Secret Teacher Guest Post: Professionalism Problems

15 Dec

There are quite a few secret teachers out there in the world.  People who have spotted things that need changing in their environment but whose ideas or suggestions are brushed aside or dismissed out of hand.  This blog was contacted by a reader who needed some help to voice her concerns anonymously.  I’m very happy to do that for this reader and indeed any other!

ninja teacher

So the class is due to start at 9 and you are two teachers short. They are not picking up their respective mobiles and the minute hand is creeping round to ten past. The kids are in their classrooms, or milling around outside and your own class is due to have started ten minutes ago. People here often tend towards mild lateness, but such simple laxness is giving you kittens, week in week out. My emergency lessons are on standby, the trigger-finger hanging over the big green button of the photocopier so that you have something, anything, to start the classes off with before I run around trying to find people to cover the classes. Eventually one, then the other teacher, stroll into the school, say ‘dzien dobry’, and roll into their classes. Five minutes before the end of the class and those self-same teachers are the first out of the door, with a ‘bye’, only if you happen to be standing by the door as they rush homewards. Having looked through the windows of those teachers’ classrooms and registered dull, static book lessons and rows of bored faces of students you feel something should be done. But what?

As a DoS of a Central European language school with an inherited staffroom and with an indifferent local pool of teachers to hire from with a fairly complicated timetable to manage you find yourself in a bit of a pickle. You’ve talked to the usual suspects, they’ve promised to do better and for a lesson or two there was a bit of an uptick, slight improvements in attitude and delivery. But then there is regression towards the mean and you’ve come to face the fact that you’ve got some frankly lazy teachers in your staffroom. What to do?

In a bigger city, in a bigger school, there is more cover, the role feels more impersonal (I know, I’ve been there) and the action clearer. You would, ahem, phase out said teachers, at the end of terms or semesters, rolling in the new (hopefully better) blood as new classes appear. But in a smaller town, where the whole English speaking community know each other rather too well you know that unless handled perfectly such actions will blow up in your face. In such places it’s not good to be too harsh, or at least, gain a reputation for harshness.

The problem teachers moan about some of their classes; they’re ‘difficult’ or ‘sulky’ or whatever. But you’ve taught all the classes in question; these teachers seem to take a lot of sick days, and the classes seem fine when you covered them and you’ve concluded to yourself that the problem classes are problems because the teenagers in question in those classes are very, very bored. The very same teachers are the ones that don’t come to internal meetings and training sessions, that do the bare minimum, which would be called coasting if only they had a little more momentum.

You talk to the teachers in question again. Teaching is a vocation surely and not a well paid one. Teachers, you had thought, aren’t in it for the money.  A laughable idea with salaries the way they are. So if people don’t like the job, why are they doing it? They make the right noises, and small improvements come, and then go again. You wander the halls, hear the students discussing the classes in their L1 (so naïve of them to assume you don’t understand) and discussing how poor they are, and you wonder about when and how turn the heft of the axe into a decisive stroke. You didn’t start this career to be a manager, nor to fire people, but sometimes it is the right thing to do…

Mentor Me! (or can I just get on with it?)

2 Dec

What do you want from a mentor?  As a mentor, what do you want from your mentees?  These two expectations don’t always meet in the middle and it can be a cause of professional friction when that happens.

I recently wrote a post that tried to look at the relationship from both sides:  From Mentee to Mentor and back again – a teacher’s tale.  Thinking on this further, it’s quite difficult to pinpoint what I want out of this arrangement.  I think it is important that every teacher have the opportunity to voice concerns to their DoS or manager,  but equally, they shouldn’t be forced to…  I suspect that what most teachers really want is to be left alone to get on with it as they think best.

From the DoS’s point of view though, it’s better to have the information before it becomes a problem, not afterwards.  And leaving teachers to just get on with it can have mixed results…

Hence the existing system of mentor meetings, which I describe in detail in the earlier post.

