Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


Leave a comment

Coping during the COVID-19: It starts with ABCDE but is up to U

Looking up at the treetops from the groundThe Oxford dictionary describes trauma as “an unpleasant experience that makes you feel upset and/or anxious”. For many of us, coping with teaching from home, often under lockdown conditions, against the backdrop of a global health crisis, is indeed traumatic. Yet, strangely, many educational institutions and we as teachers are often trying to carry on as if this is normal or as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary has happened. However, we need to allow ourselves ‘permission to feel’ (Brackett, 2019). We need time to process our emotions and recognise how traumatic much of this is for us as educators and for our learners. This does not mean dwelling on or feeding our negative emotions, but we need to acknowledge them and give ourselves the appropriate space to process these feelings.

If you feel especially fragile or are struggling to cope, you should reach out for professional support. These are trying times which are placing a strain on our mental wellbeing. Needing extra help from a professional mental health advisor could be a valuable support for many people just now.

So, while our first advice is to acknowledge the difficult feelings that people are experiencing, in this blog post, our main focus is on coping positively with the current situation and retaining a sense of meaning and growth in our professional lives. To outline our thinking and making it easier to remember, we have organised it around: A, B, C, D and E.

A is for Accept.

One of the things that can cause us stress is when things feel out of our control. During the current crisis, coping with the restrictions on our autonomy is sometimes difficult. However, there are many things that still lie within our control every second of every day. To help us maintain a sense of control, it can be helpful to accept those things we cannot change and just let them go. Instead, we can focus our energies on those things we can influence such as how we spend our time, what we choose to think about, how we interact with others, how much news we read, what kinds of activities we do, etc. To feel more empowered, we can simply accept those things we cannot change and direct our attention to those things that we can influence and take action on.

B is for Boundaries.

Working from home is a challenge in all kinds of ways. Most notably, it means that the boundaries between our personal and our professional lives are no longer clearly delineated physically or even in terms of time. As such, it is easy to lose any sense of balance between the different aspects of our lives. The overlap and spillover from our professional lives into our private sphere is acute. It means we have to make a more conscious effort than ever before to mark out time and space for our leisure, friends, family, and non-work lives. Try keeping a log of how you are spending your time and ensure you are setting aside time to do things that have nothing to do with work but which re-energise you. Seek to set boundaries between personal and professional realms of your life. It can help to set a schedule to create a structure to your day and it can be valuable to physically mark off space at home where no work is allowed to enter! Boundaries can help you to ensure a balance between the personal and the professional domains of your life.

C is for Connect.

Many have criticised the term ‘social distancing’ which is somewhat of a misnomer. We absolutely must ensure we physically distance ourselves to others but we need social connection more than ever before. In times of stress and anxiety, people gain strength from contact with others. It is a time to reach out to family, friends, and colleagues. It is good to keep up social habits online – maintaining existing social networks and perhaps creating new ones. For example, maybe your book club meets online, a choir you are in sings together online, a pub quiz you attend is brought into the digital world or you start a Netflix movie night party with friends. The social connection aspect also comes with somewhat of an inherent paradox when it comes to home life. While we may share our homes with people who are precious to us and their closeness can be a valuable form of support, we may also need a little space of our own as well. Ensure you and your partner are able to talk openly about your needs for both space and closeness – one does not rule the other out.

D is for Developing.

Teaching online is new for many of us. We find ourselves thrown into a new teaching situation overnight and are suddenly cast back into feeling like novice teachers worried about how to teach effectively. The good news is we are most certainly not alone and our students tend to be very forgiving. Firstly, we need to let go of perfectionism. Nobody expects you suddenly to be master of every online tool and button. Do as much as you can manage, lean into the chance to learn some new skills, and don’t be so self-critical. Remember all the brilliant things about yourself as a teacher – they are still all there. Build on your strengths, do the best you can in your own way, take it a day at a time, and be as kind to yourself about your learning curve with teaching online as you would be to a struggling pupil. We are continually developing as teachers, which is one of the joys of the job. Try to relish the growth without placing yourself under unrealistic pressures and expectations. You are doing enough.

E is for Engage.

Many of us gain great positivity from our teaching. Engaging with learners, designing new teaching materials and seeing our learners grow can be some of the greatest rewards in our profession. Those moments of positivity are still there and we must not lose sight of them so we can continue to draw strength from them as we always have. Yet, our identities as educators are only one part of who we are. We also need to deliberately engage with things in our lives beyond work which also give us joy and pleasure. It may be doing something creative such as writing, arts or crafts or doing some kind of hobby like maybe cooking, visiting museums/art galleries (online!), doing yoga, or reading. Engaging your mind fully into something you enjoy outside of work can help lift your spirits and free your mind for a while creating some mental breathing space.

