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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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A way to make demonstrative determiners teachable

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Ken Paterson is grateful for a piece of advice given to him soon after he started teaching English for Academic Purposes many years ago.

This, these, that and those

Over the years, I’ve had a complex relationship with the demonstrative determiners.

Before I started teaching English, I can’t remember giving them a moment’s thought.

Then, after a few years of saying to students (with appropriate hand gestures), ‘This is for things that are near to us, and that is for things that are far away’, I started to get interested in ‘text analysis’ and ‘cohesive devices’, and went a bit over-the-top, getting students to highlight determiners, and the words or phrases they referred to, in a complex code of colours and arrows that made their handouts look like early abstract art.

By the time I met my first English for Academic Purposes class, however, I’d calmed down a little.

‘The appropriate use of demonstrative determiners’ was helpfully listed as a ‘teaching outcome’ on our EAP course pro forma and, although I got into the habit of projecting short texts onto the OHP screen in order to discuss the function of a this or that, or reformulating sentences on the whiteboard to include an appropriate determiner, I never seemed to get that satisfying look in students’ eyes that here was something they could easily take away and use themselves.

And then a colleague introduced me to the concept of summary nouns.

This/these + a summary noun

‘Abstract nouns with demonstrative determiners’, she informed me, ‘improve the flow of the text by summarizing old information and introducing it to a new clause or sentence.’ And then she gave me an example or two, such as the following:

An alternative to the guided interview is the focus group, in which respondents are asked to discuss their views collectively. This method, where participants engage with each other, has the advantage of lowering the risk of interviewer bias.

I must have been aware at some level of this feature of academic English, but I hadn’t actually had it explained to me as an entity in itself that was potentially teachable.

‘Oh, there are lots of things you can do with it in the classroom’, she added, such as:

– asking students to identify some of the many typical summary nouns (area, conclusion, development, example, idea, phenomenon, situation, trend etc.) and organizing them into sub-groups (claim, comment, remark etc.);

– gapping texts after the demonstrative determiner and eliciting the most appropriate summary noun;

– applying the feature to disconnected or ‘untidy’ texts;

– inviting students to bring in for discussion their own examples;

– looking at the occasions where a writer has paired that or those, or such instead of this or these with a summary noun.

And what I found in class was not only the sense among students that this was a feature they could take away for immediate use, but also, it seemed to me, a greater awareness of the function of demonstrative determiners in other contexts (on their own or with non-summary nouns), almost as if the ‘graspable’ nature of ‘this/these + a summary noun’ had acted as a kind of bridging device.

So thank you, Sue, wherever you are!

Ken’s talk, ‘Organising academic grammar’, takes place at IATEFL Birmingham on Friday 15th April from 12:30-13.00.


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#IATEFL – CLIL: the 3 Dimensions of Content

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Ahead of his talk at this year’s IATEFL conference in Birmingham, Phil Ball previews Improving language education through content: the “3 dimensions” of CLIL today on the blog. If you’re unable to attend this year’s conference, be sure to register for our exclusive webinar with Phil on the topic on 19th and 20th April.

It remains an interesting irony that subject teachers have been exhorted, ever since the famous Bullock Report in 1975, to become ersatz-language teachers in the ‘Language across the curriculum’ movement, whilst language teachers have never been exhorted to understand the world of content.  They remain in the dark when it comes to subject teaching, and rarely observe teachers in ‘normal’ classrooms.  The closest they often get to that world is by practising ‘Soft CLIL’ (allegedly ‘language-led) but this is something of a misnomer.  Why would we want to make something ‘language-led’?  Why not make it ‘concept-led’?  Just use the language to help.  If subject teachers are being asked to understand language, why cannot language teachers be asked to understand (and use) content?  After all, there is a huge smorgasbord of the stuff out there, just waiting to be used.

Nevertheless, if language teachers want to understand and contribute to CLIL, for example in a bilingual school context or in any school dabbling with the approach, then it’s useful to understand the three-dimensional aspect of ‘content’.  The world of CLIL is basically conceptual, procedural and linguistic.  Language is also content, when viewed from this perspective. At any point in a lesson, the teacher may find that one of these dimensions is more prominent than the other.  If the conceptual dimension (demand) is high then the linguistic demand is probably similar. In this case, the teacher, as in a mixing-studio, can turn down the procedural volume, and make the ‘how’ the quieter/easier of the three dimensions.  The combinations are various, but this is good teaching –adjusting the ‘volumes’ according to the shifting demands.

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It’s a powerful idea – that we employ conceptual content, by means of procedural choices (cognitive skills), using specific language derived from the particular discourse context.  It is the interplay amongst the dimensions that lies at the heart of CLIL practice.  The concepts are ultimately understood by doing something, using a certain type of discourse.

