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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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4 common teaching challenges and how to solve them with videos that extend learning

Solving four common teaching challenges with videos that extend learningTamara Jones, co-author of Q: Skills for Success Second Edition, joins us on the blog today to review her TESOL talk about flipping the classroom using content aligned videos.

I think we can all agree that while teaching is rewarding and most of us love what we do, it can also be challenging.  At least it is for me!  While I might be a Q: author, I am also a classroom teacher, and I know how difficult it can be to not only reach all of my students, but to also accomplish everything that the curriculum dictates. That’s why I love anything that provides a solution to some of the many challenges we instructors face on a given day. Content aligned video can be used to overcome many common class challenges while also helping you extend your students’ learning beyond the four walls of your classroom.

Challenge #1:  There is never enough time.

I remember thinking when I first started teaching, “Wait, so you are telling me that I’m supposed to teach a target structure, provide opportunities for controlled and free practice, offer correction, develop students’ higher order cognitive skills, AND assess progress in a few short hours a week?”  It never feels like there is enough time! Even though we know that students need time to practice the target language in class, it often seems that the time we spend teaching it far outweighs the time students actually spend using it.

One way of overcoming this challenge is to flip the classroom using skills or instructional videos, which present the learning points in easy-to-understand ways.  Students can watch a video at home and then come to class ready with questions about the skill, and, even more importantly, prepared to use it to interact.  With the instructional portion of the lesson completed before class, students will have more time to do meaningful practice and generate authentic language in the classroom.

You may be thinking, “This is a great idea, but what about those students who don’t watch the video at home?”  One of my colleagues ran into this very problem when she flipped her classroom, and she came up with an ingenious solution.  By assigning short quizzes that test the students not only on the content of the video but also on facts that only someone who watched the video would know (like what color the bird in the example was, or which mountain the video referred to), she holds her students accountable for doing the work before class.

Challenge #2:  My students are at different levels.

Even under the best circumstances— for example, a multi-level program that carefully pre-tests students to ensure accurate placement— teachers are faced with a range of abilities in a class.  Not all students will understand new concepts at the same pace, and some students will need more help than others.  If you’ve ever found yourself holding up a lesson to answer the questions of one or two students while the rest of the class yawns and looks out the window, you’re familiar with this problem.

So, how can videos help?  I have found it very useful to assign instructional videos to my struggling students as extra homework.  Videos are extra helpful for weaker learners because, unlike a classroom lecture in which the information is delivered according to the teacher’s pace, videos enable students to rewind and re-watch any parts they don’t understand.  They can also watch the material again and again at spaced intervals, which helps with retention.  This gives students control over the information, and how empowering is that?

Challenge #3:  My students aren’t autonomous learners.

You might find that, although your students memorize information really well, they haven’t necessarily become independent learners.  They still expect the instructor to be the conveyor of all new information while they sit and passively receive it.  While this is a very relaxing view of learning, it’s simply not the way language is acquired.  Students have to assume responsibility for their own linguistic development and seek out learning opportunities beyond the walls of the classroom.

This can be a difficult skill to develop in learners, especially if they went to school in cultures where this kind of autonomy is not typically fostered.  Giving students access to videos that align with the course content is one way of scaffolding this process for them.  With some encouragement, they may choose to watch the videos if they don’t understand a concept completely or if they do poorly on an assessment.  They might choose to watch the videos in preparation for upcoming lessons.  They might watch some of the videos, but not all of them.  All of these decisions help students to become more independent learners, and that benefits their linguistic development.

Challenge #4:  Finding the right video content is a headache.

If you’ve spent hours online searching for the perfect video, you know how difficult it can be to find appropriate material to enrich your class. YouTube contains a plethora of videos to comb through, but finding one that matches the content of your class and is also high-quality, easy-to-understand, and engaging can take hours and hours.

When making decisions about new course adoptions, it’s always a good idea to consider whether the supporting materials will enable you to extend your students learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. Textbooks which are accompanied by videos that align with the course content can benefit your students, your lessons, AND save you time.

That’s why I was really excited when I heard that new, free Skills Videos for every unit of Q: Skills for Success were being added to the student and teacher resources available on iQ Online. These videos, as in the example here, were developed specifically to complement the curriculum of Q: Skills for Success and will be an invaluable resource for teachers and students who use Q: in and out of the classroom. Skills Videos save time. The work’s been done for me.  The only question left is to figure out how I am going to spend the extra free time!

 

Having access to high-quality videos won’t solve all of your teaching problems, but it will go a long way in addressing these four common challenges we all face in our classrooms.  Content aligned videos have been a great resource for me and my students.  Do you use videos in your lessons?  Do you find that they solve any other classroom problems? Please tell us about it in the comments below.

Get a sneak peek at the exciting free resources being made available for Q: Skills for Success from August, including new Skills Videos and a new Extensive Reading program.


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Motivational Teaching in the English language classroom

Nick Thorner, author of the professional development title ‘Motivational Teaching‘ in the Into The Classroom series, explores some of the issues that cause low motivation among students and methods to overcome them. 