There is no denying that these times are difficult for everyone, especially for educators, but we still have some control over how we choose to live our daily lives. We hope these ABCDE steps can contribute in some way towards helping you to maintain a positive balance and focus while working from home. Stay safe and well.

 

Do you want to discover more great strategies for nurturing and promoting your wellbeing? Read Teacher Wellbeing, by Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen – a practical guide for language teachers!

Find out more

 


Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT Methodology. She is co-author, with Tammy Gregersen, of Teacher Wellbeing, published by Oxford University Press. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience, and she has written and edited prize-winning books in this area. She is currently vice-president of the International Association for the Psychology of Language Learning (IAPLL) and serves as a consultant on several international projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP).

 

Tammy Gregersen is currently teaching and researching at the American University of Sharjah where she also coordinates their Masters in TESOL program. She has co-authored/co-edited several books, with three more in press, on topics such as individual differences, nonverbal communication, positive psychology in the language classroom and language teacher education.

Tammy has presented at conferences and taught in graduate programs across the globe which deems an incredible privilege because it taps into her passions for travelling and exploring new cultures.


1 Comment

Teacher Wellbeing: A SMART Approach | Sarah Mercer

teacher wellbeing

Teacher wellbeing is an essential ingredient for effective, creative, and motivating teaching. Yet, so many teachers neglect their own self-care, focusing their time and energy on other aspects of their professional practice. In this blog, I outline how we can all become a little ‘smarter’ about our wellbeing.  A ‘SMART’ teacher attends to their Self, Motivation, Activity, Relationships, and use of Time, in order to teach to the best of their abilities so that they can truly flourish as professionals. Let’s look at each facet of a ‘SMART’ approach to teacher wellbeing.

Self

SMART teachers understand the value of self-care, self-compassion, and placing the self in the centre of their agenda. Many educators are naturally orientated towards caring for others as is the nature of the profession. However, this focus outwards often means that their own ‘self’ needs can be overlooked and neglected. Yet, the saying, ‘you cannot pour from an empty cup’, serves as a warning of the perils of not attending to the self. If teachers want to teach to the best of their abilities, they need to ensure they are looking after themselves too so that they have energy and resources to draw on in their professional roles. Self-care is not an indulgent luxury; rather it is the foundation of good practice.

Motivation

SMART teachers are aware of their own motivation. Everybody’s motivation experiences peaks and troughs. The key is to recognise the dips and know what you need to do to help you regain your drive. Humans also have a natural tendency towards a negativity bias meaning we tend to focus on the negatives and sometimes lose sight of the positives. Our wellbeing and motivation can benefit when we deliberately take stock of the positives in our jobs on a daily basis.

At the end of the day, make a note of things you enjoyed, found rewarding, or are grateful for about your job. Looking at the positives is not about denying the negatives which you may still need to address; it is about maintaining a balanced focus. It can be motivating to remind ourselves of what we love about our jobs and perhaps, for some, reconnect with our original motivations for choosing this profession.

Active

SMART teachers appreciate the tight connections between physical and mental wellbeing and the benefits of being active in this regard. Our physical wellbeing centres around what is known as the ‘health triangle’, which involves sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Attending to these aspects of self is a prerequisite for being able to flourish at work. Everyone’s needs and capacities in this regard vary, and each person needs to find their own balance. However, the key is to consciously attend to our health triangle ensuring that quality sleep, healthy nutrition, and time for exercise are not pushed off our agendas by other seemingly more pressing demands. Nothing is more important than your health and recognising this is a critical first step. Human bodies are incredible machines but they also need good maintenance – make sure you look after your body as well as you look after your car, plants, or pets!

Relationships

SMART teachers know just how important relationships are for wellbeing. John Donne famously said, ‘no man is an island’. We are all embedded in a web of social relationships. In the workplace, our wellbeing is boosted through positive relationships with colleagues as well as with our learners. Among colleagues, a special friend at work to connect with and share work ideas with is particularly valuable. In our personal lives, family and friends represent a key source of strength and support. Investing in our social relationships means setting quality time aside to meet, and then savouring the time together without distractions. Making ‘date nights’ with partners and friends remains a great strategy to keep relationships healthy.