When I was on the mentoring side, what I really wanted to know was (a) are you happy?  (b) are your students happy? (c) what can we help with?.  What I asked was more often bureaucratic in nature and dealt with the details, rather than the broader picture.  Getting teachers to talk through each and every class is quite useful as it does bring to mind students and issues that might not otherwise get mentioned, but it somehow seems a more administrative function and not quite what the word mentoring implies.

Now that I’m a mentee again, I think what I’d like to be asked most is “Fancy a beer?”  But in all seriousness, I think those three questions probably cover it!

So – a poll!  I’ve put my suggestions in – feel free to vote for them or to add your own suggestions:

 

 

United Nations Day – teaching resources

20 Oct

It is nearing the end of October and that traditionally means pumpkins, black cats, sweets or candy, and a bunch of superstitious nonsense that if it wasn’t for the whole “sweets and candy” component, would probably have disappeared a long time ago.

So this year, I have lobbied for United Nations Day to be the focus of our end of October activities instead!  And apparently I was convincing enough that my colleagues agreed with me….  Ooops.

So I thought I’d take a look to see what teaching resources are out there to help students understand what the United Nations is – and how you and your school can help promote awareness of our primary global institution.

What I found…..

The UN itself, appears to be living in a pre-technological age.  Their website is woeful, but if you want to look at it – it is here.

The UN Cyberschool bus, on the other hand, at least acknowledges that children might be looking at their webpage and has a number of games and activities that emulate functions of the UN.  The best known is probably the Stop Disasters game, which is quite good.  The other games look like they were coded by an eight year old and then got hacked or something.  Nonetheless, the UN Cyberschool bus is worth checking out, just for the sheer range of information if nothing else, and it is at least aimed at kids, which is more than you can say for the rest of the UN….

The Global Dimension has  a range of teaching resources that appear to promote critical thinking and active engagement with the processes and work of the UN, amongst other things.  Their “UN Matters teaching pack”  looks like it has loads of good stuff for the secondary age range.  Some of the stuff is labelled as free, which would suggest other bits need to be paid for.  I haven’t used any of this stuff, so if you do, please let us know how good it is in the comments!

The Guardian, who can usually be relied upon for socially responsible journalism / information, wrote a piece just over a year ago on “How to teach… the UN“.  This was apparently produced in the context of the crisis in Syria, but has wider applicability.  It was developed as part of the Guardian Teachers’ Network and so does have an educational focus, even in the materials will almost certainly need adapting for an ELT context.

The UNA resources:  I can’t  vouch for these at the time of writing, but these activities and background notes are at least designed for education and I suspect will probably prove more useful than the official UN resources!  Teachers’ notes and background information is combined with a range of activities for primary and secondary classes.  While I’ve focused here on the United Nations Day resources, there are additional resources on other aspects of the UN available from the UNA in the their “teaching section“.

UNESCO, as the UN’s cultural and educational wing, should be expected to provide some form of educational resource, but  their website is somewhat inaccessible – at least in terms of finding resources to use with language learners.  Or learners of any kind really.  There is a lot of stuff there, but you really have to dig through it to find anything useful.  They do however, have a primary school activity based on UN Day.  It probably wasn’t written by someone who actually teaches primary.  It is adaptable though, so it’s worth taking a look.

Finally, the Scottish Education sector has put together a  range of resources for UN day.  The first four are simple links back to the UN website and all that this entails.  The last two are links to downloadables for both primary (Human Rights) and secondary (Global Security) that even if they aren’t directly connected to UN day, should prove useful for the classroom.

Have fun!  And happy UN Day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dhdhdh

Cambridge First & Advanced in 2015

16 Oct

If you prepare students for FCE or CAE, then this might be useful for you.  Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) have recently undergone significant revisions to their structure and organisation.

This has been on the cards for some time and indeed I blogged about it back in May.

Recently however, I gave an online workshop for International House, which was available to IH staff around the world, and which outlined the changes being made to these exams and discussed some of the implications of those changes.

