Complexity Theory and ELT – Manchester Roundtable

21 Feb

The idea of complexity theory and it’s relationship to language and language learning is something that I’ve been starting to read into a bit more deeply recently.  There’s something about it that seems intuitively right, which usually means that I don’t understand it enough.

I was, therefore, very excited to catch Achilleas Kostoulas’ post of an event happening in Manchester around the time of the upcoming IATEFL conference.  And then equally depressed to realised that I had booked my flight home for the day before the event.

For more information on dates and times etc, take a look at his original blog post.

Hopefully a lot of the ideas and talks will be shared online somewhere!

 

 

 

Words with Multiple Meanings

19 Feb

Here’s a nice infographic from the Kaplan blog about words with multiple meanings.  I can think of three immediate ways to exploit this with a class:

(1) Prediction – give students the keywords.  Students then think of as many phrases or uses of the keywords as possible and then compare their ideas to the infographic.

(2) Identifying parts of speech – black over the labels on the colour coding key, and ask students to look at the phrases in provided and get them to come up with the categories.

(3) Make your own posters – either you or the students choose your own set of keywords and they then create their own phrase based multiple meaning poster / infographic.  This would be a perfect opportunity to introduce learners to working with corpuses – like corpus.byu.edu.

I can see this working particularly well with exam classes – and in fact if you combined all three activities, you would probably have the basis for quite a nice lesson!

words with multiple meanings

The TEFL Blame Game – redux

16 Feb

So we take a look around us and we see that everything in the world of TEFL is not good.  We ask ourselves, how did we ever get into such a sorry state? Who is to blame?  Who can we rant and rail against?  Who can we throw cream cakes / pies / rocks at?

So here are three scenarios:

(1) Francis pays 150 euros and gets online access to a TEFL training course.  He completes the assignments and is awarded a TEFL certificate.  He uses the the website jobs boards gets a job teaching in Asia and off he goes.  The school he works at pays him €800 a month with an immediate start and a ten month contract, but deducts part of that salary for accommodation costs and makes him pay a materials fee deposit, which he probably won’t get back.

(2) Hadley pays €1500 euros for a 4 week CELTA course.  She completes the assignments and passes the teaching practice.  She has a few issues during the course and has to resubmit once or twice but comes out of the course with a C grade.  She talks to the tutors at the centre and gets a job at a language school in bailout Europe at €1000 a month (on probation) on a nine month contract.

(3) Andriy did an undergraduate degree in English with his university and went on to do a Masters in linguistics.  He applied for a language teaching job but was then told he needed to do a CELTA (or equivalent) which he did.  Total cost is somewhere around €10,000 – but it’s difficult to be precise.  Andriy is now on the equivalent of a zero-hours contract at a rate of €10 per hour.  He probably works around six hours a week on average – at least in that particular school.

Which of these people would you hire?  Now take a look around your teachers’ room – what proportion of these people can you see in your staff room?

(Caveat – all of these scenarios are set within the private language sector and don’t consider the millions of people who teach English within their state sectors.  Sorry.  It’s not to exclude you exactly, and if you’re reading this and want to let me / us know what it’s really like for you – please do!  I would welcome the input and insight.)

Alex Case identified a quite considerable set of people who are to blame for the state of ELT in his original post “The TEFL Blame Game“.  And in so doing prompted this post….   (so you know who is to blame…!)  But he in return was reacting to the discussion that followed on from an ELTJam post about the state of ELT.

The ELTJam post was provocative.  Basically it said – don’t bother doing proper training to be an ELT teacher, you probably don’t need it anyway and it’s not worth it unless you’re sure it’s what you want.  It generated quite a lot of comment from quite a lot of people who think a lot about ELT.  Guys, you got suckered.  You were the wasp’s nest and you got poked with a stick.  But also – fair play to ELTJam for actually calling us all out; we are the emperor and we are not wearing very much!

What neither ELTJam nor Alex Case mention is “the market”.  And it is the market that is ultimately to blame for all of this.  We can argue from here to eternity about whether a native speaker has the same value as a non-native speaker.  We can argue about the value of standards and the extent to which qualifications are important, but because we are talking about the private language school sector, we are talking about market forces.  And as such, none of our much vaunted professionalism matters.  What matters is supply, demand, price and quantity.  This is economics, not education.

supply-demand

If my school does not have enough students walking through the door and signing up for lessons, then I have no job.  My school wouldn’t be able to afford me.  Schools brand and market themselves based on the product they seemingly deliver.  I have been in a teachers’ room, planning lessons and have been interrupted by the school director showing potential clients around.  The message on the surface was “And this is where our teachers work” but the subtext was “look, they’re all English!”.  We were being branded as high quality, professional language teaching provision (we were wearing ties).