Time

SMART teachers have strategies for managing their time effectively. Good time management is not about being efficient so you work even more and even harder! Good time management is about finding ways to work effectively, so you can create more time in your schedule to engage in self-care, do exercise, be with family and friends, and spend time on hobbies and other aspects of life which refresh and motivate you. Being able to manage your time means knowing what needs to be done, keeping an overview of deadlines (long- and short-term), and understanding when you work best on what kinds of tasks. Check your priorities and organise your time accordingly – that includes making yourself and your relationships a priority fixed in your schedule like any other important appointment.

Teaching is a wonderful profession, which can be extremely rewarding and meaningful. However, the passion and dedication that many teachers exhibit often means that they neglect their own wellbeing. ‘SMART’ teachers know that making their wellbeing a priority is not selfish or something to feel guilty about. Instead, it is a recognition of personal worth and the fact that everyone – teachers and learners – benefit if teachers look after themselves and are wellbeing-SMART: Self, Motivation, Activity, Relationships, and Time.

 


 

Do you want to discover more great strategies for nurturing and promoting your wellbeing? Read Teacher Wellbeing, by Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen – a practical guide for language teachers!

 


 

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT Methodology. She is co-author, with Tammy Gregersen, of Teacher Wellbeing, published by Oxford University Press. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience, and she has written and edited prize-winning books in this area. She is currently vice-president of the International Association for the Psychology of Language Learning (IAPLL) and serves as a consultant on several international projects. In 2018, she was awarded the Robert C. Gardner Award for excellence in second language research by the International Association of Language and Social Psychology (IALSP).


1 Comment

Global Skills – Create Empowered 21st Century Learners

Global SkillsThe world is changing at a rapid pace and it is hard for educators to even imagine what kind of skills and competences their learners will need 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years from now. What is clear, however, is that traditional academic subjects alone will not be enough. Many curricula across the globe already include some form of life skills education. It has increasingly become the norm that many educators are expected to integrate the teaching of these skills into their subject teaching. Yet, the support and training educators receive varies widely. This is where we hope our Position Paper can help ELT teachers, in particular, to reflect on and find ways to teach global skills alongside their language aims in sustainable ways.

After having examined many diverse frameworks for global skills, we have distilled them into five clusters. These are:

  • Communication and collaboration
  • Creativity and critical thinking
  • Intercultural competence and citizenship
  • Emotional self-regulation and wellbeing
  • Digital literacies

How an ELT teacher approaches the teaching of these skills will depend on their own interests, competences, resources, and local curricular constraints. There is no one single way to approach this. We have proposed a range of teaching approaches stretching from single activities to extended projects. Each teacher will select ideas as suits them and their learners. Here are a few ideas to consider and if you would like to know more, please download our free Global Skills Position Paper.

1. Compare different media sources:

In the era of ‘fake news’, critical thinking skills are more important than ever! You can help older learners develop these skills as part of a longer activity, by asking them to analyse different news articles.

Choose a current topic in the news to discuss with your learners. Give them a newspaper article or a news bulletin on the topic and ask them to share their response with a partner. Then, with the class, examine the same story in different media sources. Ask them to consider the author, the intended audience, the emotions involved, and the strategies that are used to engage the reader.

Do you want to develop your students’ digital literacies at the same time? Ask your students to fact check one of the articles online, using more than one source of information. They should think about which source is the most reliable and which to trust.

2. Create digital reports:

Try asking your learners to create a digital report on a global issue like endangered animals or inequality! They should work in pairs, and use their mobile devices to video or audio record a short news report about the issue, describing the problem and offering suggested solutions. Learners can share these reports with each other online, and give each other comments and feedback. The project could also be extended, and you could ask learners to create a detailed proposal for solving the issue. This will help them think critically and learn to solve problems.

3. Ask open-ended questions:

Simply changing the style of your questions can help your learners develop their creativity and critical thinking skills. Open-ended questions encourage students to interpret and analyse information, helping them to practice these essential skills. You can easily integrate these questions into your everyday teaching by asking questions about classroom topics – or you could ask questions about important issues to help your students develop their citizenship skills. For example, you could ask older learners questions like:

  • What is the most serious environmental issue in our town/region/country?
  • What causes this issue? Who is responsible for it?
  • What can we, as individuals, do about it?

You could ask younger learners questions like:

  • How can we help look after our pets?
  • How can we care for the animals around us?