Few issues in education are as troubling as low student motivation. It leaves countless individuals unable to achieve their potential, and many teachers feeling demoralised. But perhaps more serious than low motivation is the lack of understanding we have of its causes, which can be complex and deep-seated. If we can’t understand our students’ lack of commitment, it’s difficult to identify strategies to deal with it and easy to blame individuals. And if students themselves feel puzzled by their apathy, they can become very frustrated. The effect can be a classroom atmosphere of resentment and mistrust.

That’s why I believe we cannot deal with the issue of low learner motivation unless we explore its causes. So we’ll begin our discussion by looking into some of the latest research on the psychology of motivation, and understand how our brains respond to the prospects of rewards, sanctions, and perceived threats. This will then lead us towards three clear approaches for raising motivation.

  1. Increasing task commitment

How often have you set students’ homework in the dying moments of lessons as they pack away their things? All too often, time pressure leaves us setting learning tasks quickly, without much thought to learner motivation. Yet there is so much we can do to help students increase their  commitment to tasks, for example:

  • Explain the reasons for the task to help students value it more.
  • Discuss stages of the task in the lesson so learners can visualise doing it.
  • Get students to decide when they’ll do the task to make procrastination less likely.

The image below shows what a task designed with motivation in mind might look like on paper. We’ll be explaining some of the other features shown below in the webinar. Presenting tasks in this way may seem a lot of work, but getting learners to engage fully with one task can help improve their self-image as learners more generally and build motivation.

  1. Breaking down barriers

No matter how attractive we try to make learning experiences, there is often deep resistance to learning on the part of our students. It’s important that we understand the psychological barriers that can stand in the way of engagement with learning behaviour. These can include:

  • low expectations of learning outcomes
  • negative associations connected with study
  • images of themselves that don’t sit comfortably with study

These psychological barriers are often firmly entrenched, but we can slowly wear them down in the way we speak with students and through exercises that help students connect learning with their own personal values and ambitions. An example might be producing a real vlog that they can post online, or doing visualisation exercises to help them imagine the life they might enjoy as proficient users of English.

  1. Creating reward-rich experiences

Finally, we all know that if we make lessons fun and interesting we can help motivate our learners. This is because memories of enjoyable learning experiences help students to predict rewarding outcomes. But labels like fun and interesting are a little too vague to be useful: in fact, there are lots of specific ways to make learning seem rewarding. So, we’ll finish our discussion by considering how we can fill learning experiences with psychological rewards, from novelty and sensory stimulation to play and revelation, and see why techniques like back-chaining can transform classroom experiences.

I hope, like me, you believe that motivational teaching is not about following general principles, but about practical day-to-day steps we can take as teachers. And by increasing our understanding of the factors that lie behind motivation, we can start discussing it honestly with students and create trusting classroom relationships.

For more information, read the Q&As from the webinar


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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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Giving children more agency in class: A Q&A session with Annamaria Pinter

shutterstock_309235367Annamaria Pinter is Associate Professor at the Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick. She has published widely in the area of Young Learners ELT. She is the author of Teaching Young Language Learners (2017, second edition). Earlier this month, she delivered a webinar on ‘Giving children more agency in class’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

What do you think about the use of the mother tongue versus the use of the L2 in activities where children work in groups and actively explore something, analyse data or discuss ideas?

My general advice would be that the most important first step is that everyone should be engaged and enthusiastic about participation whatever language they are using. Then, in any one situation the teacher can judge what might be realistic for the children to say and manage in L2 and what has to be handled in the L1 or indeed bilingually or using various languages that learners speak in multilingual classrooms. It is often possible for the teacher to translate into English something that a child may have said in L1 and even more importantly, children may also be able to help each other with re-phrasing things in English. No matter what the situation is, however, it is good to insist that the final product (such as a poster, a newspaper magazine page, a recorded presentation, a questionnaire or any other product) should be in English. It is good to display these products by uploading them to a secure website or simply putting them up on the wall because making these available to external audiences this will help motivate children to work hard on their English.

How can I allow children to choose learning content within a restrictive curriculum?

This is difficult. With serious restrictions, teachers can only make very small changes.  It may be possible for some teachers to look at content and learning outcomes and see if the children can at least have some limited agency by choosing tasks (albeit very similar ones) or by being invited to design an extra task in each unit, or simply choosing the order in which they would like to tackle units in the book. If no freedom or agency is given to the teacher in a very restrictive curriculum, then it is hard to implement the ideas from the webinar. Still, some teachers in India were able to do extra work with the children outside classrooms and some allocated only a limited amount of time to research project work every week after covering the content of the book. Children were motivated to get the book out of the way to be able to progress to the ‘real projects’.

What do we do if we feel that the children’s ideas or input is not relevant or useful?

In my experience this is very rare and an important lesson for us teachers is that whenever children say or suggest something that seems unusual or at first sight irrelevant, it should never be just dismissed as such. It should always be explored further so that we can gain a better understanding of the original idea or point. It may well be relevant but in a different way compared to what we would have anticipated. In my experience children really appreciate this gesture of respecting ALL their responses.

What does this mean for the teacher’s role?

Teachers generally report that this is a more satisfying way of working, they feel alive and more enthusiastic about their jobs and the children’s motivation and intensive engagement seem infectious. In many ways when children take more control and teachers become ‘learners’, there is less pressure on the teacher to get everything right alone, but it is important to remember that teachers are also role models. If children are researchers and expected to work hard and enthusiastically, teachers must be doing the same!!

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.