The workshop was videoed and has been posted on you tube – you can watch it there or here, but it is about an hour long – so make sure you have a cup of tea or a glass of wine (depending on your preference or the time of day) before you press play!

 

Unfortunately, I suffered from the odd wifi glitch during the presentation, so service is interrupted every now and again.  I have, however, also posted my slides on slideshare, so you can download and view your own version – and watch any sections of the workshop that need some kind of clarification!

 

In the webinar I mention a number of coursebook reviews for the revised First exam.  You can find them here:

Any questions about any of this – let me know!

 

World Teachers’ Day

6 Oct

It was World Teachers’ Day last Sunday – and there is a certain irony in celebrating the teaching profession on the one day of the week that no-one’s in school, but never mind!

As part of the celebrations the Teaching English | British Council site asked their blogging team:  “What does being a teacher mean to you?”

You can read all of our responses by clicking on the picture:

 

But it made me wonder.  I know that I’m in a relatively privileged position; I work for a private language school, I get paid relatively well,  I’m supported and offered development, and I’m plugged into a network of schools that allows me to connect with like-minded colleagues across the globe.

So my comment (in the post via the link)  that if I’d won the lottery I’d still teach is probably a reflection of the working environment that I find myself in.

My question is this:

You should be able to add your own answers if you don’t agree with any of the options.

Let me know what you think!

Anagram spelling dictation

6 Oct

Quite a nice vocabulary revision activity, this is something I tried with an intermediate kids class the other day.

Kids in particular, often persist in using L1 pronunciation to spell words in English and this is quite a good way of reorienting them towards English alphabet norms, as well as being a focusing task, helping build bottom up listening skills and reviewing vocabulary items.

It is, of course, remarkably simple and as such I very much doubt if it’s original, but if it was shown to me in the past I forget by who or when or where.  (If it was you, let me know!!!).

Essentially, you choose your list of vocabulary items, which in my case were:  BABY, CHILD, TEENAGER, STUDENT, ADULT, PARENT.

Then you write them as anagrams:  ABBY, DILCH, NAGRETEE, DENTTUS, TAULD, TRAPNE.

I didn’t tell my students they were getting anagrams, I just told them to write down the words I would spell for them.  Which they did amongst much consternation….   ;)

Then I asked them how many of the words they knew and I pointed out that ABBY could be rearranged to BABY.  And I let them get on with sorting the others out.

It occurs to me now that this makes quite a nice warmer activity, and I suspect it might be a nice way to introduce / pre-teach vocabulary before a reading task or some such.  Though obviously if the students don’t know the target language, it does make rearranging the anagrams effectively impossible.  Which might slow down some of the faster finishers….!

anagrams

 

First Lesson: Student generated ID card Swap

3 Oct

This was a lesson I did with a class of elementary level learners yesterday.  My class were quite young, hence some of the content below, but it is quite easily adaptable to other ages and levels.  It doesn’t need any preparation, though the students will need pens / pencils and paper.

I started by eliciting “an ID card” and then by eliciting the kind of information you typically find on an ID card. The class came up with: name, age, date of birth, Card expiry date, and address.

I then said we were going to make our own ID card – what other information could we put on it?  And elicited: likes & dislikes, abilities & skills.

We then worked together to come up with a model:

Bobo the nose monkey(And in case you were wondering (a) “nose monkey” is the Portuguese for a bogey or snot in your nose; (b) these are my reformulations of what they wanted to include on the card.)

Having done this, I got the learners to work individually for five minutes or so to create their own version – a weird and wacky ID card for whatever alien monster their imagination could come up with.  An alternative for adult learners might be to channel various celebrities – it doesn’t matter if they don’t know – they can at least imagine!

When the cards were ready, I elicited the questions they would need to ask for each but of information:  What is your name?  What do you like?  etc.  I then drilled the pronunciation of these.

