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Teaching and learning in the face of conflict

After over two years of bouncing from one COVID-19 variant to another, the conflict in Ukraine has put people on the edge and has left many across the world feeling stressed and anxious. The global pandemic has already had a devastating toll on mental health, and the news of the war has only compounded pre-existing feelings of fear and uncertainty, increasing anxiety.

People removed from the conflict may be wondering why their mental health is suffering as a result of the news and images they’re seeing. Part of this can be explained by the fact that our brains are designed to scan for threats to protect us from potential danger. This can lead to an almost unstoppable, constant scouring of the news to help us prepare for the worst – a phenomenon many might know better as “doom scrolling”.

The physical effects of anxiety

Wars obviously alter the psychological health of populations directly exposed to violence. As a result, people suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. According to a report prepared by The World Health Organisation (WHO), the outbreak of war in Ukraine has affected us all and will affect us for a long time to come. It is understandable to feel different feelings, worries and fears. Fear is a natural feeling that warns people of dangers and threats (Jüttemann, 2013). The feeling of anxiety alerts the body and is subject to a normal stress reaction, which increases the adrenaline excretion. Humans weigh the danger of a situation and assess options for action to be able to take appropriate defensive measures. These typically consist of reactions such as flight, waiting or attack. There are physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety which can cause panic attacks. The physical manifestations of anxiety can include the following:  breathlessness, feelings of panic, chest pain, an increased or irregular heart rate, stomach-ache, indigestion, headache, insomnia and many more. Anxiety can cause psychological dissociative disorders, such as depersonalization and emotional hibernation – the experience of feeling unreal, detached, and often, unable to feel emotion.

Compared to the dramatic events in Ukraine, the state of mind of people living in different countries seem quite minor and it is difficult not to feel guilty when our daily lives remain unchanged. However, it can cause a very dangerous syndrome called a syndrome of the privileged, which often leads to neglecting ones’ own needs and not taking care of one’s own resources. Being trapped by guilt also prevents us from acting.

The war in Ukraine is having a devastating impact on families and especially children of different ages. People are desperate for safety, so many of them managed to flee and there are increasingly more Ukrainian students in different schools across Europe.

Teachers need to know how to behave in this crisis situation, how to support the students who have suddenly appeared in the classroom and how to integrate them with the group. It is not an easy task as each student is different, has a different situation and teachers must show empathy, pedagogical intuition and tact.

What can you do as a teacher?

It is worth thinking how to communicate in the classroom without using words, as some Ukrainian students may have trouble understanding both you as their teacher and their new peers. It is good to rely on non-verbal communication strategies first, such as drawing or mime. Here are more ideas:

  • You may ask your students to share and discuss a colour, a symbol or an image that represents how they are feeling.
  • Students can mime what they feel using cards or gestures.
  • You can create a ‘box of fears’ where everybody can put a slip of paper with written or drawn fear they may be experiencing.
  • You can use picture and story books to help children understand relevant concepts and to think about their treatment of others.
  • You can do process drama using metaphors and symbols to talk about difficult issues
  • You can make a gratitude jar where students and teachers can insert sentences expressing what they are grateful for (little things which they experience every day)

Providing a safe haven

It is important to find time to listen when a child wants to talk without pushing it. Sometimes pupils will not want to talk – they might be in a hibernation state or they may have coped with the stress and do not want to come back to it. Avoid making assumptions about students’ experiences and let them know that you are available to talk, if needed. Building a ‘class contract’ with clear rules, which can be applied in crisis situations in the classroom can be useful. Try to be flexible and agile as much as possible. As with all difficult topics, teachers should be aware of the emotional impact the events have on students so they need to pay close attention to students who may have family members in conflict regions and who might be worried about how this crisis might impact them here. Teachers need to provide a safe venue for students to process, ask questions and be given context to understand current events as they happen. Noticing students’ strengths, their pride in their culture, their resilience, and the contributions they make to the school community seems to be also very beneficial.

Building emotional resilience

It is a very demanding situation for all of us and nobody, especially teachers will manage to handle the whole range of problems they have been facing without taking care of their own personal resources. In stressful situations we need a lot of good energy to support our system and our emotions. It is extremely important to learn how to build emotional resilience, sometimes called emotional agility which is the ability to bounce back emotionally from stressful situations. First of all, accept the feelings and thoughts that come up – all of them are important, even those difficult ones. Acceptance helps to deal with difficult matters. Avoid cognitive traps (mental errors) such as catastrophic thinking (expecting the worst possible outcome and believing you won’t cope with it as it occurs) or tunnelling (paying attention only to the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring all the positive.) Stop hanging in your thoughts, live in the moment, appreciate little things and control things you can control. It will give you a sense of agency.

It is essential to remember that there can be no helping others without self-care and self-compassion. Allow yourself to ask for help and believe in goodness.

Want to learn more? Watch the “Teaching and learning in the face of conflict” webinar recording.

 

References

Jüttemann, G. (2013). The Evolution of the Psyche in the History of Humanity (ed.). Lengerich: Pabst Science.

https://www.who.int/activities/ensuring-a-coordinated-and-effective-mental-health-response-in-emergencies

 


Alicja Gałązka is a Professor at the University of Silesia, a psychotherapist, psychologist, linguist, a licensed coach, and an international teacher trainer.

A President of ICI (International Coaching Institute) in Poland and a head of the Language Centre FUTURE in Poland, she is an author of over 300 articles published in Polish and English. She is also the creator of a Future Learning System language teaching methodology, based on cognitive and positive psychology and process drama.

An active member of IDEA, National Drama Association and IATEFL and co-author of
“Process drama for second language teaching and learning-a toolkit for developing language and life skills”, (Bloomsbury, 2021), her main interest is in psychology and drama in the ELT classroom.