There are any number of reasons why the TEFL game is unfair.  Probably, chief amongst them is the erroneous belief that we are a profession.  We aren’t.  When a school markets what it provides – what do you see on the advertisement?  We are the product – not the classes we teach, but us.  The teachers.  And if we are the product, then this helps to explain the shocking lack of parity between the highly qualified Andriys of the world and the Francises.

Like many of you reading this, I find this realization somewhat depressing.  I quite like the idea of myself as a highly qualified professional.  I believe I have a value beyond that of my salary.  I believe that I give extra value to my students as a result of my years of experience and training.  But the sad truth is that I could quite easily be replaced tomorrow.  Actually, my DoS might need a week or so to find a suitably qualified (CELTA +min. 2 years experience) candidate, but they would be cheaper than I am and they would probably have more to prove.

To go back to our original scenarios:

The school that hires Francis isn’t interested in the quality of his teaching.  What they want is a native speaker who knows just about enough not to damage the students and who doesn’t know enough to be able to complain about the working conditions or materials.  One former colleague who was freelancing told me that the only question he ever got asked by some of the schools he worked at was “Do you have your own materials?”  His reply was “Yes, do you have a working photocopier?”.  This is the “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” model of language teaching.  Offer lower prices, don’t market the quality but market the foreign teacher, get enough students through the door and milk all concerned for as much as you can for as long as you can.

Hadley is probably luckier in as much as the school that has hired her clearly has an interest in the quality of language teaching that they provide.  As such, they have an interest in helping her to improve the quality of her teaching and no doubt she is subjected to observations, development courses and regular seminars.  Hadley is an example of the attempt that TEFL makes to be professional.  The industry found it had a problem with too many people teaching English without any idea of what that entailed.  Schools that believed in delivering high quality language provision came to realize that this meant they had to train their teachers to teach effectively.  Thus in 1962, John and Brita Haycraft launched the International House Certificate, which eventually became the CELTA.  But make no mistake, what is now a “professional standard” has its roots in quality control.  What the CELTA offers is not necessarily any better or worse than any other language teaching qualification, the content of the courses is probably mostly the same, though delivery modes might vary.  What the CELTA offers has nothing to do with the teacher holding the certificate, because the certificate isn’t for the teacher.  It’s for the Director of Studies who wants to employ them.  The CELTA is a guarantee of standards – it says that the bearer knows these things and can do those things.  It meets tests of validity and reliability that other qualifications might not.

It is Andriy that you have to feel sorry for.  Andriy started learning English when he was ten and went on to dedicate six years of his life to learning all about English – he can parse a sentence in a heartbeat and can describe the sociolinguistic appropriacy of a rogue collocation at the drop of a hat.  All this knowledge doesn’t let him teach English though, for that he needs a CELTA.  So having sat through four weeks of native speakers not knowing the difference between “must” and “have to” and having passed the course, Andriy then finds that because he’s not English, he can’t get a full-time job anywhere within the private sector.  For the record, I would like to categorically state that if you have the qualifications and experience then I see no reason why the nation of your birth should make any difference.  However, I have yet to see that in practice.  Mostly, I see non-native speakers either co-teaching classes with native speakers or only teaching lower level classes.  Non-native speakers get a very raw deal in the private language sector – to find out more about how you can help change that, visit http://teflequityadvocates.com/.

Andriy and Francis are opposite ends of the scale, but both point to the reason why TEFL has no right to call itself a profession.  No matter how professional people within TEFL try to be, it is a business, it is an industry, and it operates according to economic principles, not pedagogical ones.  And as long as students pay money to come to classes, that is unlikely to change.  So if you really want someone to blame for the state of ELT?  Blame the market.

