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Class observation: beyond the obvious

Observing a class in actionKaren Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, returns with another post for Coordinators and Directors of Study, sharing her tips for observing teachers in class.

Observing teachers on your staff on a regular basis is one of the essential tools to ensure the quality of the service you offer to students. As a result, it is of paramount importance to utilise class observation in a sensible yet effective way in order to achieve not only the expected results, but also the professional and personal growth of the members of your team. It helps them feel valued and creates athe sense of belonging necessary for each individual to work to the utmost of their abilities.

When one starts observing lessons, the focus tends to be on the technicalities that we believe are the key elements of a good lesson: having a clear objective; giving instructions and checking understanding; eliciting responses from students; classroom management strategies; use of materials; TTT and STT (Teacher Talking Time and Student Talking Time) to mention just a few. However, my experience proves that there are some other underlying elements which can mean the difference between a lesson being a success or a complete failure. For example, the rapport the teacher establishes with the students, which can result in better engagement with the planned activities, with students participating actively and therefore acquiring the target language easily.

Other aspects of equal importance include whether the contexts and activities chosen are appropriate for both the level and age of the students, and the balance of activities and interaction patterns used. These will enable the teacher to deliver a lesson which caters for all learning styles, gives all students the opportunity to express their ideas and clarify any issues which may arise, as well as practise and reflect on the target language.

What tends to be overlooked is being flexible enough to recognise opportunities to share knowledge with students. Often students come up with questions, raise doubts or even point out mistakes – which gives rise to opportunities to explain things more clearly, to share your knowledge – but often these opportunities are ignored by teachers due to a desire to focus on set objectives for the lesson. In these situations, taking the time to explain things further leads to further learning and students leave the classroom with the feeling of having had an enjoyable time while learning about the language in a memorable way.

The pace of the lesson is also crucial. Too fast and some students may not be able to follow. Too slow and the stronger students quickly get bored. Striking a balance between allowing enough time for students to understand and actually incorporate new language items and keeping a dynamic pace which prevents dullness is the key to a successful lesson. Furthermore, activities should be linked with one another so that students see them as meaningful – we as teachers set objectives according to what we want students to learn, but we need to create contexts and link tasks in such a way that students feel there is a purpose to them and they provide a natural progression of learning.

Time management is vital as well. I have seen lessons where teachers had clear objectives and were just about able to meet them through the use of appropriate teaching techniques – eliciting when necessary, giving precise instructions, etc. – but by the end of the lesson students had learnt very little. Why? Because the teacher did not make the most of the time available. And this is imperative, since most EFL students are in contact with the target language only during their lessons, this being their only chance to listen to and practise it.

The same happens with the balance of activities and skills dealt with, as every student needs to have the chance to practise their speaking skills in every single class, considering this may be the only time they do so during the week. How can one learn a language if not given possibilities to use it? That is why STT should also be maximised.

Needless to say, all of the aforementioned points are intertwined and, one way or another, related to the role of the teacher. The teacher must be the facilitator of the lesson, always showing interest in the students’ learning and therefore closely monitoring and following what each student is doing and the difficulties they may be facing . Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that this should not be taken as spoon-feeding them, but as providing them with the necessary tools so as to gain autonomy and control over their own learning process.

It is achieving this seemless integration of facilitation and organisation which leads to a successful lesson, rather than merely applying solid teaching techniques.


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Got a minute? Learn how to manage your time effectively

Man checking his watchDo you find yourself running out of time during your working day? Karen Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, shares her tips for managing your time effectively.

I have never met a Coordinator or Director of Studies who had time to spare. Our duties seem to multiply every minute, but of course the time we have to tackle them does not. So how can we do so much in so little time? Here are some ideas you may find useful:

1. Prioritise

How many times have you found yourself immersed in tasks which are, of course, important but which could have waited for other more urgent matters to be resolved first? I have to admit that happens to me many times. Why? Sometimes because unconsciously I choose to deal with issues or tasks I enjoy before undertaking activities I find tedious or which require more time to be done. Some other times because of lack of proper planning or because urgent matters like solving an emergent problem or answering a phone call prevent me from getting the ‘actual work’ done. It’s therefore necessary for us to take a minute and consciously analyse our ‘to do lists’ to rank activities in order of importance and urgency so that we work on those which are both important and urgent first, then on those which are urgent and maybe not that important – just because of their unwanted consequences – and finally on those which are important but not that pressing – the ones actually linked to professional growth and personal objectives. If not dealt with in time, these can become urgent as well and can also lead us to become reactive instead of proactive, as we’ll only be focusing on what’s already imperative and not on creating new projects or coming up with new ideas.

More tips can also be found at: http://www.wikihow.com/Manage-Your-Time.

2. Delegate

I know how hard this is and sometimes we all get the feeling that nobody will do things the way we would, but let’s face it, we have an endless list of tasks waiting to be carried out and very scarce time, so it’s only logical to delegate those activities that someone else can do, be it administrative duties or paperwork, searching for information on a given topic, or correcting tests or mock exams. Keep only those tasks which require your knowledge and expertise for yourself – which are surely enough to keep you busy!

