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Teaching: The good, the bad and the balance

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria and co-author of ‘Exploring Psychology for Language Teachers’. In this post she reflects on the importance of teachers’ well-being and offers some practical suggestions to help them find their own work-life balance.

Let me get this straight from the start – I absolutely love teaching. I can’t think of any other job I would like to do more. When I read the post-its from IATEFL and Andrew Diliger’s recent blog post and saw all the positivity, I felt grateful to be part of this wonderful community. Many teachers are passionate about what they do and they also get a lot energy, motivation, and inspiration from their learners and day-to-day classroom encounters. But let’s not diminish just how demanding a profession it is. Teaching requires great skill in having competence in our subjects, interpersonal skills, pedagogical knowledge, intercultural sensitivity, creativity, technological skills, and organisational skills – to name but a few. It is a profession with a long history, which we should be proud to be part of and which necessitates specialist expertise for it to function well – That’s where we come in. In fact, we are probably the most valuable resource in educational institutions and yet very often the importance of what we do goes unappreciated and undervalued – sometimes by others but also occasionally by ourselves.

Teaching can be extremely rewarding but can also be emotionally and physically draining. Like seasonal workers, during term time, many of us work evenings and weekends. It is extremely stressful on a day-to-day basis and as administration and assessment procedures mushroom, it grows ever more exhausting having to work on tasks that are a lot less rewarding than the time spent in class. The to-do list is never-ending and there is always more we could be doing. Add to this that as teachers, we tend to be other-oriented and very often we have tendencies towards perfectionism. As a result, this can lead us to keep giving to others and doing ever more not knowing when to stop and recharge our own batteries. It is easy to see the risks and why many early career stage teachers end up leaving the profession and why teaching reports such high levels of burnout.

So, how do we reconcile these two sides of teaching? The side where we love and are energised by what we do, along with the incredibly demanding, exhausting and stressful reality of a busy teaching life. Well, part of the clue lies in the fact that so many positive comments were found at an event like IATEFL. Firstly, we know that we can benefit enormously from professional development that is meaningful, relevant and worthwhile. We can enjoy spending time focusing on things that are professionally, intellectually and personally engaging. We might do this by attending conferences, workshops, webinars or by reading blogs or books of interest. However, we must take care not to fall into the trap of believing everyone is doing more than us and start to feel guilty for all the other things we ‘could’ be doing. Instead, we should find professional development opportunities to energise us and inspire us, whilst remaining realistic about what we can manage without trying to do it all. It is important for us to celebrate who we are as individuals taking time to focus on our strengths and the things we are already doing really well. We also have to remember that we are more than just our teacher selves. Having other interests and hobbies outside of education is important to keep us balanced and strengthen our overall well-being. This means we need to plan in time in our busy schedules for the other dimensions of our lives to draw energy and inspiration from them too.

The second dimension from IATEFL that gives us another clue for our positive well-being is how important it is to connect with colleagues and share stories, experiences, and ideas from the classroom and life beyond. This kind of support network and the ability to talk with people who know and understand your situation is vital. Indeed, other teachers are often the best people to share your humour about teaching life with – Indeed, laughter is one of the best coping strategies for reducing stress. However, more important than our collegial relationships are our family ties and personal friendships. These deserve our full quality attention and time. They serve as a primary source of support, happiness, and well-being and are a vital buffer against stress. No matter how packed our schedule, we must set aside time to protect and nurture these relationships.

Being a teacher is a joy and privilege. But it is also hard work and stressful. To ensure that the positive aspects of our work predominate, we need to do things that are rewarding and give us energy as well as invest in our personal and professional relationships. Once we understand that our happiness and well-being are key determinants of how well we teach and how much our learners enjoy our classes, then it becomes a lot easier to feel less selfish and guilty about putting ourselves first for a change.

Featured image credit: ‘Finding Balance’. Public Domain via Flickr

 


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How does teaching make YOU feel?

iatefl6howdoesteachingmakeyoufeelAndrew Dilger is Managing Editor in the Professional Development Publishing team. In this post he reflects on an activity we carried out at the recent IATEFL conference which asked teachers to describe how teaching makes them feel.

The job of teaching English has never been harder.

In today’s EFL environment, the challenges are considerable: large classes of students of differing abilities, learning styles, and special educational needs; frequent ministerial reforms and policy shifts which can transform a syllabus overnight; the need to keep up with pedagogical trends such as 21st-Century Skills, CLIL, and EMI; technological advances which require teachers to ‘integrate’, ‘blend’, and ‘flip’. Teachers are also expected to embrace the roles of facilitator and assessor but talk less and listen more – all the time encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset, become proficient at self-study, pass high-stakes exams, and generally reach an impressive level of English in less time than they themselves needed.

