Things I would tell my newly qualified self

There’ve been a host a posts recently responding to Joanna Malefaki’s #Youngerteacherself challenge. And here’s mine.

My career as an English teacher began with an initial training course; Trinity College’s TESOL Certificate. But I’m (now, at least) under no illusion that such an initial training course can teach new teachers everything they will need to know about the profession. In fact, I tend to view such training as similar to learning to drive. In your lessons, you are shown the basics of how to move a car safely along a road, and you (have to) faithfully follow these instructions in order to pass your test and get a driving licence to be able to drive all on your own! There’s no way that your driving lessons will expose you to every possible situation that can occur in traffic (even if, like me, you learn to drive in London!). And so once you’ve got your licence, you go off and drive on your own, and the driving experience you gain over the years becomes much more valuable than your driving lessons. You also come to understand  which of the basic instructions are ‘golden rules’ and which you can adapt to your own driving situation (who really puts the hand brake on at every red light in London?!). This is just like teaching. Having completed an initial training course, you’re “licensed” to drive a class safely along the textbook road. But years of experience will teach you much more than the initial training ever could.

It’s been ten years since I completed my Trinity Cert. TESOL, in which time I’ve taught in an array of settings: one-to-one, exam preparation, secondary schools, private langauge schools, summer schools, business colleges, and university. So what have I learnt? Well, that I love teaching! And that the best way to go about teaching many of the classes I have faced has only very little to how I was taught to teach 10 years ago. Here’s my sprinkling of wisdom; I hope that newly qualified teachers will find inspiration in this post, and that more experience teachers may find comfort in knowing they are not alone in having further developed their teaching from their CELTA (or similar) ‘driving’ lessons!

1) Explicit Grammar Teaching is OK

For a long time, the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus, and my own training was focussed on Communicative Language Teaching, which has little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. Over the years, though, I’ve come to realise it’s what a lot of learners want, and actually benefit from (especially adults). And I admit, I’ve basically been doing it all along! A  little while ago, I attended an event hosted by ELTA Rhine where Michael Swan  and Catherine Walters held talks on explicit grammar teaching. Their conclusion? Why not?! (Phew!) Swan has published widely on this, but you can find my summary of Michael Swan’s talk here.

2) L1 Use and Translation are OK

Although I was trained that using students’ L1 was inappropriate for the ELT classroom, this standpoint has undergone something of a revival recently. And thank goodness, I say – what a relief to know that it is not a deadly sin to utter a word in a language other than English during our teaching!! I’ve been to several conference talks by people advocating, for example, quick translation of a vocabulary item into students’ L1 where this avoids distraction from the actual task and aids the flow of the lesson – and I have the impression that most teachers agree with this rationale. Teaching through translation has also had its reputation retrieved from the gutter – again a relief for me, since most universities in Germany include translation in their curricula. Indeed, a colleague and I worked on an action research project which she presented as “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” at the 2014 IATEFL Annual Conference, where we found that using translation to target specific interference errors can actually be an effective strategy! This is also argued by by Guy Cook in his book “Translation in Language Teaching” (2010). Of course, there are a number of caveats and conditions here, the most obvious being that translation can only be used if all learners speak the same L1 and the teacher can speak it too! Still, for me, this is a welcome deviation from the strict L2-only policy I was trained to employ!

3) Always plan the aims (of a course, lesson, activity)

ELT trainees are often required to include in their plans copious detail on aims, objectives, materials, activities, steps, predicted problems, background on the students and almost everything else that could possibly be relevant to the class and the lesson! In an article in The Teacher Trainer Journal (vol 28/2) from last year, I argue that considering the objectives of a course, lesson or activity in detail is not without reason trained so thoroughly on teacher training courses, as the skill is essential: the most important thing is for teachers to consider aims and objectives in lesson planning, even if we do not have the luxury of time to produce formally typed-up, step-by-step plans for each lesson. Having clear aims of our lesson and course provides the guiding map that leads us effectively through to the end of term – otherwise, we could end up teaching unconnected individual lessons that don’t move our students particularly far forward in their learning. By the way, note that I’m saying definitely plan the Aims. Be flexible with the rest of the lesson – sticking slavishly to lesson plans full of minutely timed activities will probably not be satisfying for anyone!

I’ve also learnt, through my own teaching and professional development, how useful it can be to inform our learners about the aims of lessons and activities. This increases motivation and receptivity to the material, class and teacher – discussed in more detail in my article in TTTJ. For some of my ideas and research on how to communicate the aims to your learners, please read another article I’ve recently published in ELTED (vol 17).

4) Learners are normal people, too

This sounds very simple, but is easily forgotten when you’re busy writing lesson plans for a group of learners who are (apparently) at a certain level, have certain aims, and require a certain number of credit points etc. for a course. But all of your students have a life outside of your classroom, where they are experiencing life’s ups and downs just like everyone else. A student is not only a body in your class; they may be a parent, carer, full- or part-time worker, a student of another subject, a husband/wife, and the list goes on…!

