Be creative. Creativity is helpful not only for a teacher to come up with new ways of explaining the same topic several times. More often creativity in one-to-one teaching is indispensible to address the needs and learning style of a particular learner. We should be creative and resourceful to be able to find the words, images, associations or lesson style and organization that best suit the particular learner.
     
  4. In order to meet the unique needs of our individual learners, we should be attentive to what is happening in the classroom. We have no right to switch off for a little while just to give ourselves a tiny break during a lesson as we sometimes do when teaching groups. Teaching one-to-one requires teacherís full attention: the teacher needs to be always present and involved in the lesson. We should be observant and sensitive to the smallest changes in the course of the lesson and learnersí mood and situation. A teacher is like a fine-tuned instrument responsive to the slightest alterations.
     
  5. See a personality in your student. Take them as a whole person with their own problems, joys, aspirations and ambitions. Try to remember everything your students are sharing with you. Exploit your studentsí context and environment for teaching purposes but do it appropriately and carefully so that not to hurt them accidentally. All this is highly important as it helps to build rapport with your student. Remember: it takes two to tango. Your student and you are both in it. And if you want your joint journey to be successful and pleasant for both you need to get to know each other better.
     
  6. Be enthusiastic about the language. Pass on your passion for the language to your students. Make them see the logic and beauty of the language. Let them enjoy working with and discovering new linguistic features. Make them want to start their own journey into the world of the language. Help them realize that the language is theirs to explore and enjoy. Help your learners to avoid the mechanical, Iíll-learn-a-number-of-words-and-grammar structures-and-be-able-to-speak-it attitude to the language. Bring in some poetic or humorous flair into the language learning. Let your students have fun!
     

And donít forget to have fun too!

Also, we should be active and initiative to solve the problems we face. The disproportion in available one-to-one materials I was talking about at the beginning can be balanced up if we all collaborate! So, if you have some one-to-one ideas and techniques you would like to share with other teachers, Iím happy to invite you to the 1-2-1 Facebook group and wiki where we have set the goal to collect useful tips or lesson plans for all teachers who happen to teach one-to-one. We havenít collected much so far but we are hopeful that the project will bring fruit in the end. Thank you!

Links:

1-2-1 Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/154531554730094/

1-2-1 Wiki: http://onetoonewiki.pbworks.com/w/page/67383628/1-2-1%20Front%20page

 

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Grammar Issue – Alexandra

Alexandra Chistyakova

Grammar Is Ö† – Alexandra Chistyakova

Grammar is boring. No one enjoys grammar: neither learners, nor teachers. Fluency is more important than accuracy. Why is I need to study grammar if everyone can understands me good?

These and many other assumptions about grammar can be heard every time and then. Grammar seems to be an ugly duckling of the foreign language teaching and learning.

However, it has never been so for me, especially, since the time I started learning English consciously and then teaching it. Actually, I could never relate to the notorious dispute on what is more important: accuracy or fluency. I have always been convinced that accuracy and fluency are equally important.

Moreover, throughout my teaching practice Iíve had numerous examples of both schoolchildren and adults expressing the wish to study English grammar more thoroughly. Thanks to these examples, I can say with certainty that there is a really high demand among learners for the good grammar instruction.

 

Grammar Is Important

Fortunately, there are a lot of learners who never question the importance of grammar. Unfortunately, there are those who doubt it. If the latter is the case, I like to give my students the following situation to consider. I say to them:

ďJust imagine this: a brilliant idea comes to your mind and you immediately want to share it with your English friends. There is no time to consult a dictionary or a textbook: you are dying of how much you want to share your idea right now! And here you go! You put your idea into words; you quickly select some phrases, words, structures Ė you are wrapping your idea, like a gift, with the language Ė and then send it off to your friends. You are anticipating their joy and surprise at your idea!

ButÖ

But if you werenít careful with the wrapping, the gift your friends receive could be surprising indeed. But will it be joyful? It could rightfully be rather puzzling: instead of a beautifully wrapped gift that can easily be opened by simply pulling a colourful ribbon, they might receive an ugly trunk with an unfriendly-looking heavy lock in front. And now, if your friends really wish to unlock your message and discover your brilliant idea, they have to strain their every nerve and struggle to find the appropriate key to your ďtrunkĒ.

What a laborious and tedious task! Do you expect your friends to enjoy the process of unlocking your idea? Do you think they will be looking forward to communicating with you more in the future? Was it possible to avoid this awkward situation and make communication pleasant and smooth?

Surely, this could have been done: Grammar is the key! Correct grammar unlocks messages easily.Ē

Usually, this story is enough to persuade my students to study grammar better. Only stubborn or naughty students continue denying the necessity of grammar for them. How to persuade such students or if at all there is the need to persuade such students is a different story which has nothing to do with the grammar itself.

 

Grammar Is Fun

But is grammar really that tedious? Or perhaps, itís the way it is taught that is boring? In fact, grammar itself presents no limits to imagination, creativity and fun. To quote from Shakespeare: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. So why not to make grammar engaging and meaningful to our students?! †Even grammar drills can be turned into a fun and interesting activity.

For example, one of my favourite activities on extensive practice of interrogative forms, past and present tenses is the ďWith your back to the classĒ activity which I borrowed from Mario Rinvolucriís Grammar Games (Cambridge,2006). This activity is suitable for students of elementary to intermediate levels.

In the activity, the teacher has a short story with an unusual ending. The teacher writes two or three key words from the story on the board for the students to restore the story by asking Yes/No questions to the teacher. However, all communication between students and the teacher goes on silently: the questions are written on the board and the teacher puts his/her answers on the board too. But the teacher gives answers only to the questions which are grammatically correct. †If a question is grammatically incorrect, the teacher draws a question mark on the board, and students need to work together to find the mistake and correct the question.

At first, all this writing and the close focus on grammar forms might seem boring and off-putting, but as soon as students get the idea and receive the first answers they get engaged and enthusiastic about solving the mystery. Moreover, they become eager to find what is wrong with the question and spot the mistake. So while being highly grammar-focused, this activity is both meaningful and fun.

 

Grammar Is Useful

Teaching grammar can bring students to a better understanding of how the language works. Thanks to studying the grammatical framework of a language, students can see the language as a single whole. They can see how many different linguistic features are intertwined and interdependent. Through teaching grammar, teachers can raise studentsí linguistic consciousness and understanding of how grammatical errors can influence a message and a communicative act in general. For this purpose, teachers can exploit learnersí mother tongue, for instance. Teachers can imitate a similar grammar error in the learnersí language to vividly illustrate how absurd, funny or even inappropriate a sentence might sound to native speakers. So, grammar can change studentsí attitude to their language studies and to the language itself.

All in all, teaching grammar is important, fun and useful. But to make it so is the teacherís task, which sometimes requires creative and even artistic efforts from the teacher. Teaching is an art. Teaching grammar is rightfully so, too.

 

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