Finally, the students did a mingle, introducing themselves to each other, asking and answering questions.  The twist is that after each Q&A session, they swap ID cards with their interlocutor.  So if John and Jane are talking, at the end, John walks away with Jane’s ID card and vice versa, and John therefore has to introduce himself as Jane to the next person he meets.

 

***

It worked really well as a lesson and was a nice way for me to gauge the ability of the learners in the class.  Everyone had fun and it was a nice light start to proceedings!

If anyone has any variations – let me know!

 

Book Review: Punctuation..? (and a competition!)

25 Jul

Punctuation..? by User Design is a svelte and elegant illustrated guide for the rest of us.

As you might have guessed from the title, it gives an overview of 21 different punctuation marks from the everyday comma to the more esoteric pilcrow.  Do you know what a pilcrow is?  I didn’t.  Apparently it’s the backwards filled in P that I usually see when I click the wrong thing in my word documents…

Punctuation Graphic

The layout is simple and straightforward:  each punctuation mark under examination is given a description and its uses are supported by explanations and examples – and simple, yet effective line drawings at the top of each page.

It is a visually appealing book that seems very accessible and clearly lays out all of the rules of punctuation that most of us think we have an instinctive command of and which most of us are probably wrong about.  According to the book I have committed at least one punctuation crime in this piece – there are probably others I don’t know about!  There you go – an impromptu quiz:  Provide a list of all the punctuation mistakes you can find in this blog post and put them in the comments section below.  The winner will get a free copy of the book!  Not that the winner of a competition like this will probably need a book like this, but I bet even they don’t know what a pilcrow is…!

This is a prescriptive grammar of punctuation.  It declares the rules in no uncertain terms and seems to borrow its authority from its chief reference source, Oxford dictionaries, and I wonder how much of it is designed to appeal to the pedants and those who view themselves as the last bastions of defence against the corruption and decay that has seeped into the language (there is a somewhat plaintive note in the apostrophe section to the effect that it “has largely vanished from company names and other commercial uses”).  The questions I ask myself are (a) does it matter? and (b) is it useful?

Yes.  I think it probably does matter.  I spent approximately six hours marking “academic” essays yesterday and at least three of those hours railing at my students inability to punctuate properly.  Proper punctuation is more than the written equivalent of verbal pause, though it is seldom used otherwise; it helps determine the relationships between clauses and between sentences, helps to signify the writer’s intent and to package information in such a way that makes meaning accessible to the reader.  In short, our students need to know these rules.  Once they do, they can flout them with impunity like the rest of us – but at least then it would be a principled choice.

So who is it useful for?

I’m not sure that it is a book for students itself, at least not for language learners.  Most native speaker students would probably benefit from a copy, certainly by the time they go to university, if not before.  I think though, that language learners at any level under B2 would find it difficult to access and certainly difficult to apply.  B2 students would need help with some of it and C1 (advanced) would probably be alright with it.  Obviously there’s a lot in it that isn’t really relevant to language learner needs – though the book is not intended as such and it is unfair to judge it on those terms.  I do think it would be a useful addition to most teachers’ rooms though.  Punctuation is often a neglected aspect of language teaching and as I think now I can only recall an overt section on punctuation in one book – somewhere in Advanced Expert – which makes me wonder how much punctuation knowledge us teachers really have!

So if you can’t tell your hyphen from your dash or your interpunct from your guillemets – this is the book for you.  Punctuation..? is available from the User Design website and probably other places as well, but I couldn’t tell you where.

 

*****

I mentioned a competition earlier – so here are the rules:

I am the ultimate arbiter of the competition and what I say goes.  You have no legal recourse or anything like that if you don’t like my decision.  I will try to judge as objectively as possible, but I will be reviewing any and all entries and choosing what I think is the best and most complete one.

If you don’t like your first entry, you can enter more than once – but I’ll stop reading after the third attempt.

