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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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Linking Your Classroom to The Wider World

shutterstock_247739401In this blog, Patrick Jackson shares his experiences of learning as a child.  His insights illustrate some important elements of engagement and motivation that often get overlooked in the day-to-day busy classroom and curriculum.

What do you remember from your school days? Forty years on, I can remember:

  • Some of the faces
  • Many of the feelings
  • Much of the fun
  • Very few of the facts
  • The times the wider world came into our classroom
  • The times we weren’t actually at school

As a teacher, I’ve learned to incorporate those early memories of school into my own teaching. I’d like to share some of those lessons learnt with you.

Lesson #1: Exploit opportunities that you can build a lesson around.

My first experience of education took place in a wonderful Montessori school that occupied a room in a local racecourse. In return for allowing the school to use the room, the students had to pick up the litter on a Monday morning after race meetings. We loved collecting the colorfully numbered betting tickets that littered the ground. One day, a student found a pound note. That led to a discussion as to what should be done with it. In the end, half went to charity and half to a bag of sweets for the whole class. I’m sure that this early experience led to my lifelong interest in litter picking although you won’t find many pound notes these days. I can’t remember much of what happened in the classroom but I do remember how much we’d look forward to those Monday mornings

Lesson #2: Bring the outside world into your classroom

The clearest memories are of the days when we escaped from the classroom or when the wider world came to see us. We had a teacher who brought his Labrador to school every day. It would sit under his desk. One morning, a pigeon flew through the open window and flew around and around, to be eventually caught and released accompanied by much barking and excitement. There was the day we received a package from a school on the other side of the world. It was full of stickers and interesting snacks. We were fascinated. There were the happy days when a visiting speaker would come and talk to us about something wonderful and different and new. Those were the best days. When something different and new happened.

Lesson #3: Take your class out into the world

Then there were the delicious days we spent away from school – the trips off campus. There was the day we went to Stratford Upon Avon and the theatre had to be evacuated because of a smoke alarm (nothing to do with us, promise). There were museum trips where invariably somebody would get lost and we’d all have to wait for them to turn up at the meeting point. There were nature field trips, and visits to the local old folks home where we would sing the residents Puff the Magic Dragon and songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Most heavenly of all was the annual three-day trip to an outdoor activity centre where we would rediscover our true calling as children – to get wet, dirty and exhausted. Outside.

Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to go off topic

In the classroom, more than any syllabus or curriculum, I remember the red herrings. By that I don’t mean smoked fish. I mean the times when we could distract our teachers to tell us all about their favorite things – those lovely moments when they would drift far away from the task in hand and enthuse about their own interests. Those were the teachers we loved the most and the teachers I can remember now. There was a Mr. Green who supported Derby County Football Club and would always tell us in detail about the previous weekend’s match. There was a Mr. Sanderson who loved Motown and could never resist playing us one or two of his favorite tracks. There was a teacher of some forgotten subject who had a collection of ceramic owls in her classroom. It wouldn’t take much to get those teachers started talking about their pet passions and a good red herring could last to the end of the lesson.

Lesson #5: Share your passions

There was a history teacher who came into class one day with a silver spoon. He held up this spoon for the class to look at. It was an antique Georgian Irish Silver ladle. He started to talk about it, full of enthusiasm. I am ashamed to say that my friends and I sniggered at the back of the class. But the more he spoke about his spoon, the more we became engaged. He told us about how the spoon had been passed down through his family. He enthused about the design of the spoon, about the elegant curve of the handle, about the process of making a spoon like that two hundred years ago. He passed the spoon around the class so that we could all see the little silver marks on the underside of the handle. He taught us how we could identify the maker, the date and the place where the spoon had been made. He spoke of the type of home that this spoon was used in in Georgian times. I can’t remember the rest of that lesson. To be honest, I can’t really remember the teacher that well but I can remember his spoon.