 

 

 

More Educational Mythbusting

11 Feb

“We have had all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he says. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying that kids only learn if you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it is indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”

This quote from a recent Telegraph article is from Tom Bennett and is thankfully yet another voice calling for a more rigorous critical evaluation of educational trends and theories.  In this case, Tom Bennett is unfortunately mostly being a bit self-promotional, but his central argument  – that teachers need to question the research behind the “theories” that they are being asked to engage with and that teachers need to be ready to actually drive the research and help build the evidence one way or the other – is a good one.  A better read is his denunciation of educational neuroscience for the New Scientist.

It is not to say that these theories are completely wrong, just that the claims that are made for them are unproven.  I have said elsewhere that I find learning styles unconvincing and that most of what I have read suggests teaching to a particular learning style makes no difference.  I doubt very much whether categorizing learners as kinaesthetic or logical-mathematical helps them learn vocabulary much faster.  The only contribution that I think the concept of learning styles has made to education is that it has forced teachers to consider delivering their lessons in modes and with activities that they otherwise might not have considered.  My traditional view of language education (mostly recalled from my GCSE french lessons) is that of rote repetition and grammar based activities in the book.  Moving around the classroom, encouraging the association of visual to linguistic, communication between classroom partners – these were all absent.  I believe including them makes my classroom a more interesting place to be and gives the learners a change of pace from the mundane.  But that is principled selection of a activity for other reasons – not because one of my students might be a “visual learner”.

 

 

The WHY Game – for practicing clauses of reason and purpose

4 Feb

 

This is an activity I did with with an intermediate group of young learners – who absolutely loved it.  It led to what was easily the longest conversations they’d had in English all year.  It probably wouldn’t take much to adapt it to higher levels or older classes.

This came as a freer practice activity after we’d already dealt with the input – in this case we’d been working with:

  • to + infinitive
  • in order to + infinitive
  • so (that) + subject & clause

I asked the class to write down five things they’d done today and five places they’d been to recently (but not today).

I then asked them to build these out into sentences with time references.  e.g. “This morning I brushed my teeth.”  /  “Last weekend I went to the park.”

Once they had their sentences I picked one of the stronger students and asked him to tell me one of his sentences.  Our conversation went like this:

  • John, tell me one of your sentences.
  • Uh.  OK.  Last week I went to the theatre.
  • Why did you go to the theatre?
  • It was a school trip.  I had to.
  • Why did you have to?
  • Because the school made me,
  • Why did they make you?

…..  and so on.

You may have noticed this modelling didn’t lead to much production of the target language.  But at this point the rest of the class knew what was expected of them.  I drew their attention to the target language and told them to try and use it.  I also told them they would get one point as soon as their partner gave up, said “I don’t know” or told them to shut up (or similar).  I then put them into groups of three and off they went!

 

whyAs I said, the class loved it.  They really went for it and some die hards were still on their first sentence after about five minutes.  I noticed some students were using the target language, some weren’t, but they were all speaking English and were really on task and engaged.  I think in future I’d set a time limit per sentence of two or three minutes, after which the victim wins a point, to try and avoid one student over-dominating the group.

Clauses of reason and purpose and result come into a lot of exam books, so this could be a nice change of pace for some of those classes.

Enjoy, try it out and let me know what you think!

 

What is “good speaking”?

26 Jan

We are approaching the end of the first semester in our school and this is typically a time when we review our assessments, give out our grammar and vocabulary tests and write all the reports.  Like many schools, our reports contain the categories: Grammar & Vocabulary, Listening, Reading, Speaking, Writing.  The students do three assessments in reading, listening and writing that are spread out over the semester and then a larger grammar and vocabulary test at the end of the semester.  The marks for each component get converted to a score out of twenty and the scores for all five components are added together to give a percentage, which is the student’s final grade.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted the problem here.

Assessing speaking is always difficult.  One of the biggest problems I always find is whether I am actually assessing their speaking or whether I am assessing their spoken production of grammar and vocabulary.  To what extent does personality play a part in this?  Susan Cain’s TED talk on “The Power of Introverts” reminds us that just because people aren’t saying something, doesn’t mean they can’t.

Rob Szabo and Pete Rutherford recently wrote an article arguing for a more nuanced approach.  In “Radar charts and communicative competence“, they argue that as communicative competence is a composite of many different aspects, no student can simply be described as being good or bad at speaking, but that they have strengths and weaknesses within speaking.