Yes, with all this going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that EFL teachers must be a stressed-out and miserable bunch! Not at all, it would seem. I recently returned from IATEFL – the annual conference which sees a couple of thousand teachers from all over the world converge on the UK for five days of plenaries, workshops, talks and networking events. At the OUP stand, there was a special focus on Professional Development and a feature wall with the sentence stem: ‘Teaching makes me feel …’. Conference delegates were invited to complete the sentence on a Post-It note. Plenty of them obliged and the results were, well, surprising.

To give you a flavour of what was said, I’ve grouped the responses into seven categories. Which category describes how teaching makes YOU feel, I wonder?

#1 UPBEAT

Almost without exception, the responses were upbeat and positive – with words like ‘inspired’, ‘happy’, and ‘motivated’ occurring time and time again. Sometimes these words were written in capitals, with an exclamation mark and a smiley face as if they were being shouted from the school rooftops. If teachers weren’t ‘inspired’, then they were ‘excited’, ‘fulfilled’, and ‘alive’.

#2 TIRED

A handful of people did acknowledge that teaching can be a tiring business – but all of them were quick to qualify this with other adjectives like ‘rewarding’ and, again, ‘inspired’ and ‘happy’.

#3 YOUTHFUL

It’s not that teaching is a young person’s game, but it seems it has the power to make teachers feel young in spirit. For one respondent in particular, it was a more profound feeling of being ‘ageless’!

#4 EDUCATIONAL

Some educators like to blur the line between teaching and learning. Or, more specifically, they consider themselves on a par with their students in that they have ‘so many things to learn’ in the classroom themselves.

 #5 HELPFUL

The sense of purpose you can get in the classroom is clearly an important factor for some teachers. Several respondents described their primary function as being ‘helpful’ or ‘useful’; they are in the classroom principally to ‘support’ their students.

#6 VOCATIONAL

Some people are just born to teach. There was a handful of responses which described the profession in vocational terms as feeling ‘like home’. Others described themselves as ‘humble’ or ‘privileged’ and there was a sense of satisfaction which came from being lucky enough to do something you love, and which you’re good at.

#7 CONNECTED

There are obviously a group of professionals for whom teaching is a way of reaching out and connecting with the wider world. One respondent described teaching as making them feel ‘a part of humankind’. For others, this connectedness has a geo-political dimension: ‘contributing to a more united world’. Finally, one impressive individual described their job with missionary zeal: turning students into ‘better citizens’ because ‘it’s not only English, it’s also about humanity and values.’

So what are we to make of this outpouring of positivity? Where are all the UNhappy, Uninspired, and UNexcited teachers? Obviously not at IATEFL 2017. The conference, by its very nature, tends to attract delegates who feel both motivated and engaged (and who have the financial means to travel internationally). But are they telling us the whole truth? And what about the rest? How do they feel? I mean, really feel.

I should say at this point that I’m no educational psychologist – I’ll leave that to experts like Sarah Mercer – but I have been involved in the world of EFL for more than half my life. I’ve taught and trained in over fifteen different countries and wherever I’ve visited, there have always been teachers who have been struggling to cope. Maybe we just need to be a bit more open about that fact. How does teaching make YOU feel? I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.


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Making Reflection An Action – 5 Practical Activities You Need To Try

shutterstock_115208812Martyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He has taught English at all levels and in many contexts from one-to-one in financial institutions to rural schools with classes of eighty students.

We learn how to be a teacher in many different ways. We have our initial qualification courses, we go on INSET training, and attend conferences. We might even read a few books on the subject. But perhaps one of the most influential sources of learning for us is in the daily experience of actually doing the job. The problem is when we are in the classroom there is no time for us to stop and think about what we’re learning.  Then between classes we are probably marking students work, gathering resources, or preparing for our next lesson. We probably all think that reflection is a useful process in our development. But many of us probably wonder when we will find the time to do it.

Making the process of reflection an explicit action can sometimes help here. These five activities are designed to help us stop and capture this elusive, but extremely important every day learning. They can be done by an individual teacher, or together with a colleague or with a group of peers. They are also very useful if you are building a portfolio of CPD activities and outcomes as evidence of your own professional development.