I am very pleased to invite you to join my webinar this month. Together, we will look at some ways in which all teachers can create links between the classroom and the wider world. By opening up to our students and opening the doors, windows and hearts of our classrooms, we can become more memorable and more effective teachers.

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Rigor, Relevance, and Respect for Beginning Adult English Learners

oup_58388-1Oxford Picture Dictionary Author, Jayme Adelson-Goldstein, shares tips for laying the foundation of college and career readiness skills in beginning level adult instruction.  

The Relevance of Rigor

 “I think the next century will be the century of complexity.”

Stephen Hawking, January 23, 2000.

Stephen certainly called it. Coping with complexity is integral to our success as learners, workers, parents, caregivers, engaged citizens, and community members. If the tasks, texts, and technology we navigate in the 21st century can be challenging and even maddening for the fluent English speaker, imagine the situation of the adult English learner! Given the limited amount of time most adult learners have for language learning and the time needed to learn English, it makes sense to help learners develop strategies they need to tackle complexity right from the start. With this in mind, U.S. instructors are looking at ways to introduce their adult beginners to:

– reading tactics and foundational vocabulary they’ll need to navigate training materials, websites, textbooks, their children’s school documents, etc.

– listening strategies to help them “get the message” whether it’s delivered from a lectern or at a staff meeting

– a professional (or academic) register that supports discourse in any context

– writing frames to insure learners can convey their thoughts in a variety of formats.

In my work with teachers across the U.S., I’ve experienced an understandable pushback when I speak about introducing text complexity and language strategies in beginning-level classrooms. There are concerns that lessons won’t match the needs of learners at this level, some of whom have little or no prior education, or whose goals do not include career training or college courses. It’s not difficult to imagine why some would say that rigorous instruction is not appropriate until the high-intermediate level or later. It’s absolutely true that, as our beginning learners engage with more rigorous instruction, they’re likely to struggle —but it’s a good struggle. (Dweck, 2007) In fact, mind, brain and education (MBE) research has shown that our brains learn more when we make mistakes. (Moser, et.al., 2011) If we provide the good struggle (sans extreme frustration) within a safe and supportive environment, learners know they have permission to risk, fail, and try again. Safe and supportive means scaffolding instruction: breaking a task down step‐by‐step, demonstrating learning strategies, providing practice with models, using sentence frames, posting word lists, supplying reference materials, etc.

The three examples below, show how, with scaffolds in place, learners with limited language proficiency can tackle complexity and enjoy the process. 

1. Pictures with a Purpose

Visuals can serve as the basis for rigorous learning tasks that simultaneously support and enhance learners’ comprehension. Learners can focus on how best to express the information they see and already understand. Through the teacher’s text-dependent questions, learners can then dive deeper into the visual to make inferences, explore points of view within the picture and look at features in the image that give additional clues to meaning. In this way, the images serve as an “on ramp” to navigating text complexity.

blog2blog3 Sample questions a teacher might ask:

  • Is this a restaurant? (Y/N)
  • This is Ben Lu’s home. Point to Ben. (nonverbal response)   
  • Is the food from a restaurant or Ben’s kitchen? (Why do you say that?)
  • What type of event is this? How do you know? 
  • What do you see in the picture? 
  • What does the woman in red say to the woman in pink? Who is she? How do you know? What is the woman in pink thinking? 
  • What are the children doing? Which children are misbehaving? Explain.  Etc. 

2. Charts that Challenge

We can also use charts with pictures and classroom tasks to increase the level of rigor. Learners can work together to chart the information they see in a picture. For example, in the picture above, learners could chart the ages and gender of people at the party and use a language frame to describe their chart.

blog-1_bar-graph                   blog-1_pie-chart

‘Based on our observations, the young adult group is the largest at the reunion.’ 

‘According to our calculations, there are 54% more females than males at the reunion.’

Using this same picture, learners could use a plus/minus/ interesting chart to brainstorm what’s good, bad, and or interesting about having a large group of people in your home.  As learners respond, the teacher can guide them to the picture to support their “claims.”