Deadline for entries is the end of August (Sunday August 31st 2014).  Any entries submitted after that will be ignored.

I will announce the winner both by putting a comment under this section and in a separate blog post in the first week of September (2014).

Good luck!

Shoot me now… #ObservationCalamities

16 Jul

It was just one of those lessons.  Sometimes you can judge within about three minutes how an observed lesson is going to go – it’s about how present the teacher is, how at home they are with the class, the material and the plan.  And you can tell when something is about to go wrong…

In this case, the following went wrong:

(a)    The technology screwed up:  In attempting to import powerpoint slides into IWB notebook files, all of the nice fonts and formatting were lost, as well as some of the text from the text boxes.  Which went un-noticed for five minutes or so until the teacher asked the students to answer a question that hadn’t been displayed.

(b)   A lack of language confidence:  the language focus of the lesson was noun phrases, in particular that type of complex noun phrase that is a feature of more formal academic discursive prose.  The aim of the material was mostly to see how familiar the students were with the concept, to expose them to the idea of noun phrases being embedded within each other as part of more complex phrases; and to try and help them access noun phrases from the outside – to help the learners identify the focus of a noun phrase and thereby build some of the their text access skills.  In other words it was a mostly structural look at the constituent parts of complex noun phrases and some practice in sequencing those constituents correctly.  Not that you would have known any of that from watching the first half an hour of the lesson…

(c)    General discombobulation.  This was, in part I think due to the fact that the tech went south early on and as a consequence, so did the lesson plan.  Stages got randomly dropped, other bits of the material that had previously been dropped made a comeback; and for the first 20 minutes or so, none of the interaction patterns described on the plan got followed, which meant that all the lovely student interaction and peer teaching got replaced by some slightly confused teacher fronted presentation instead.

(d)   Not being completely prepared.  When the teacher is still cutting up bits of paper with a pair of scissors a third of the way into the class?  Not good.

In other words, it was probably slightly messy before anyone walked into the classroom, but once they had, it got messier fast.  Now I’ve observed quite a lot of classes over the years and while it’s not like I rank them in order of brilliance, but this one was probably down there at the bottom of the pile.

It’s a bit of a shame that I was the one teaching it then.

wpid-sketch163202132_20140716203845441.jpg

There is an automatic tendency for any teacher, in any observation situation, to walk out of the lesson thinking “Well that was a bit shit then.”  We are our own harshest critics and I think it is that tendency which makes good teachers good.  After all, if you think you have nothing left to learn?  That is a sure sign of arrogance and imminent stagnation and decay.  Which is partly my way of cheering myself up and partly an acknowledgement that it wasn’t all bad.

About halfway through the lesson we got to what was the big input stage: I had all the learners on the floor in groups of three with red bits of card labelled with the parts of speech you can find in noun phrases and yellow bits of card with the words from an extended noun phrase on them.  Together we built up the extended noun phrase from its smaller constituent noun phrases and looked at how they shifted position and took on different grammatical functions as they moved.  Some of the learners got it quite quickly, some of them needed a bit more help.  But we then moved onto a sequencing task where they did the practice activities on the whiteboard in teams.

Were my aims achieved?  Well the aims of the material were explicitly stated as:

  • To introduce students to the concepts of “noun phrase” and “head noun”
  • To introduce students to the basic grammatical structure of noun phrases
  • To have the students practice structuring and creating some noun phrases

Did we do all this?  Yes.  Did the students learn anything?  Maybe.  They were certainly doing quite well with the practice activity at the end, but this may have been because one of the students had worked out where the material had come from and was referencing the original article the practice tasks had been taken from….  On balance though I think most of the students now have a better idea of noun phrases than they did before.  I know I do.