The procedure for each activity is the same, but of course you can change things to fit into your context.

Suggested Activity Procedure

  1. Set aside 30 minutes.
  2. Use the Recalling Prompts to guide your exploration
  3. Use the Reflective Questions to guide your analysis of the data and record your conclusions and future actions.
  4. If working with colleagues share your outcomes in weekly meeting and use the questions to explore what you have noticed.
  5. Consider recording the outcomes of your meetings on a poster in the staffroom for other colleagues, and to use as a springboard for discussion professional development sessions.
  1. What’s different?

Professional learning often involves ‘noticing’ when something changes, and reflecting on the causes and the impact this might have.

Recalling Prompts

Look back over the week and note down:

  • Something you know about your students that you didn’t before
  • Something that happened in your lessons that hasn’t happened before
  • A skill that you now have
  • A way of explaining grammar/vocabulary
  • An opinion that has changed over the last week
  • A way of working with colleagues that was different

Reflection Questions

  • What caused the change?
  • Why do you think this might be important?
  • How will this change impact on the way you teach/work?
  • What opportunities/dangers does it bring?
  • What can you do to engage with the change?
  1. Back on the Bike

The expression ‘to get back on the bike’ comes from the idea that when we are learning to ride a bicycle and we fall off, the best thing to do is to get back on the bike immediately and try again.  This way our mistakes become an impetus for renewed effort and learning.

Recalling Prompts

If you try something that doesn’t work well, note down as soon as you can what you wanted to do and what actually happened.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • What was your objective?
  • Why did you choose this action to achieve this objective?
  • Have you tried this before with different results?
  • What happened as a result of this action?

Reflection Questions

  • What made you notice that it didn’t work?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • Why do you think the results of the action didn’t meet your expectations?
  • What do you know now that you didn’t at the time?
  • What is the next opportunity for you to try this again?
  • What changes will you make to the action to account for your new understandings?
  1. Why it Worked

Reflection often starts with problems all areas of difficulty, but this activity focuses on the learning we can gain from our successes, and possible apply to other areas of our practice.

Recalling Prompts

Identify something you are involved in that was successful this week.

  • Where did this happen and who was involved?
  • How do you know you were successful?
  • Have you tried activity before with different results?
  • What effect did the success have on the people involved?

Reflection Questions

  • How do you measure the success?
  • Does everybody involved share your evaluation? If not, why?
  • How replicable is this success – can you repeat the activity with the same results?
  • If you’ve tried this before with different results, how do you account for the change?
  • What aspects of the activity (in planning or in delivery) could you use with other activities?
  1. Needs and Wants

Our colleagues play a significant role in our daily school life and our development as a professional. In this activity you can analyse what relationships you have with your colleagues.

Recalling Prompts

Identify key colleagues from different areas of the school.

  • What does X need from you? What’s your role in X’s eyes?
  • What do you need from X?
  • What are the features of your professional relationship?

Reflection Questions

  • How much does your colleague know already about your opinions above?
  • If they answered these questions, what would you be unsure about?
  • What do you want to stop/change/continue about your professional relationship?
  • What steps could you take to make your professional relationship more productive?
  1. Ups and Downs

Teaching is an emotional activity, and even the most experienced teacher will have both good and bad moments during a week. This activity uses these responses as a way of accessing development.

Recalling Prompts

  • What moments of positive & negative emotions have you felt during the week?
  • What categories of emotions would you place the different emotions in?
  • What particular moments stand out either in a positive of negative way?

Reflection Questions

  • How did you respond to the emotion? What could you do to increase its learning impact?
  • Which emotions have been caused by external factors over which you had no control? How can you exploit these external factors in the future?
  • When were your actions responsible for your emotions? How can you avoid/repeat these?


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8 tips to help implement technology use in your classroom

shutterstock_198926996Oliver has taught a wide variety of students at the kindergarten, primary, secondary and adult level and is now one of OUP’s Educational Services Managers. In his more than 20 years spent living and working in Asia, he has created and delivered Professional Development workshops and seminars for thousands of teachers in countries across the region.

Educators are often asking themselves, ‘why should we engage with technology in the classroom?’ One of the key reasons is that technology provides valuable learning opportunities for educators which can then be applied to ensure technology is adopted in a cost effective, pedagogically sound way that is more likely to lead to learning.

To help illustrate this, let me tell you a story.

“…and this is our language lab!” the English teacher said, as she opened the door.