This kind of activity provides a good foundation for deeper work on critical thinking in longer activities. It also helps students to practice their language skills by encouraging them to respond in detail.

4. Encourage project work:

Project work is one of the best ways for learners to develop their global skills. By working in groups, setting their own agenda, and personalising their approach, learners feel more engaged and develop multiple skills at once.

One example involves asking students to design their own project to address a problem in their local or global community. Secondary school learners could design projects around:

  • Working locally with people in an elderly care home who need to improve their technological skills to connect with others
  • Organising a fundraiser or protest march to help prevent climate change

These examples will encourage older students to develop skills like communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Learners will also develop their citizenship and intercultural competence by investigating global issues and thinking about which groups of people need support. They will learn to think about their local and global communities, and learn how to address important issues.

Learners can also report on the project online to develop their digital literacies encourage others to engage in similar projects.

5. Start small:

Are you unsure how to begin teaching global skills like communication and collaboration? Try starting small! Every lesson, integrate a short language-learning activity that includes a focus on one of these global skills. Later, you can begin to integrate larger, more focused activities and sequences of tasks which allow for a more in-depth approach to developing the skills – including project work.

Do you want more great tips, including an exclusive Teachers’ Toolkit? Download our expert advice now!

Download the position paper

 


Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT Methodology. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience, and she has written and edited prize-winning books in this area.

Nicky Hockly is the Director of Pedagogy of The Consultants-E, an online training and development consultancy. She is a teacher, trainer, and educational technology consultant who works with teachers all over the world. Nicky writes regular columns on technology for EFL teachers in professional journals and has written several prizewinning methodology books.

Both Sarah and Nicky are lead authors of the position paper, Global Skills: Creating empowered 21st century learners.


2 Comments

Minds Matter: Psychology of language learning | Q&A

Psychology of language learning

Recently, I held three webinars for OUP focusing on the topic of learner psychology. I chose to concentrate on what I termed the 2Gs and 3Cs: Growth mindset and Grit; A sense of Competence, Control, and Connectedness. There were many fascinating questions that came up and I’m afraid time ran out to answer them all. Here I respond to a selection of the key questions related specifically to the talk and connected with each other.

  1. Do we need to address mindsets with adults?

I found this an interesting and important question for two reasons. Yes, we can and should still work on promoting a growth mindset in adults. There is increasing evidence for the plasticity of the brain throughout the lifetime and adults can also adapt, change and learn new skills as they age. However, that is not to say changing mindsets is easily done. As the other name for them, implicit theories, suggests, mindsets are deeply rooted beliefs and we may not always be conscious of them. To change the way we think, especially for those beliefs we may have held for a long time, takes reflection and patience. However, we know that beliefs can change, no matter what our age with awareness, will, practice, and concerted effort.

The second reason I think this question is important concerns its implications for our own mindsets as teachers. It is well known that people may claim to espouse certain beliefs but then their actions may reveal a different set of underlying beliefs. In other words, we may talk the right talk but perhaps don’t walk the corresponding walk! Our behaviours and language as teachers serve as critical models for the implicit messages we send to our learners. Therefore, our own mindsets are incredibly important, not only for our own learning and growth but also for supporting our learners in developing their own mindsets. We need to monitor how we talk about our own learning and abilities as well as those of our learners. Ideally, teachers need to hold a growth mindset about their language learning abilities but also about their pedagogical and didactic competences. We can improve our skills as language educators throughout our career. Growth mindsets about our teaching competences are the foundation of our own continuing professional development. We need to keep an eye on whether we are really walking the talk for our learners and ourselves?

  1. At what point should we create the ‘mistakes most welcome’ culture in our classes?

The culture of a class can be defining for the interpersonal relationships within it, not only between teacher and learners but also among the learners. Research asking learners if they are nervous about speaking in class found that it is not the teacher and their response that makes them nervous, but rather how their peers might respond. For that reason, I think it is vitally important from day 1 of the class to set the right tone helping students to connect as a group with a shared sense of identity, common guiding purpose, and sense of trust. It also means we have to ensure all our learners feel comfortable and confident to explore the language with each other within the group. Learning and growth can only take place when learners push their competences out of their comfort zones and risk making mistakes. As such, mistakes should be welcome in any class when they indicate that the learner is trying to make progress and when they are used as an opportunity to learn. The kind of ‘mistake culture’ we develop concerns how we respond to mistakes, how learners react to each other’s mistakes as well as how they feel about their own mistakes and what action we take in respect to learning from them. Essentially, we can help learners reframe how they think about and respond to mistakes in language use and learning. They can present a learning opportunity and be an outward sign of courageous, progress-oriented learning growth. To support this ‘mistakes most welcome’ culture, we can start on the very first day of class to foster positive group dynamics and develop a cohesive classroom community built on mutual trust and respect.