Szabo and Rutherford identify six aspects of communicative competence (from Celce-Murcia) and diagram them as follows:

competence 01

 

This is an enticing idea.  It builds up a much broader picture of speaking ability than what is often taken – a general, global impression of the student.  It also allows both the teacher and the student to focus on particular areas for improvement:  in the diagram above, student 1 needs to develop their language system, it isn’t actually “speaking” that they have the problem with.  Equally student 2 needs to build better coping strategies for when they don’t understand or when someone doesn’t understand them.  These things aren’t necessarily quick fixes, but do allow for a much clearer focus in class input and feedback than just giving students more discussion practice.

From a business perspective, which is mostly where Szabo & Rutherford’s interests lie, there is also added value here for the employer or other stakeholders.  One of the points that David Graddol was making at the 2014 IATEFL conference (click here for video of the session) was language ability rests on so many different dimensions that in certain areas (Graddol mentioned India as an example) employers may well need someone with C1 level speaking ability, but it doesn’t matter whether they can read or write beyond A2.  Graddol kept his differentiation within the bounds of the CEFR and across abilities; Szabo and Rutherford take a more micro-level approach and suggest that the level of analysis they suggest may well be useful to employers in assigning tasks and responsibilities.  Quite what the students may feel about that is another matter.

Whilst this idea has been developed in a business English context, it is a useful idea that should also make the leap from the specialist to the general, as it has clear applications in a number of areas.  In reviewing the different competences, there are cross overs to the assessment categories used in Cambridge Exams for example – where discourse management, interactive communication, pronunciation and Grammar & Vocabulary have clear corollaries.  Diagramming pre-exam performance in this way again, can help teachers and students have a clearer picture of what needs doing and can make instruction more effective.

A helpful next step for the authors might be to think about how this idea can translate into practice in the wider world.  Currently, it seems as though a mark out of ten is awarded for each competence and while this inevitably gets the teacher thinking in more detail about what exactly their student can or can’t do, no definitions are currently provided as to what a “10” or a “3” might mean.

 

 

Warmer / Filler: What are my words?

20 Jan

This vocabulary revision activity requires minimal or no preparation on the part of the teacher.  I’ve been using it with classes that found “Don’t make me say it!” too difficult or time consuming.  It’s certainly easier for lower levels!

The minimal preparation version is where you choose the words before the class.  The no preparation version is where they choose the words themselves.  This latter option is not without pitfalls as the students may choose words they don’t know the meaning of, but in this activity all that really does is make it a lot easier for their partner to win the game!

So, assuming you have chosen your twelve words, divide them up into a set of six for student A and another set of six for student B.  Give each student their words written down on a table like this one:
What are my words – where the left column has the target words and the right column is blank.

Elicit some conversational topics to the board.

The students now have to try and use their words in conversation – but without being noticed!  As the conversation progresses they also try to write down any words their partner uses which they think is on their partner’s list.

Set  five minute time limit for the conversation.

At the end of the time, students get one point for each of their words they said unnoticed and one point for each of their partner’s words they correctly identified.  The person with the most points is the winner!

Acknowledgement – again, I have a vague memory of seeing something like this in an input session at IH Katowice – I think this was either Richard Venner or James Lambie – or possibly someone else completely (in which case apologies!)

 

The Myth of the Good Student

15 Jan

Not so long ago I found out that two of my teenage students have been having a competition in my classes.  Apparently they’ve been trying to see who can say the word “genitais” the most in class – this means “genitals” in English.  They’ve been doing this for the last three months and it only came to light because they clearly got bored of my inability to notice and asked me if I knew what it meant.

Not, I’m sure you will agree, the behaviour of a good student.

But then what is?

The topic came up again with another class today, as part of a discussion on good study skills, so I asked them for their thoughts on what makes a good or bad student.  Now this group is younger, they’re about 13 years old, which accounts for some of the content, and I reformulated one or two suggestions (though I was impressed when they came up with “the class clowns”).

Good and Bad Students

In asking young learners what makes a good or bad student, you are always going to get a degree of polarisation and counter point.  If the good student “always does their homework” then it stands to reason that the bad student “never does their homework”.  Nonetheless three things immediately jump out at me:

  1. The utter negativity of the bad student.
  2. The impossibility of being a good student.
  3. The complete lack of a middle ground.

 

(1) The utter negativity of the bad student.