I was ushered into a large room with TV monitors hanging from the ceiling, a stage, a giant screen, and a console with lots of buttons and switches. As a brand new teacher at a secondary school in Japan, this was my first exposure to a well-equipped language lab in my workplace.

It was also almost my last.

Over the next three years we used those facilities for classes only two to three times annually. Each class would be led into the room and shown part of an English language film for 20-40 minutes. I will never forget the initial excitement among the majority of the students when they first started watching the film, or the boredom or disappointment among some students that set in during the course of the lesson by the time they left. To my knowledge, the language department never used that room for any other purpose during my time there.

So, on reflection, what were the lessons from this?

  • Valuable, limited class time for language learning can be wasted on technology and activities with little impact.
  • Student enthusiasm can be wasted by misuse of technology.
  • Valuable financial resources that could be used better for other purposes can be wasted on hardware and software.

Even though that was the mid-1990’s and technology in education in much of the world has marched on from the “language lab” (most of us carry powerful multimedia computers in our pockets!), I feel that these lessons still hold true. Yet, as more policy makers, schools and teachers look to implement technology there needs to be more focus before decisions are made on what technology should be used and how. Technology has great potential as a tool for language learning, but that without adequate pre-planning, teacher education and educator-led testing and research this potential can be wasted.

With this in mind, I’d like to offer some approaches that schools or even individual educators should consider taking before school-wide adoption of technology in classrooms.

Before using widely:

  1. Have a clearly defined plan for introducing technology at the school and class level, reviewing its effectiveness over time, and evaluating whether it has been successful (or not) against the original goals.
  2. Identify everyone who will be affected by the technology. Consult with them to get buy in about the potential benefits of the technology, and what it can and cannot do. (The latter is particularly important). This includes IT departments, parents, students and school leadership.
  3. Plan for sustained teacher education and training, both on general pedagogical principles around technology use in class AND the actual tools that teachers are expected to use. This should be regular and ideally involve sharing between teachers in your school so it is practical and relevant to your specific situation.
  4. Double check you have the right infrastructure in place to use the intended technology. If there are going to be tablets with wireless connections, is your network reliable?

When first using in class:

  1. Try the technology in a limited way. What works well? What doesn’t? Does it fulfil your goals?
  2. Take a long term view to using technology successfully. Just as you would when trying any new activity, be prepared for challenges and failure, but see these as learning opportunities.
  3. Don’t assume a technology is “easy to use” for students. This can vary depending on the age of the learner, their personal experience and their language level. (You will have heard a lot about younger students being digital natives, but contrary to popular opinion, that doesn’t mean young students are automatically interested in technology, or know how to use it effectively or responsibly).
  4. Take a critical approach to the use of technology. This should be on both a strategic and daily basis. Ensure that there are clear benefits to using the technology over more traditional forms of media.

There is no doubt that technology has an exciting and influential role to play in language education both in and outside of the classroom. Therefore teachers, publishers and policy makers have an essential role to play in working together. We should ensure we maximize the opportunities for students to learn effectively, however and whatever technology they use, with as little wasted time, effort and resources as is possible.

 

 

References:

Tablets and Apps in Your School, Best Practice for Implementation (Diana Bannister and Shaun Wilden)

Focus on Learning Technologies. Nicky Hockly, Oxford Key Concepts for The Language Learning Classroom (Oxford University Press)

Technology Enhanced Language Learning. Goodith White and Aisha Walker (Oxford University Press)


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Task-Based Instruction: The marriage of College and Career Readiness and English Language Proficiency

OPD3e_Image (1)Step Forward Series Director, Jayme Adelson-Goldstein, identifies several task types that incorporate the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (CCRS) and the English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education(ELPS) as a preview of her CCR presentation at TESOL 2017 this month.

Taking Our Instruction to Task

The focus on 21st century college and career readiness (CCR) for adult English language learners has sent adult ESOL instructors scrambling to create (or locate) rigorous lessons that

  • include practice with complex text and its academic language (at the appropriate level),
  • require critical thinking and problem solving, and
  • provide direct instruction in language strategies.

Many of us need look no further than our texts to find the basis for meaningful tasks that help learners accomplish all the above. Task-based instruction (TBI), as discussed by N.S. Prahbu, David and Jane Willis, David Nunan, Rod Ellis and others, creates opportunities for learners to use authentic language and processes that result in a product or tangible outcome that learners first share and discuss, and then analyze in order to improve their accurate use of the language.

