The Bare Necessities


One of my life goals for 2017 was to stop putting my successes down to luck and start acknowledging my good decisions and achievements. So well done me for choosing to come to this wonderful, haphazard, endearing city of sunshine. Beirut is wonderful. Visit. But since this is not a travel blog I’d like to tell you about some other hopefully good observations I’ve been making related to the world of teaching instead.

As a CELTA trainer I’m pretty confident in my abilities to nurture complete newcomers to teaching into competent, confident, employable professionals. I’ve even worked with some of the teachers I have trained, and whilst I can’t take full credit for their abilities, I do feel very proud when other academic managers mention how good one of my ex-trainees is. I’ve always sympathised with CELTA trainees for surviving the four week barrage of information, although I’m sure they get some gratification out of the bloodshot eyes, lack of sleep and mental exhaustion. A feeling of ‘I survived’.

But what if you don’t have the luxury of 4 full weeks to learn how to teach a new subject? What if you don’t have 1 trainer per 6 trainees to assist at every step of the way? What if there is no time to write assignments and discuss lessons? What if you have no supplementary materials, no flashcards or CDs, or markers or dice, or teacher’s books? What if all you have is a student’s book and white A4 paper? What if you don’t have anything at all? What if the students attending such lessons are actually the lucky ones? According to UNICEF around 93 million children worldwide currently have no access to education. The majority of these children are girls. I have an overwhelming urge to run out into the world and grab these girls and teach them and empower them and make everything better. However I’m trying to stay sensible and will put that plan on hold, at least for a few weeks.

Anyway, back to the problem which has been consuming me all week – how to help young learner teachers whose intentions are good but whose resources and skills are extremely limited. The answer is simple. You listen, you empower the teacher, you acknowledge their uniqueness and individuality and you nurture what they are good at. In recent years I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating the drive towards standardisation in English language teaching. It unavoidably starts with CELTA where teachers are required to demonstrate a list of criteria to pass the course. Schools understandably want to present a cohesive product to sell to parents, so need to ensure all their teachers are providing the same course content, same methods and quality of lessons, and equal amounts of individual attention and personalised feedback per student. What worries me is that with all these requirements the voice of the teacher is being diminished to almost nothing. The teacher knows better than anyone else what their students need, how they will respond to a particular topic or piece of material and whether they even need to study it. As a teacher trainer and mentor I find I deal with certain issues over and over again, and of course I do my best to help find solutions. These solutions are drawn from my own experience of what has worked for me, and from the advice of published material and general expert opinion. But it seems that if many teachers across various contexts are consistently having the same problems, then it’s time to look at what is not working in the classroom and why. John Hattie asserts that the problem with conducting teacher observations is the risk that all you do is tell that teacher how to teach like you ( Whilst that is not the intention it is certainly something that all teacher trainers should give very careful thought to. Also worth considering is, do we do what we do in the primary classroom because we are personally convinced it’s the best way? Or do we do it because we have been told to do it. I’m not saying we’re doing anything wrong, I’m just not sure we’re doing everything right either.

What’s clear to me is that all of us, teachers or trainers or principles or anyone involved in educating children need to look very carefully at the students we are responsible for to assess how effective our teaching is. To try and be a little bit helpful, these are the things I have observed when working with children that I have personal conviction make lessons effective.