Bad students here are demonized.  Look at that word “rebel” in there!  It’s so true as well – if you set yourself against the system in any way, you get crushed by the teacher or at the very least you are cast in the role of the villain for the rest of the school year.  The problem is that, if as the teacher, you cast one of your students in that role, you aren’t giving them any other role to perform – what else are they expected to do?  Don’t challenge authority kids – even when it’s wrong – because that way lies destruction!

There’s the social stigmatism there as well, “are idiots and are dumb” – if we can’t control our students ourselves, then let us, as teachers, set the children against each other and let them do the dirty work for us.  We are civilized, we are emotionally in control and we don’t stoop to name calling.  But we all know why the bad students are bad students – they just aren’t as intelligent as us.  It’s got nothing to do with the background of the “bad” student, it doesn’t matter that they’re being bullied in the playground and are acting out because of it.  Bad behaviour is not seen as a sign of emotional need – it is seen as a sign of poor intelligence.

And there’s the performance angle.  Bad students get bad grades.  Yes, that’s right, the fault is with the student.  They are the one who failed to understand.  They are the one who couldn’t answer the question.  They are the one who had a bad day when it was test time and therefore they are at fault.  The failure of a student to understand is not the fault of the student, it is a failure of instruction.  I should point out that I fail at instruction all the time.  I fail at even giving instructions all the time – I see the sideways glances and hear the whispered conversations and every now and again get the question “Teacher, what is to do?”  Equally, I’m not suggesting that it is always the failure of the teacher – most of the time it is the failure of the situation surrounding the teacher – if you have a class of 30 students and you are busy dealing with three of them, you might not notice the quiet one struggling in the corner.  Or you might not realise the student who has taken his trousers down in the classroom is doing all this attention seeking behaviour precisely to divert attention away from the fact that they don’t have a clue what is going on.  But if we continue to decide whether students are good or bad based on their grades, how can we ever hope that our students place a value on things other than performance?  When will our students ever see each other as human beings?

(2) The impossibility of being a good student.

Ok.  The whole “wear glasses” thing was suggested by one of the students who just happens to wear glasses.  And so do I, so I wasn’t going to disagree…..

But let’s look at what else is there:  are quiet, pay attention, have good grades, are polite to the teacher, always do their homework, are intelligent (for a given value of intelligent, which I suspect would probably correlate strongly with “get good grades”).  Once we’d got all this on the board I asked them how many of them thought they were good students.  Actually I had asked them this before we started listing criteria and without exception, they started putting their hands up and saying “Teacher, I got 82% in history!”, “I have 90 in English.”  It was this that started our little digression into what makes a good student as when I asked them if that was the only thing that meant they were good students, some of the other criteria started emerging.

When I asked them again though, about three of them put their hands up.  The others said they didn’t always get good grades, or they weren’t always quiet, or they didn’t think they were very intelligent (how my heart goes out to them there!!!!), or they missed a couple of homework tasks.  So that works out at about 25% of the class.

25%.

Only 25% of my class think they are good students.

How messed up is a system where 75% of the students think they are automatic failures?  Where, by their own description, they are idiots?

Like most teachers, I would love to have a class full of polite, quiet, focused and attentive students who always did what I said and did the work.  What I have in most cases is a group of students who can occasionally be persuaded to do some work, but who would really prefer to be playing games of some kind.  I think the question from the teacher’s perspective is what do you expect?  Should I expect my students to be “good” all of the time?  It’s not like we get that all the time in the real world – just take a drive through the centre of your town at rush hour and see if I’m wrong!  If we continue to set our expectations so high, if we expect our students, regardless of age, to behave as though they were us, then both we and they are doomed to failure and the class is doomed to a year of demotivated learning punctuated by tantrums.

The good student doesn’t exist.  The good student is a mythical ideal generated largely for the benefit of teachers so that students, kids who crave praise and the external validation of the authority figure, know what exacting standards must be achieved and will strive to get that validation.  The myth of the good student tells students that what their teachers really want – is to be left alone.

 

(3) The lack of a middle ground

The discourse surrounding student identity is completely polarised.  Students, it seems, are either one thing or the other and see themselves in those terms.  You are either for or against, good or bad, successful or a failure.  There is a moral absolutism inherent in this view of classroom management that simply does not reflect the reality of the situation.  It requires the observer (teacher or otherwise) to make a value judgement about the nature of an individual based on  subjective interpretation of behaviour – according to standards that as I’ve already said, are unobtainable.