In the world outside our classroom, we do not use language skills in isolation. Both the College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (2013) and the English Language Proficiency Standards (2016) show the intersections between skills. A well-designed task embodies this connection, creating a more robust use of language and greater relevance for the learner. In this blog, we will look at basic task design and provide three task types that integrate CCR skills.

A Basic Task Framework

Your preparation for the task includes gathering any essential task materials (e.g. links or tags for research, poster board and markers, sentence or paragraph frames for report backs, etc.) and determining what instructions are needed in addition to those in your textbook.

1) Present the task objective to the class and any essential information learners will need, (e.g. instruction vocabulary and/or background knowledge)

2) Next, show learners a model for–or example of–what they will produce (a list, a chart, a poster, a written report, a photo, etc.) including examples of the type of written work they will generate for their report on their task outcome(s). Note that the outcome of the task is not a right or wrong answer. A successful task will have divergent outcomes that take full advantage of each team’s prior knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and language skills.

3) Learners form pairs or teams and select (or are assigned) team roles. Task instructions are distributed to each pair or team or posted/projected for all learners to see. General comprehension is checked and time limits are set.

4) While learners work on the task, you are an observer and monitor. Once they complete it, they plan and rehearse a short report back on the work they did and their outcome(s), (e.g., the list, poster, conversation, advice letter, etc.). At this point in the process, you engage with the teams, supporting learners’ language needs as questions arise.

5) When it’s time for teams to report out, they can take turns presenting to the whole class or make simultaneous reports, with one or two members of each team traveling to other teams to make their presentation.

6) Briefly highlight each team’s success following their presentation or once all presentations are complete. Ask the class to provide feedback as well.

7) Once all presentations are complete, it’s time to help learners notice global and/or egregious errors that interfered with their collaboration or their report out. Provide practice or take home activities that correlate to the language challenges learners had during the task.

Developing a Task Repertoire

A task repertoire can make instructional planning much easier, but there are some important considerations. First, there is the issue of teacher intention versus learner interpretation (B. Kumaravadivelu, 1991) We can address this issue with

1) a learning objective or outcome that is written at the learners’ level and is accompanied by an example of the outcome;

2) clear instructions; and

3) a tracking tool to help learners monitor their progress towards the task objective, for example a checklist or rubric.

It’s also important to consider differentiation. Even in classes identified as “single level”, there can be distinct variations in language proficiency. Support learners’ varied needs by having them work in like-ability (same-ability) teams on the same basic task but with adaptations that make the task level-appropriate, e.g. scaffolding for lower-level learners and increasing the challenge for higher-level learners. Another option is to place learners in cross-ability (different-ability) teams, working on the same task but providing task roles that allow each team member to participate fully.

Authentic Team Chart (2) (1).png

The three task examples included with this blog are categorizing, dictocomp and problem solving. Most textbooks have the raw materials you can use to employ one or more of these task types in your lesson. (E.g. a set of vocabulary from a unit, a listening passage, a conversation, photo or text that poses a problem.) These tasks can be differentiated for the proficiency level of your learners and can help learners develop the skills they need to transition into college, career and community settings. For example, learners in each of these tasks “prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners” (CCR Speaking/Listening Standard 1) and “present information and supporting evidence such that a listener can follow the line of reasoning and organization.” (CCR Speaking/Listening Anchor Standard 4).  There are also opportunities for teams to “develop and strengthen their writing by planning, revising, editing, rewriting or trying a new approach” (CCR Writing Anchor Standard 5).

Download the three task examples here.

Developing a task repertoire that includes college and career readiness skill development is relatively painless when you can base your tasks on the practice activities in your textbook.

Are you attending TESOL 2017 this year? Join me on Wednesday 22 March at 10.30am to further explore how we can help our adult learners achieve their personal and profession goals using tasks to integrate the College and Career Readiness Standards in to our lessons. Find out more here.

For more educational resources to use in class visit the Oxford Picture Dictionary Third Edition Teacher’s Club website.

References

American Institutes for Research. (2016) English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education. Washington, D.C: AIR

Ellis, R. (2006)” The Methodology of Task-based Learning.” Asian EFL Journal, Volume 8, Number 3. Retrieved on February 1 from https://tinyurl.com/jstrko4

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1991). “Language learning tasks: Teacher intention and learner interpretation.” ELT Journal, 45, 98-107

Nunan, D. (1987) Designing Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pimentel, S. (2013) College and Career Standards for Adult Education. Washington, D.C.: Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education.

Prabhu, N.S. (1987) Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2007) Doing Task Based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press