My aims were slightly different.  Bearing in mind that these are teaching aims rather than learning aims, my aims were to present the material in an engaging and interactive fashion –taking what are really quite dry teacher led materials off the page and to try and bring them into the classroom in a way that the students can access, interrogate and interact with.  I felt it was quite important for the learners to be able to physically manipulate the language, though I couldn’t tell you why that is.  Instinct I suppose.  Did I achieve these aims?  Sort of.  I think I felt on slightly safer ground once we were sat there on the floor playing with pieces of paper….

What would I do differently?  Good question.  I think next time round I would drop all the fancy bits with the technology at the beginning of the lesson, not because of the technology per se, but because in hindsight they weren’t very necessary to the lesson.  Instead of that I would do a bit more work on the different parts of speech – eliciting examples of quantifiers, determiners, adverbs, prepositional phrases etc – onto the whiteboard so that the students knew more about what these things were before they encountered the categorisation task.

Then I would have done pretty much the rest of it as I did – but maybe getting them to come up with their own noun phrases, weird and wacky perhaps, from the parts of speech we elicited at the start; which would be a nice way to link back to the beginning again.

Right.  Enough self-recrimination and introspection for one day!  Feedback with the observer tomorrow!  Watch this space!

Guest Post: Living and Working with Diabetes

14 Jul

Being ill is never nice.  Being ill in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and maybe don’t know how to ask for help is really, really tough.  For all those language teachers around the world who have medical conditions that need constant managing, Lily-Anne Young recounts her own experiences and offers her advice for those who, like her, are

Living and Working with Diabetes

 

Around 8 years ago I was getting really tired and missed a few classes. I put it down to being an idiot and alcohol. (I was living in Poland after all). Several years later there came a time when I was throwing up regularly and feeling exhausted.

By that time I was in the Czech Republic – another country which loves alcohol. After 1 month of drinking 10 litres of water per day and one final morning of not being able to get out of bed I was forced to go to the doctor.

He sent me straight to hospital and they kept me in for 10 days. I was furious until they pointed out that I would have died if I hadn’t been treated.

It turned out I was diabetic. In my innocence I thought it wasn’t a problem until, as mentioned above, they warned me again that I would die very soon if couldn’t control it.

My control now is not perfect but it’s good. I know that a lot of advice is superfluous or seems obvious but here are some simple things. (For the diabetics too).

All diabetics should admit it. We have to live with it but at the same time we can help educate others as well as ourselves. I had a very steep learning curve.

All diabetics should carry sugar or some form of glucose for emergencies. Our staffroom has emergency sugar supplies and all our teachers have had a little training session on how to recognise and deal with hypoglycemic fits. Therefore they know (hopefully) how to react.

One of the biggest questions is whether to tell your students. After all, I am there to help them. Why should they have to help me?

The very simple answer to this is that you must tell your students. If a teacher has a hypo (low sugar) in class the students have to know why and how to help. As well as being bad for the teacher it can really damage your own reputation and whichever school/company you work at. I could suggest that the teacher should control their sugar better but, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

Personally, I have used my diabetes to help educate my students (and myself) while, at the same time practising listening, vocab, comprehension skills. All of my students are aware that I have to eat in class sometimes or check my sugar. It’s pretty amazing how quickly they become used to me stabbing my finger and grabbing sweets when necessary. J

On a more serious note – healthcare for diabetics is generally lacking in most countries. Working in TEFL can be stressful and that means more volatile sugar levels. I am lucky in that the Czech doctors are providing me with excellent care. Check the healthcare system before you go to a country if you are a diabetic. It is one of the main reasons that I am reluctant to move country.

*****

Lily Anne Young Profile PicLily-Anne Young is a teacher and teacher trainer who has been working in ELT for 13 years.  After doing her CELTA in Budapest, she moved to China and taught in private schools and universities.  After that she moved to Katowice in Poland, and is currently based in Brno, Czech Republic where she does freelance teaching and teacher training, mainly connected with IH ILC Brno.
She was diagnosed as a diabetic type 1 while working in Brno and, after considerable thought decided to publish her experiences with diabetes to try and help raise awareness of what it means for those living and working with the condition.
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