Most societies, even those that spring from more dogmatic perspectives, embrace a degree of relativism in their social and cultural attitudes.  So why is there no middle ground in this?

What disturbed me most about the conversation with my class is that even at the age of 13, they have been brainwashed into this view that they are either good or they are bad.  I know that more nuanced views develop with age, but the fact that students don’t see that they can contain elements of both is troubling.  At any given moment, in any given classroom, an otherwise great student has let their mind float off somewhere.  This is not a bad thing.

I tried to encapsulate this in a diagram – the idea is that at any moment in a lesson, students can place themselves somewhere within the diagram.

the state of the student

 

It’s not perfect and would probably be better as a series of bar charts.  The positives are lumped together mostly because they tend to go together.  If you’re in the right frame of mind to start with, then the rest comes easier.  And so forth and vice versa.  But it serves to visualise the series of dichotomies that students are up against.

Most students would probably put themselves somewhere in the top half of the circle.  Some in the middle and maybe a few in the lower half.  But very few would place themselves at the extremes and this is because by and large, we all occupy the middle ground.  We are rarely completely one thing or the other and if we only see ourselves in these polarised terms, then we run the risk of perpetual failure or stressed out over-achievement.  More to the point, as teachers, if we only ever expect brilliance and good behaviour from our students, we are dooming them to failure before they even start.  If you can’t be brilliant, you might as well not even try.  That’s the message it sends and we end up, inadvertently, teaching our students to be intolerant of anything less than perfection.

We are all individuals and we are all different (or at least most of us are).  As adults we accept each others’ imperfections with relative good grace and we don’t define ourselves with arbitrary labels like good and bad because we accept that we all have strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds and different interests.  We come together in the middle ground to work together, study together, socialize and start relationships.  Perhaps finding and occupying that middle ground is what we should also be doing in the classroom.

I think the last word in this should go to Joao, who asked me a question towards the end of the lesson:

“Teacher, am I the class clown?”

“What do you think?”

“I think maybe yes.”

“OK.  Why do you think that?”

“Because I’m not quiet and I play a lot and make jokes.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Maybe yes.”

“Why?”

“Because then I can’t get good grades.”

“Well, if you can be the class clown and get good grades, then it’s not a problem.”

“Hmm.  Teacher I don’t want be bad student.”

“I don’t think you’re a bad student.”

“I try to be good student.”

 

 

Warmer: Don’t make me say it!

12 Jan

This is a vocabulary revision activity that I used as a warmer with my classes last week – from intermediate to proficiency.

I went back through the previous couple of units of the coursebook and chose 12 items (words, phrasal verbs, fixed expressions, short phrases) that I thought the class would probably know and I divided those items into two sets of six, trying to make sure there was an even balance of “difficulty” between the two lists.

I put these on a handout as follows:

IMG_20150109_153542056 (2)

The instructions are as follows:

  • Have a conversation with your partner. You can talk about any topics.
  • During the conversation, try to get them to use the words or expressions in the list below.
  • You get one point for every word they use.
  • You lose one point for every word on their list that you say.

What happened:

Predictably, very few of the words on the lists actually got said.  That doesn’t really matter because, as a vocabulary revision activity, what’s happening is the students are creating contexts for the use of the vocabulary, so even if student B doesn’t say student A’s word, they have a pretty good idea of what it is.  However, in hindsight, (and the next time I play this) I’m going to take out the rule about losing a point – it just makes everyone unnecessarily uncooperative.  That said, everyone had a lot of fun.

I also tried this with a group and let them choose their own words from previous units of the book.  This backfired spectacularly as (a) it took far too long, (b) they chose words they didn’t know the meaning of.

It needs a bit of tweaking, but I like this activity because of the way the students are creating these contexts for the items and because it’s prompting them to think about how the items are used – yes, it’s completely artificial, but it also seems to be a lot of fun, which is what you want in a warmer.

Do try it out and let me know how it goes for you – and any changes you made!

Have fun!

(Acknowledgement – I have a vague memory or being shown this or something similar in an input session at IH Katowice about ten years ago, so apologies if this is someone else’s idea!  If so it was probably Richard Venner as it seems like the sort of thing he would do!)

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…

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