3. Plan as much as possible

Whenever possible, plan ahead in order to make the most of your time. Needless to say, there will be unexpected meetings, phone calls and so on and so forth, but the more organised your routine activities are the better you’ll be able to cope with these eventualities.

4. Don’t multitask

We tend to fall into this trap too often and reckon that if we do many things at once we’ll be more efficient and finish more in less time. Actually, it’s the total opposite. The amount of time required is exactly the same but we also run the risk of making far more mistakes due to not being properly focused on each task. Research has shown that multitasking can actually lead to our wasting 20-40% of our time, depending on what we’re trying to achieve. Multitasking prevents us from being ‘in flow’, i.e. fully focused on a particular thing. Being ‘in flow’ actually results in higher satisfaction levels and a higher chance of achieving goals faster.

5. Be organised

Disorganisation can only lead to wasting time. Think of how much time you spend looking for papers or files you cannot find or how you can forget about an important matter just because you forgot to write it down or you fail to find the piece of paper where you did! Organisation is key to management and can prevent disasters from happening.

6. Minimise distractions

It’s worth pointing out that by this I don’t mean breaks, as these are necessary from time to time in order to recharge our batteries and focus once again on what we are doing. Nobody can be focused for eight hours non-stop – and it’s not healthy either. What I mean by this is that, for example, if you leave your email programme open and visible all day, it’s highly plausible that you interrupt whatever you’re doing in order to answer emails – important or not – every time you receive one. It goes without saying that this can impact on the quality of the work being undertaken.

7. Set realistic goals for your day

If you have endless to-do lists that you’ll never tick off, you’ll always feel frustrated. It’s alright to have a long list of pending tasks, but it’s also a good idea to use daily lists which reflect what you can really tackle in a day. This will allow you to make the most of the time you have and tackle as much as possible since you can choose to work on different tasks depending on the periods of time available. Let me illustrate this with an example: say you start work at 8 and have a meeting at 9. Think of which tasks from your list you would be able to start and finish in an hour and deal with one of those. Do the same with every period you have and by the end of the day you will have taken care of many issues that otherwise would still be waiting on your list. Doing this will help you to set realistic goals for each day and therefore leave the office with the sense of achievement you deserve!

Do you have any tips to add?


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10 free apps for teachers to use for planning and classroom management

We know teachers can find it hard to make time to plan their lessons, or to manage their classes both in and out of the classroom, so Shaun Wilden has compiled a list of his top 10 free apps to help make your planning more productive and time-efficient. You may also find some of our apps for learning English useful.

Over the last year there has been a large growth in the number of apps aimed at educators. There are now apps that can do everything from helping you plan your lesson to helping you take attendance. Though your school might not yet be ready to move into a paperless world; given you are likely to be carrying your mobile device with you to and from school there are a number that can make your life easier.

The apps I have chosen are ones you can use with a class on your own device. While you might not want to use all of the apps suggested, I hope the ones I have chosen will provide you with some useful tools as well as whet your appetite to discover others for yourself. The apps have been chosen to highlight the range of possibilities for a teacher. Some, like ‘Too nNisy’ provide a simple classroom management tool while others, like the ‘Evernote’ and ‘Dropbox’ help you keep track of notes and plans by synching with your computer or cloud. Apps like ‘Skitch’ allow you to write on photos, while an app like ‘iBolt’ can be a life saver when you want to use an online video but find yourself in a classroom without a connection.

ClassDojo app iconClassDojo

Available on iOS and Android.

ClassDojo is a classroom tool designed to help teachers improve student behaviour. It is particularly effective in young learner classes and is, essentially, the 21st-century version of a reward system. A teacher sets up their class, giving each student an avatar. Using your mobile device you can easily reward student behaviour, task completion and homework.  ClassDojo allows you to save, analyse and print reports on the class.

Dropbox app iconDropbox

Available on iOS and Android.

Dropbox is an example of cloud-based storage. If you use dropbox then rather than have your documents scattered over many devices, you can store them online and access them anywhere. It is also a great way to share files, photos and so on with students.

Edmodo app iconEdmodo

Available on iOS and Android.

Edmodo is becoming increasingly popular with teachers who want to collaborate with their students outside of the classroom. Edmodo provides a secure network for teachers and their students to collaborate and share content. Though also accessible from a computer, the Edmodo app allows you to access the network from anywhere.

Evernote app iconEvernote

Available on iOS and Android.

Many teachers have turned to this app as an effective way to lesson plan.  It is a note taking app that allows you to create notes that include text, photos, video and audio. Once created, Evernote synchs the note between your devices and your computer.  This makes it ideal for a teacher to plan their lessons, create to-do-lists and even store copies of documents that can be accessed anywhere.

iBolt app iconiBolt Video Downloader & Manager

Available on iOS.