Sample exchange

T: What’s good about having a party in your home?   

S: Food. 

T: What about the food? 

S: People with food. 

T: People bring food?

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-10-19-53

Learners could also survey teammates based on the picture topic; e.g. Do you like small parties or large parties? Once they have their data, they can chart it and share the results:  Based on a survey of ___ students, we found that ____% prefer large parties to small parties.

DIRECTED DISCUSSIONS

Sentence frames (like the ones shown above) are an effective tool to help all learners practice using an academic or professional register to express their ideas. Beginners can engage in academic discourse with teacher support. First, prompt teams or the whole class to reflect on a situation within the picture, then provide sentence frames for their responses.

blog-1_page-45_little-boyFor example,

PROMPT: Imagine you are at the party and you see this little boy. 

                 What do you do? What do you say?    

FRAMES:  In this situation, I would talk to him and say….

I would speak to his parents and say…

I would do nothing because….

Practice various responses using the frames and then direct learners to take turns expressing their ideas in teams, using the frames you’ve provided. Be sure to give learners examples of the language to agree or disagree, so that they can respond to their teammates.  And don’t forget to set a time limit!

Treating visuals as complex text, giving learners opportunities to chart or graph information, and using sentence frames to practice a professional or academic register are just a few ways we can infuse rigor in beginning level instruction, demonstrating our respect for our learners’ abilities and insuring relevance in the century of complexity.

Join me for a live webinar on October 14 to further explore how visuals and scaffolded tasks can launch our beginning learners towards their educational career and civic goals.

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Citations 

Chui, G. (2000, January 23). ‘UNIFIED THEORY’ IS GETTING CLOSER, HAWKING PREDICTS. San Jose Mercury News, p. 29A.

Boaler, J. (n.d.). Mistakes Grow Your Brain [Web log post]. Retrieved September 24, 2016, from https://www.youcubed.org/think-it-up/mistakes-grow-brain/

Dweck, C. (n.d.). Carol Dweck on Struggle . Retrieved September 24, 2016, from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/embracing-struggle-exl

Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H. (2011). Mind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science, 0956797611419520.


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How can I motivate unmotivated students?

IGS-00181940-001Ken Wilson is the author of Smart Choice and in all has written more than 30 ELT titles. We asked teachers from around the world who have been using Smart Choice what one question they would like to ask Ken. He will answer three of these questions in a series of video blogs this month.

For both teachers and students, a very large class can be difficult in terms of motivation and in terms of multi-level instruction. In this video blog Ken will answer two questions to overcome these challenges: “How can I motivate unmotivated students?” and “how can we adapt Smart Choice for different class sizes and classes with students of varying levels?”

Ken suggests techniques to increase student curiosity in class in order to engage learners with simple tasks, such as reading a text. He explains how teachers can devolve student responsibility to empower higher-level students to help other students.

 

 

References:

Wilson, Ken (2012). Motivating the unmotivated.

Oxford University Press (2016). Smart Choice Third Edition.


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How can I use print course books in blended learning classes?

shutterstock_274481441Ken Wilson is the author of Smart Choice and in all has written more than 30 ELT titles. His first ELT publication was a collection of songs called Mister Monday, which was released when he was 23, making him at the time the youngest-ever published ELT author.

We asked teachers from around the world who have been using Smart Choice what one question they would like to ask Ken. He will answer three of these questions in a series of video blogs this month.

Today, Ken discusses the best ways to use a course book like Smart Choice in blended learning classes. Blended learning is a term increasingly used to describe traditional classroom tuition mixed with self-guided online learning. How can teachers integrate blended learning in to the classroom using a course book like Smart Choice? Ken suggests practical techniques – such as lesson flipping – and shares examples to demonstrate blended learning in practice.

What are the best ways to use Smart Choice in blended learning classes?


References:

Harrison, Laurie (2013). The Flipped Classroom in ELT.

Oxford University Press (2016). Smart Choice Third Edition.