I was recently having a bit of a moan to my to a graduate tutor about how my classes are always so full, when colleagues still have spots free. What she said warmed my little heart, and made me regard my over-subscribed classes in a new light: apparently, students value that random chats I have with them about their own lives, their backgrounds, and basically anything they do when they’re not in my classroom. And I know all their names! This comes naturally to me, but until recently I didn’t realise how much students appreciated it! (In fact, I’d worried that they found it frustrating that I sometimes lose track of time [and the lesson!] whilst talking to them!) So my tip is: Don’t lose sight of the trees (individual students) for the woods!

And this also extends to other areas of teaching, such as accepting that some students simply don’t have time for homework, or can’t study for exams. Who’da thunk?! They have stuff going on in their private lives, too! (By the way, I’ve also noticed that treating each student as an individual with a real life beyond the classroom means they do the same for me, and are much more forgiving if I don’t manage to turn their assignments around as quickly as I’d like! Bonus! 🙂 )

5) You don’t have to correct every single mistake

I don’t think I need to write as much on this one – especially as there would be no way to concisely express all of the debates and publications in the area! (You can read it all for yourself – some references are below!) Suffice to say, you can be selective in targeting errors and devise an approach to correction that suits your teaching style and the different groups of learners that you face. For me, the most important thing is that you have made an informed judgement and decision about the best way to go about error correction. That doesn’t mean that you choose one method and stick to it forever – be open to professional development, even if it takes the basic form of chatting to colleagues! Then you can modify your error correction behaviour based on sound justifications, and not beat yourself up about having ‘missed’ certain errors your learners make.

6)You are a materials writer

Do you write your own worksheets and exercises for your classes? Then you are a materials writer! And the materials you produce are no less valuable than published materials! Especially as you have targeted your materials specifically to your students, their aims and abilities – something that published textbooks can never hope to do. Of course, it’s not a bad idea to use published materials, textbooks etc. for inspiration (especially to save you re-inventing the wheel!), but adapting these for your lessons or developing your own activities inspired by published works probably means your materials will be more beneficial for your learners. However, don’t get stuck on pretty formatting – I used to do this when I first qualified, which meant I was teaching from very professional-looking worksheets that distracted learners from the actual langauge learning aspect of the work! Another common mistake is spending hours making a worksheet activity that will only take students 5 minutes to complete and then not lead to any further practise/production. For some more tips on making worksheets, please see Adam Simpson’s blog post “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them.”

References

  • Cook, G., Translation in Language Teaching (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2010)
  • Ebbert, C. “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” Presentation at IATEFL Annual Conference, Harrogate, 2-5 April 2014.
  • Ferris, D.R. (2004). The “Grammar Correction” Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime . . .?). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49–62
  • Fielder, C., “Are detailed objectives really necessary in lesson planning?”, The Teacher Trainer Journal, Vol 28/2, May 2014, pp. 18-20.
  • Fielder, C., “(How) Should we inform learners of lesson and activity aims? An action research project conducted with young adults studying for an English Studies degree in a German university”, ELTED, vol 17 (2014), pp. 1-4. [available here: http://www.elted.net/issues/volume_17/index.htm ]
  • Simpson, A., “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them”, www.teachthemenglish.com, posted 22 Feb 2014. [http://www.teachthemenglish.com/2014/02/6-things-that-can-go-wrong-when-making-a-worksheet-and-how-to-avoid-them/]
  • Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Further Reading

  • My other blog posts 🙂
  • Johanna Malefaki’s original #Youngerteacherself post also provides links to other bloggers’ response to the challenge.
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5 thoughts on “Things I would tell my newly qualified self

  1. Hi Clare,

    I really enjoyed reading your post :). Thanks for writing!!

    Regarding the things you mention, let me start with my favourite part.; ” A little while ago, I attended an event hosted by ELTA Rhine where Michael Swan and Catherine Walters held talks on explicit grammar teaching. Their conclusion? Why not?! (Phew!)” I am a grammar nerd 😀 and I like teaching grammar. Do i teach it explicitly? Not always, but I do like my rules :p.

    I also like random chit chats and I think it should be a part of the lesson plan actually (by the way, I don’t make lesson plans any more, just notes, ticks and post it notes!). Chit chatting allows you to get to know your learner and based on what you know, design/choose your material!!!

    I think all diploma’s are like getting a driving license (great simile btw). You learn the basics/essentials and then in real life, you practice.

    I tweeted/shared your post. I am on twitter @joannacre and FB (joanna malefaki) if you wish to connect.

    Thanks again for writing such a lovely post!!

    Joanna

    Like

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