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.

An Experiment in (Re)constructed Reflection

Matthew Noble
Matthew Noble

by Matthew Noble

Recording and transcribing classroom interactions for analysis and reflection has long been recommended as a powerful tool for teachers to improve their teaching. Keeping a written reflective journal has also been frequently cited as an effective way for teachers to scaffold continuing reflection on what happens in the classroom. What follows is a brief account of a time I used both of these techniques together, with a twist.

It was 2012 and I was working on an MA TESOL after teaching abroad for the first 7 years of my career. Perhaps my most frequent experience in MA classes (and sometimes an overwhelming one) was the triggering of memories of multiple critical incidents in the face of research and new insights from my professors, and me thinking to myself, “Wow, I feel like I know exactly how that goes, I’ve just never seen it explained!” and, “Oh my, if I’d known this then, I wouldn’t/wouldn’t have…!”

One of my written projects was primarily a response to this experience, an attempt to acknowledge what could be described as “a sense of loss” when looking back at my previous ignorance and ineptitude, but at the same time an attempt to extricate and productively account for what I knew I could learn from. After all, I had close to 10,000 hours of (what felt like) wonderful “raw experience” in the classroom. Surely it warranted some close attention, even if some of it sometimes felt forgettable…even regrettable!  

I called the project “Muddles into Maxims: Personal Principles for Teaching Wrought from Novice Teaching Experiences.” Transcriptions of classroom discourse and written reflective journal entries were the two main elements of it, but with one particular (and perhaps peculiar) wrinkle: neither the transcriptions nor the journal entries were “authentic”; none of it was fully real.

You heard me right: I made it all up! Well, not exactly. Let me explain…

The classroom transcriptions were crystallized aggregations of typical critical incidents which occurred during those first few years of my teaching career and concentrated into imagined classroom events. It would remind a dream-record of what I thought I would have likely transcribed from recordings during that period had I been doing such a thing then. I created about twenty of them, one or more representing each of the following nine areas of concern:

  1.     The limits of “native speaker intuition”
  2.     Teacher-talk: Quantity
  3.     Teacher-talk: Quality and uses
  4.     The trap of over-elicitation
  5.     Affect and corrective feedback
  6.     The function of warm-up activities
  7.     Planning and its discontents
  8.     Avoiding burnout
  9.     Self-development

I called these semi-fictional snippets from my early classrooms “A Fly on the Classroom Wall”, though a few times I had the spy-fly landing on the staffroom wall as well. Here are two of them, from areas #5 and #9 respectively:



The journal entries, too, were “informed but imagined”, composites written years later as the words I think I would have written after classes had I been keeping a well-organized reflective journal. They represented what 2012 Matthew envisioned 2006 Matthew writing in his reflective journal and in this sense were a kind of reflection on reflection. Here is an excerpt from one that followed the first transcript above:


Following each journal entry, there were sections called “My Muddle”. In these sections, I looked at both the initial experiences (represented by the transcripts) and as my perceptions of them (represented by the journal entries) and took stock of the confusion and the effortful enterprise which marked my approach to learning teaching mostly “on the job”. Here’s an excerpt from the “Affect and corrective feedback” section:

As a novice teacher I was extremely wary of even semi-directly correcting students, and I had a pile of seemingly good reasons for this at the time. I didn’t want the ‘negativity’ of correction to affect the students’ motivation. If the teacher focused on expressing meaning and emphasized positive emotions, I thought, students would come away with a satisfying and motivational experience. Clearly they would be ‘weighed down’ by the imposition of corrective judgements! Little did I know that a) corrective feedback need not be delivered in a way that involves any ‘negativity’ and b) students are most motivated by appreciating the results of learning itself, not by simply the superficial atmosphere of the classroom.

Finally, what I saw as the product of the process was a straightforward maxim, or dictum, which expressed the essential principle I wanted to take forward with me. Here are a handful:  

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This project of reflection helped me both intellectually and affectively. As for the former, I was able to clarify and consolidate more of what had been tacit teaching beliefs, turning them into more explicit, practical thinking tools. As for the latter, I was able to better and more positively appreciate the value of my early experiences as a learning teacher. As I created the transcriptions, I could recognize and value how I employed the understandings I had at the time and the sincere effort I made using what I knew. In writing the journal entries, I gave voice to confusions I remembered but also to the spirit of striving, to the sincere concern for understanding I brought with me from my very first class ever onwards. and found myself truly appreciating my own path of growth.

This project also helped me to take ownership of the tools of transcribing and journaling in a purposeful and creative way. I believe experimentation and creativity are vital elements of teacher development, so I would encourage anyone to look at the tools of reflection as flexible, malleable instruments which can be ‘played’ in many different ways. Didn’t record your class? Reconstruct it, consider it a ‘reflective dictogloss’! Haven’t been keeping a journal? Give it a go…and consider a little time traveling! Reflection itself can be a bit of a “muddle”, so let me offer a final maxim: Whatever twist you put on it, make reflecting fun!

The Fear Factor

Matthew Nobleby Matthew Noble

Last week I sent around a short questionnaire asking fellow teachers about ‘fear’. A handful of people suggested ‘fear’ wasn’t really the right word. They said ‘‘anxiety’ is more appropriate. Indeed, the term ‘anxiety’ is often found in the literature in regards to individual learners, learner groups, teachers, and its effect on motivation, learning, and (to a lesser degree) teaching.