This app is the solution to no Wi-Fi in the classroom when wanting to watch a video online. Ibolt allows you to download a video from a webpage. It is easy to use; simply type the URL into the Ibolt browser and press the download link.

Screen Chomp app iconScreenchomp

Available on iOS.

Screenchomp is an example of a screen recorder. You can find a number of examples of screen recorders on iTunes and each teacher has their favourite. Screenchomp is made by the same people who created Jing. I prefer it as there is no need to create an account and after recording you are given a link to your recording, which you can share with your students.  By recording your screen you can create personalised tutorials for your students or video explanations of language points. Screen recording is popular at the moment due to the interest in the ‘flipped classroom’ approach to teaching.

Skitch app iconSkitch

Available on iOS and Android.

A stand-alone app that is part of the Evernote suite of tools. Skitch allows you to annotate photographs, charts and PDF. This makes the app useful for highlighting, explaining, and for creating language practice activities. For example, the students can use the app to illustrate both grammar and vocabulary.

TeacherKit app iconTeacherKit

Available on iOS.

TeacherKit is an app that covers most teachers’ classroom administration. TeacherKit manages everything from attendance records and grades through to seating charts. It also allows importing and exporting your files and synchs with dropbox. It’s an excellent way to keep track of all your students and reduce paperwork.

Too Noisy app iconToo Noisy

Available on iOS.

Too Noisy is an app to control noise levels in the classroom. Particularly affective for young learner classes, this app shows if there is too much noise. The app is simply a display of the noise level in a room. When there is a smiley face the levels are acceptable but if the noise becomes too loud the smile turned to a frown. However, in speaking activities, the teacher can encourage noise by asking the class to make sure the smile disappears.

Stop Go app iconStop Go! / Traffic Light Timer

Available on iOS and Android.

An app such as traffic light gives the teacher a different way to control and time activities. Setting the timer and the colour of lights shows to students if and how long they should be doing an activity. The red light is also useful for controlling when things can and can’t be used in the classroom. For example, putting the light on red when a student is not allowed to use their mobile phone. This can be particularly effective if the tablet is being projected.

Have you found other apps that have helped your lesson planning or classroom management? Let us know what they are in the comments below.


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Using the Teacher’s Book (Part 2)

teacher-holding-bookFollowing on from her first post, Why use a Teacher’s book? (Part 1), Julietta Schoenmann, a language teacher and teacher trainer with over twenty years experience, continues to explain the many uses of a teacher’s book.

You might agree with me when I say that one of the greatest challenges we face in our classrooms is managing mixed abilities. I’ve never met anyone who has claimed to have a totally homogenous class – at least, if they have they’ve kept it secret as everyone else would be incredibly jealous! Your course book will have carefully selected topics and activities that appeal to the majority of learners but no course book can fully cater to the needs of an individual class.

So what should we do? We need to have plenty of activities ready for students who finish a task ahead of the others; also for those who need additional practice with particularly tricky structures or lexis, over and above what the course book provides. A good teacher’s book will include extra activities for both these groups of students so you don’t have to waste precious minutes raiding the resource book shelves or spend ages trawling the internet for an additional grammar practice exercise.

Open a New English File teacher’s book on any page at random and you’ll find several examples of ‘extra challenge’ or ‘extra support’– perfect for those fast finishers or those who are struggling with new concepts. Here are the kinds of things you can ask students to do:

Let SS listen again with the tapescript on p 123. Deal with any problematic vocabulary (extra support)

Let SS role play with other symptoms and say if they are really allergic to anything, etc (extra challenge)

Let SS practise the dialogue first in pairs, both with books open (extra support)

Get SS to role play the conversation between Mark and Allie in pairs using the tapescript on p 123. Let SS read their parts first and then try to act it from memory (extra challenge)

(all taken from New English File Pre-Intermediate Teacher’s Book pages 96/97)

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Take time to teach negotiating

Close-up of a handshakeJohn Hughes, author of Business Result, returns with advice on the importance of negotiation skills and language for Business English learners.

A student of mine once failed to indicate on her needs analysis form that she was regularly involved in negotiating. I was surprised because I already knew that her work included dealing with customers on the phone in the supplies department. When I followed this up later on, it became apparent that she viewed negotiating as something only top executives did. As far as she was concerned, talking about prices and delivery times didn’t really count as negotiating.

Aside from demonstrating that needs analyses are never water-tight when it comes to terminology, this highlights that negotiating actually happens at all levels in a company and doesn’t only need to be in the boardroom. For example, it can be between two colleagues discussing a day off or a request to leave work early.

So, when starting a lesson where students will negotiate, it’s worth taking time to explore what students think a negotiation is and when they need the relevant language for their job. Then consider how formal or informal the key expressions might be that students need. Do they need to be able to say “I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can agree to that,” or will the more direct “Sorry, but no way” suffice!

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