  1. How is a knowledge of learning strategies useful?

Assuming that learners hold a growth mindset and fundamentally believe that their abilities can improve, they also need other skills in order for that to translate into actual improvement. The beliefs form the foundation on which other dimensions of their psychology and behaviours are built. Having a growth mindset predisposes the learners to being more motivated – it means there is a purpose and potential benefit to investing time and effort in their learning. However, motivation and effort alone are still not enough. Learners also need to have strategic pathways of how they should reach their goals. They need to know how to learn so that their efforts are purposeful, goal-directed and ultimately effective for them as individuals. This suggests that we can support learners by working with them explicitly on their metacognitive knowledge about themselves as learners, as well as about the tasks involved in learning a language and the strategies one could use to approach those tasks. Having knowledge of strategies to manage and regulate learning is empowering for students and, ironically, can also strengthen growth mindsets by showing learners concrete pathways to progress. It actually helps learners to believe they can overcome obstacles and challenges by providing direction and ideas of how to do that. Having a growth mindset and metacognitive knowledge of learning strategies go hand in hand.


Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, ‘Psychology for Language Learning’.


13 Comments

Minds matter: Psychology of language learning

Psychology of language learning

‘It’s all in the mind!’ – How true when it comes to learning a foreign language. Every teacher knows that you can have the best resources in the world, but if the learner is not in the right frame of mind to engage with the new language and use the opportunities before them, then they are unlikely to do so. There are all kinds of reasons why a learner may put obstacles in their own way or simply avoid engaging, but many of these reasons often lie in how learners view themselves, their competences, and their relationship to the language, classroom, peers, and the teacher.

Our psychologies are complex, and care must be taken not to oversimplify, but I have chosen to focus on 5 key areas of learner psychology which I think can make a difference to learning and which we as language educators can work on developing. Introducing the two Gs and the three Cs!

Have they got Grit?

Firstly, learners need to have a Growth mindset and become Gritty about their language learning. It is a well-known adage that learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, progress is slow and incremental, and there can be many setbacks along the way. Language learners need to develop persistence and even in the face of challenges, be able to roll up their sleeves undeterred and tackle problem areas all over again with renewed vigour – that is grittiness.

Learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint.

Growth Mindset

To have grit, language learners first need to have a growth mindset. This is when they believe that their abilities in learning a language are not fixed but can be developed. Not all learners will reach the same level of proficiency, but with the right kind of effort, strategies, and investment of time and will, every learner can improve. However, if a learner holds a fixed mindset, believing that language learning competences stem primarily from a fixed ability, then they are more likely to give up easily, and in some cases not even try to succeed. These learners feel helpless, believing there is little they can do to improve or overcome difficulties. In contrast, those with a growth mindset are typically willing to put in the effort to improve and explore a range of possible pathways to proficiency.

With a growth mindset, learners believe that their abilities can be developed.

What are the 3 Cs?

In terms of the three 3 Cs, learners need to feel a sense of Competence, Control, and Connectedness.

Competence

Learners need a sense of ‘I can’ in respect to learning a language. Much of this can stem from their mindset; however, they also need to feel that they are personally able to manage and cope with learning a language.

Control

A key part of that feeling can be generated when learners are empowered with a sense of control. Learners benefit from being able to intentionally and proactively select and initiate approaches to learning where possible in their contexts. A sense of control also concerns how learners explain their perceived successes and failures to themselves and others. Do they attribute these outcomes to factors within their control or to external factors beyond their control? With internal attributions, learners are likely to be motivated and willing to expend effort on learning, knowing that they can make a difference.

Connectedness

The third C refers to learners feeling connected not only to their teachers, but also their peers, their institution, and the language per se. When learners feel they belong in a group or institution and when they feel cared for as people and in terms of their learning progress, they are much more likely to engage and be active in their own learning. However, learners also need to build a personal connection to the language itself. Even if they feel competent and able, without a compelling reason to engage with the language, they might not bother! Help your learner’s to find a purpose, why are they learning a language and what value could it have for them and their future lives – be that in terms of relevance, importance, utility, and/or interest.


 

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, ‘Psychology for Language Learning’.