I didn’t recall or edit the survey, though. I thought that while most respondents would automatically equate the term with anxiety anyway, sticking with ‘fear’ might prove interesting because it connotes a more objective threat and stronger emotions. Anxiety is typically associated with chronic, lingering dis-ease, while fear – with more immediate, intense, and temporary reactions in specific situations. We have anxiety about something, and a fear of something. But clearly there’s a lot of overlap. Together, anxiety and fear trace a fair bit of territory on the heart-map of the teacher’s identity which, I declare, is a land of emotion…stronger emotion than we might usually acknowledge.


In fact, right now I’d like to acknowledge that while I may not be experiencing extreme fear writing this piece for the iTDi Blog, I’m certainly anxious! What will the readers think? Is my writing okay? Just how disappointing will it be? I hear a voice within, and it’s a fearful voice. It’s saying, “someone’s going to find you out”.

Anyway, let’s get back to the survey. When respondents shared about fears they remember from their early days as teachers, what do you think was front and center? The most common thread running through their accounts was the often intensely fearful “impostor syndrome”:

“I was afraid of students finding out how much I relied on the textbook because I was just learning how to be a teacher, and I did not have any formal training in TESOL…”

“…Screwing up complicated classroom management or a task set up and that someone would realise what an impostor I was…” 

“The first time I taught I had butterflies in my stomach, I was afraid of being labeled ‘stupid’, of not knowing something I should know (‘my native language’), of being asked questions and having no answer, of being an impostor…” 

Does any of that ring a bell? Or perhaps flap a butterfly wing? The next question asked about fears they encountered as more experienced teachers. The responses here were more varied, as well as much more specific.

1 – “I fear students get confused about my instructions or writing prompts”

2 – “Now and then think I may someday get bored or tired and want to leave the profession”

3  - “My fear now is that my students (who pay for English classes) won’t get their money’s worth out of the class”

4 – “Now that I am into teacher training I am afraid that I might project my own perceptions of good/bad teaching on my trainees”

5 – “I still always get nervous when facing new classes”

Interestingly, to me these read more like ‘fears’ than the first batch. Do we tend to shift from experiencing a more overarching ‘anxiety’ to having more ‘focused fears’ as we develop? Another thing to note is that many responses in the first question about the early teaching days ignored the prompt to report what they did in the face of the fear they experienced. In contrast, there was much more about facing the fear and responding to the situation in connection with more recent fears. And since I’m a teacher, I’m now going to have you do a little matching task with some of these comments. Match the four responses A-D below with the items 1-5 above. Yes, there’s one without a match! (Answers below)

A – That’s why I always talk to them in regards to specified criteria

B – I get feedback from students about class activities

C – I always try new things and seek further professional development

D – I think it’s a good thing and I try to stay open to new experiences

These comments reflect the resilience and resourcefulness teachers develop over their careers. It’s not that anxiety or fear in the face of problems disappears. Rather, there’s a shift. Expert teachers have been described as “working at the edge of their competence”, thereby maximizing opportunities for both encountering and solving problems. They invite challenges, lean into them, and live the questions that once caused fear. And as they develop they increasingly live out the famous Maya Angelou quote, “Having courage does not mean that we are unafraid. Having courage and showing courage mean we face our fears.” 


Respondents to my survey also identified what they thought were common teacher fears. Can you relate to any of these? Take a minute to simply reflectively connect one or more of them to your own experience. These are memories of the past, but what might you take out of this recall and reflection for tomorrow? If there is fear or other negative emotion around it, what could be your first step through it?

“That they may be missing out on something else career-wise”

“A lot of teachers just want their students to like them, but fear they don’t” 

“Not feeling respected and appreciated for their hard work”

“Murphy’s Law and technology – constantly on edge: will it work?!?

Finally, some of the additional prompts teachers offered for reflection on teacher’s fear and anxiety:

“The impact of fear is on teacher’s professional development choices. Does it spark a bigger desire to learn or does it paralyze the teacher? Sort of like what happens with anxiety, which can be positive if it is not overwhelming”

“I really enjoy being in the class and feel comfortable 99% of the time, but I am busy and I have been worried about exhaustion and burnout”

“Do teachers feel that their English proficiency causes them fear as well?”

“Teachers need to know they do not know everything. Putting our defences down is a great way to open our hearts and learn from students”

If one of those prompts (or anything else here) inspires you to respond, please don’t be afraid to do so in the comment box below, or on twitter, or on your own blog! Because what is very clear to me is this: the negative side of fear thrives in isolation. Dan Lortie called teaching “the egg-carton profession” because we may work in close proximity to our peers but too rarely connect and collaborate in important ways. As one of my respondents commented, “Schools should have an open door policy and teachers should walk in and out of each other’s teaching rooms!”. Now that’s unafraid! And it’s beautiful. It’s also, unfortunately, unrealistic. So while we keep working to break down the more physical walls, we should use the connective vessel of the internet to share thoughts, experiences, and especially emotions with colleagues through social media and teacher networks like iTDi. This is one powerful way for teachers to beat fear and be free.

Matching task answers: 4 – A, 1 – B, 2 – C, 5 – D.

Change is the only constant


Matthew Nobleby 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!