  1. Gamification is key, but it’s much more than playing games.

Gamification done badly intensifies competitive behaviour and lowers co-operation. We all know we need to provide a safe environment to enable children to learn in, and a certain amount of competition is healthy. However, too much creates high levels of stress. Gamification has entered the classroom in many ways including in the form of points based rewards systems. Students who stay on task, produce good work, speak English, help their friends or achieve good marks get points; whereas students who misbehave or underachieve lose them. Whether awarded to teams, pairs or individuals, the result is an increased number of disputes and disagreements which the teacher inevitably has to address. It also compels teachers to compare students to one another instead of assessing each child according to his or her own potential. Primary teachers are encouraged to include stirrer or filler stages in their lessons to allow students to move and burn off energy. All too often these stages are simply games which test how much vocabulary  or grammar from the previous lesson or lesson stage the students can remember. If they remember the word they are not being stretched, if they don’t remember they will not learn it in the highly charged atmosphere of a game. Very valid in terms of letting children release energy, not so much in terms of improving their English. Gamification works best when it is directed at lesson content. If the tasks you set feel like games you’ll find that there is less call for reward systems in the first place as the students genuinely want to do the work, and there is also less need for additional stirrers and fillers. In fact, where children are concerned learning is a game in itself. Children spend hours working things out for themselves, trying to navigate the world by solving immediate problems. They can make a game out of anything, but conversely if something doesn’t catch their attention there is little you can do to persuade them to do it. My advice is to gamify your lessons by ensuring interesting content, a high level of challenge and a reason for every child to participate. Ask yourself the following questions when planning your lessons: is this activity interesting for my students? Is it too easy for them? Does it allow everyone to participate? You wouldn’t play a game if it didn’t meet those criteria, so why expect your students to enjoy a lesson which falls short of them.

  1. Praise given with specific feedback is more powerful in terms of motivation than any other reward.

I need praise. I don’t think teachers are praised enough. I also need feedback. Observed lessons are one time during the academic calendar that teachers get feedback, and apart from that you may get a pat on the back if a student leaves positive feedback about you. Sadly, I think a lot of teachers live in fear of getting a complaint. There are usually very rigorous procedures for dealing with complaints but less so for excellent work. Students, even young students, need feedback and praise. Teachers are great at giving praise, but this is usually directed towards the whole class. In an EFL context the teacher has a limited amount of time with their students, possibly only an hour or so each week with each class so it is hard to go into great detail about every individual student, even when writing end of semester reports comments tend to be general. Still, praise and feedback given little and often will make a huge difference to your students. As you monitor point out good work or good behaviour as you notice it, telling the students what they are doing well and why you like it, e.g. ‘Thanks Anna for helping your partner, you’re very kind’ or ‘Good work Piotr, your sentences are very funny and made me smile. Can you write more neatly?’ The same with marking writing. You don’t have to comment on every good and bad thing, but you can definitely comment on something that was good and one thing to improve, and this will make a huge difference to each student you teach. Specific, meaningful praise and feedback will mean fewer classroom management issues and better student engagement, as the students will know what you expect and how to succeed.

  1. Children learn better when they know where they are going.

It’s frustrating going to a meeting when you don’t know what topic you will be discussing, what you will be asked to do, or even when you will be able to leave. I’ve never actually been to a meeting like that because it would be completely unreasonable and I wouldn’t go. So don’t expect your students to tolerate the same. You can involve your students in the learning process in a number of ways, and it’s up to each teacher to find something which works for them. I’m a big fan of lesson menus, both visual for pre-literate students and written for older children. Wording your menu simply and cleverly can help you to build anticipation for the lesson ahead. Students who know what is coming up can take more responsibility for their learning – they can reflect on what they already know and address what they need to learn. Children who have an idea of the order of upcoming tasks are less likely to constantly ask when the break is/how long till home time. They enjoy knowing where they are in the lesson, where they are going and leave with a much clearer sense of what they achieved. A child telling their parent they did ‘nothing’ in class is one of the most depressing things to hear when you know just how much work they actually did. A child telling their parent a list of things they did is music to most teachers’ ears. The first child probably knows they learnt something, they just didn’t know how to verbalise it.

Well, that was longer than expected and posed more questions than it answered. If you have any thoughts on this post then please leave a comment or get in touch. I may not have listened to teachers enough in the past, but I’m planning on doing lots of listening and learning in the future. So on that note I’m off to dice with death on the pavementless streets of Beirut in the pursuit of hummus. Thanks for reading to the end!

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