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A good way to combat scepticism (and thus spread the good word) is to emphasise that the twin core features of CLIL are basically these:

  • supporting language learning in content classes (Hard CLIL)
  • supporting content learning in language classes (Soft CLIL)

If these things happen, all the rest can follow.  And it may even be worth changing the above two sentences to read:

  • supporting language awareness in content classes
  • supporting content awareness in language classes

Successful CLIL, whether taught by a language or a subject teacher, tosses its learners into the deep end of the conceptual and procedural swimming-pool, then throws in the linguistic arm-bands.  Language teaching has for decades carefully taken learners to the shallow end, in the vague hope that someday they might swim.  Far too many never get anywhere near the deep end.

register-for-webinar


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70 years of ELT Journal: continuity and change

Business meeting

Graham Hall is editor of ELT Journal and works at Northumbria University in the UK, where he teaches on Northumbria’s MA in Applied Linguistics for TESOL and MA TESOL programmes.

There are few things in ELT which are quite as long-standing as ELT Journal. This year marks its 70th anniversary, and, over those 70 years, the Journal has published well over 2,000 articles, over 1,000 books reviews, and countless other feature items (in 1967, for example, we find the announcement of a new venture, the Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, now known as IATEFL: issue XXI: 3).

So what continuities can we see between the first issue and ELT Journal in 2016, and what has changed over time to stay relevant to teachers today? One constant is the overall aim of the Journal. In the language of the times, the opening editorial in 1946 stated that ‘our new periodical, it is hoped … will enable the teacher in the classroom to know what has been done and is being done to help him in his task and to exchange with fellow workers his own experiences and findings’ (issue 1/1). And today, the Journal ‘aims to provide a medium for informed discussion of the principles and practice which determine the ways in which English is taught and learnt around the world’ (ELT Journal’s aims are outlined in more detail on its website). That first issue also created the template for all subsequent editions – an editorial (although now, in the interests of space and readers’ patience, not in every issue!); a range of articles; book reviews; and a feature item.

Of course, there are also differences between ‘then and now’. As well as providing the editorial, the then editor A.S. Hornby also wrote two of the articles; this reflected the relatively small number of people involved or interested in ELT at that time, in comparison to today’s global profession. And the papers and reviews themselves – with their focus on Britain and British culture (by British authors), on the work of de Saussure, and on ‘Books you should know’ – strike a different tone to those in today’s ELT Journal; they aimed to chart a course and establish a field, perhaps, whereas today we hope to share knowledge and draw on common understandings, albeit as we engage in our professional discussions, debates and disputes.

From 1946, let us fast-forward 35 years, to 1981. A key event in ELT Journal’s development was its reconfiguration that year, to reflect the growth of our field and the increasing range of insights from relatively new academic disciplines such as applied linguistics, sociology and psychology. In his editorial (issue 36/1), incoming editor Richard Rossner, reflected upon the increasing diversity of the profession and the range of contexts in which English was taught, and emphasised that it is not ‘good for the profession if individuals see themselves as mainly concerned with ‘theory’ or only involved in ‘practice’ ’. The Journal aimed, overtly, to bridge the ‘theory-practice’ gap; similarly, today, ELT Journal ‘links the everyday concerns of practitioners with insights gained from relevant academic disciplines’.

And what of the content of ELT Journal 35 years ago, half way through its 70 year span? In issue 36/1, both the topics and titles of articles and of books reviewed are perhaps more familiar – debates surrounding the role of teaching materials, student autonomy and authenticity appear; language skills as well as language structures or systems are discussed; different learner age groups are recognised. And authorship throughout the publication is more international and no longer solely the preserve of men. We can see these trends maintained and developed further in the Journal today.

So in fact, this year marks two notable points in ELT Journal’s development – its founding 70 years ago, and its re-launch 35 years ago in 1981, when it became even more recognisably the journal we see today. To celebrate this, both the first issue of English Language Teaching (1/1; 1946) and the first re-launched ELT Journal (36/1; 1981) are freely available on ELT Journal’s website throughout 2016, and, if you have the opportunity to read them, you can track the developments I have briefly summarised here. You can also compare these past issues of the Journal with papers from the present day, through the online ‘Editor’s Choice’ feature, in which an article from each recent issue of the Journal is made freely available online, in many cases alongside short videos in which their authors discuss their paper and the ideas behind it.

Join us at IATEFL, Birmingham for the annual ELTJ Debate, taking place Thursday 14th April. The motion of this year’s debate is: This house believes that teacher training is a waste of time. Proposing: Peter Grundy / Apposing: Penny Ur.