Professor Gałązka is a coordinator and participant in many international projects, including two Special Interest Groups, Psychology in ELT and Drama in ELT in IATEFL, Poland. A regional adviser for Trinity College London in Poland, Alicja works across two main sectors: Medicine and Education. She actively works with teachers, school managers and pupils on developing their wellbeing and resilience.


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Six ways to boost classroom participation: Part Two – How to reduce anxiety


Close-up of frightened man with dramatic lightingThis is the second article of a six-part series on boosting classroom participation. Last week, Zarina took us through using peer observation to reflect on your teaching style. In this article, she considers a different challenge: what do you do about the nerves that can interfere with your students’ performance? This article aims to look at the presence of anxiety in our classrooms and what we can do to reduce it.

When a student gives an answer in a foreign language in front of their peers, anxiety is a reality that cannot be ignored. It directly interferes with the task in hand. It appears, almost gremlin-like; to want to disrupt the very activity or question the student has been asked to deal with. So what can be done? Here are some ideas.

Minimise the threat of direct questions

Be very careful about directing questions at specific students in front of a group. Before doing so, it’s usually better to allow learners to discuss their thoughts in groups or pairs. Don’t always ask your questions orally. You could give written questions to groups of students seated at different tables and get them to discuss their answers before they write them down. If the groups have different questions, you can rotate the students round the tables, so there is some movement in the class. Then, at the very end, the questions can be covered orally. Now everyone has had the chance to think and discuss answers before writing them down, it is not nearly as stressful to direct questions at particular individuals.

Create an atmosphere where errors become unimportant

Creating an atmosphere where errors become insignificant, and almost an expected part of the class, helps to lessen students’ fear. But how can we achieve this? Usually, if you introduce a competitive element to an activity, anxiety begins to take a back seat as students tend to focus more on winning points than on the stress of making mistakes. Why not devise a competition where students win points for correct answers, and there are no penalties for mistakes? Or, you could give one point for a reasonable answer and two points for a completely correct answer. This encourages greater participation, creates the mindset that there is (literally) nothing to lose, and reinforces the notion that fluency is more important than accuracy.

As teachers, we can also help by highlighting our own mistakes and making fun of them, so that errors are not seen as a terrible mark on what should be perfect language. When students make errors we need to ensure that we praise the very act of trying to provide a response in English. We need to nurture the idea that there is courage in risking losing face, but no actual loss of face.

Draw up some ‘House Rules’

Why not draw up a very explicit set of ‘House Rules’, and negotiate them with the class? For example, you could include things such as “Respect the opinions of others”; “Listen to others”. At the same time there need to be one or two rules that cannot be negotiated. For example, “No name calling”; “No laughing at the ideas of others” or “No ridiculing”.

Celebrate your students’ work

Displaying students’ work is another way of getting them to feel proud of their contributions. Why not put up poster presentations, flipcharts, or visual reminders of discussions? I have even used this technique on short courses and it is amazing how people respond to seeing their own work, handwriting and creativity in a public place. I find it also helps bonding within groups, with students praising one another’s efforts.

But what about the teacher?

Now let’s not forget the teacher in all of this. We suffer from stress and anxiety too, probably never more so than when we teach under observation. As we saw in part one of this series, observations between peers are extremely useful forms of reflective practice. Therefore, we need to consider ways of reducing the stressful side of this process.

As discussed, having a meeting before the observation can allay fears and ensure that the observer is going to comment on the things that you wish to receive feedback on. In addition, if you plan exactly how you are going to greet your students and introduce the lesson, it will reduce your anxiety at the start. A confident beginning will make you feel at home and relaxed with your students. Also, don’t ignore the person observing – make sure your students are aware of who they are and why they are there. It’s important your students understand that the observer is there to see how you teach, and not to comment on the performance of the class. This will lessen the anxiety of a ‘stranger’ being in the room and may encourage them to be sympathetic towards how you might be feeling. This all-round recognition of the situation will put everyone concerned at ease and you can then get on with ‘business as usual’. Remember that peer observation is a choice to help you, therefore there is nothing to lose. This also illustrates to your students that you are not afraid of making mistakes in front of your peers. A perfect way of teaching by example, don’t you think?!

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of Teaching Adults. To find out more about the newsletter and to sign up, click here. Next week’s blog post will be exploring how you can get more out of your students by keeping different learning styles in mind.


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7 tips for helping learners minimize anxiety in speaking

Man with hand over his mouthIn this post, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, looks at anxiety, an important affective factor in second-language learning.

“Picture your audience naked!” “Focus on listening, not on thinking about how you are going to respond!” “Take a few deep breaths!” “Just relax!” — Many students will tell you that these methods don’t work or that they are easier to recommend than to do!

As we know, some people are predisposed to feeling anxious about things (called trait anxiety), while others experience state anxiety in relation to some particular events or situations. Many learners may experience anxiety because of their perceived inability to adequately express their thoughts, or because they are afraid of being judged negatively or not being socially accepted. Anxiety, according to various researchers, can be debilitative (or some call it “harmful”) or facilitative (some call it “helpful”). The latter kind, as the term suggests, can benefit speaking performance, as indicated by numerous research studies (see Brown, 2007).

In this post, I’d like to share some strategies for dealing with state anxiety, which might occur, for example, when performing a speaking task in class or in real-life situations. This kind of anxiety might prevent students from enjoying practicing with peers, doing oral reports in class, or engaging in conversations with other English speakers (Woodrow, 2006). If you have students who seem to need some help in overcoming the kind of anxiety that does not require professional intervention, then you might consider sharing these strategies with them.

  1. Allow for planning, preparation, and practice time. Continue reading