Tag Archives: teaching

Articulating beliefs

By 9 am next Monday, August 1st, I should turn in an article. In this article I should be examining how my teaching beliefs have (not) changed during the first term of working in my university. To set the scene and probably give more perspective into how one semester at a new workplace might very likely lead to some changes or clashes in one’s belief system, I should say that my new teaching context involves teaching within a unified curriculum. That is, teaching the same lesson 13 times a week to 13 groups of students in the way that is handed over to me (and 42 other instructors).  It is a course in English Discussion and I see it as a good course that does get the students speaking the way we expect them to speak.

Throughout the term I had numerous conversations with a few colleagues (hey, N., H., A. and others), basically discovering and “examining” my beliefs on a daily basis. I realized I had a few. I realized I could not articulate them well (I doubt I can now but that’s what this post is for, in part). I realized it’s a choice to feel frustrated or liberated and challenged by not being able to teach the way you’re accustomed to.

I still don’t know what the article will be about or what my beliefs are, and so this blog post is to help me see it. The notes below were typed at various points over the past 4 months with the aim to help me figure out what was happening and capture any changes. Some of those might not make much sense to you as I’m contemplating certain stages of my lessons, as stages are what I must have and follow in my plan. You might sense that I feel uncomfortable with this idea. Parts in red are what I see as important, for now or the future, for the article or my own thinking.

Please do ask me questions about things.

Also, enjoy.

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April 11th (Lesson 1)

First classes! Feel fussy asking students to change seats (I have no system or idea how to do that) and it’s not clear at all how to ensure rotation of partners for a 9-people class. Timing for practice discussions is random (note: discussions are supposed to be 10 and 16 minutes long). Hard to focus on feedback – what do I monitor for? How do I make it thorough and structured, especially for tracking progress for each individual student? Forgot to introduce “How do you say… in English?”

All in all, I’m quite satisfied. Concerned about lower level students – I should remember to give them time to prep/note down their ideas! (note: this didn’t happen)

April 12th

Significantly shyer, less talkative students. I forgot certain points that I aimed to mention and my monitoring and no grouping strategies are bothering me!

April 20th

  • Weird, not smooth, or no transitions between lesson stages at all
  • I need to find a way to talk less
  • Don’t elicit from some groups

April 21st

Left books open for the second, long discussion – for ideas and questions – I think it helped, especially lower level students! (note: it is amazing to me how in this context every little change in class seems to matter and make a difference… or maybe it’s like that in any context, but I never had a chance to see it because I rarely, if ever, taught the same thing again and in the same way – or paid attention enough!..)

April 27th

The idea of not having to correct or work on grammar or vocabulary is liberating!!!

May 5th

It’s interesting to see my opinions change.

These 2 days of Review Lesson I’m having problems with managing/fitting in Discussion 2 and subsequent feedback. I need to stop rambling at some stages of class! I should also be more ready to cut prep time (note: there are prep activities we do before each of the two discussions).

May 31st

INCIDENT.

I am really worried AND, again, I’m in a situation when I’m uncomfortable being too distant from students as per rules. Am I a teacher? What’s the definition of me as a ‘teacher’ in this course? How is ‘instructor’ different from ‘teacher’ and why does it have to be so different (or seem so for me)??

June 16th

I’m considering ideas for my reflective paper.

  • Students’ awareness of their own learning, why I feel it’s needed and is currently missing, how I could achieve that
  • Students and teacher in reflective dialogue

The first half of the term I was so focused on and anxious about my PLAN – teaching all I have to teach, correctly and well – that I forgot to connect to students. Make personal comments, greet the way I would and have small talk, engage in simple conversations unrelated to my ‘teacher talking script’, rehearsed and acted out time and again. I think now I am getting better.

I want to be involved.
Some time mid-July

Some of my unarticulated as yet ‘beliefs’:

    • L1 is OK
  • (1) Writing is necessary in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking.
  • (2) There should be plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity in *my* classes. 
  • (3) I need to feel at ease with time and syllabus to teach ‘unplugged’. Dogme, teaching from students’ emergent needs is beneficial for students (and comfortable for me).
    • Reading is just as important as writing, ideally they should come together, in a meaningful combination. 
    • Technology has been part of my teaching for about 5 years, every time assisting in various ways depending on the context. I don’t rely on it but I feel its benefits very strongly.
  • (4) Connecting emotionally (building rapport, being involved in class) is one of top priorities in my teaching. I can’t feel good or motivated to teach if the connection is not there.
  • I believe in co-creating the syllabus of a course together with students, which means different goals, different materials, different approach every time. 
  • Vocabulary is of crucial importance. 
  • Everything I’ve written above happens through communication in class. Does it make these classes CLT-type classes or the opposite of such? I don’t know, neither do I care much. Maybe I believe in non-labeling.   

 

Many of those beliefs might have led to (?) unstructured, for the most part, classes in which it was often hard for me and students to chart progress.  

Are my teaching beliefs influenced by my own language learning preferences?… I’m not sure. But I wonder what was it that formed those beliefs in me over time.

***** end of notes*****

 

 

I would appreciate any comments, thoughts, links, criticism, support, likes, or other. I wonder if any of you have experienced teaching in a similar context. I wonder if you have recently “examined” or stated your teaching beliefs and what happened. I wonder if you think it’s important to stick to your beliefs.

Thanks for reading.

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#RPTokyo, May 27th

One of the things I took for myself out of the Reflective Practice meeting (#RPTokyo being the unofficial hashtag used solely by me *so far*)  that we had today is that I can write every day. I’ll set the timer for 10 minutes and just write. Write those blog posts I want to write. Write NOW and not expect myself to have them clean and perfect and ready to publish.

So here I am, just back home from an RP meeting on a Friday night, dying (metaphorically) to put on the screen what this meeting was all about. Setting the timer for 10 mins and…

 

Below is my plan (annotated where necessary) for the second RP meeting that we held today. I post it as it is, copied and pasted straight away from a Google Doc I have created for that #RPTokyo purpose. Afterwards I will walk you through what actually happened and how.

*****

Second Meeting

May 27th, Friday

LISTEN (note for myself to remember to keep it a priority for us to listen to each other)

Plan

  • Quick intro (Who are you? Why are you here? What’s your experience with RP?)
  • “Fluency” warm-up. Talk to a partner for 3 minutes about the questions. The listener should ask questions.

Remember one or two challenging moments in class: What happened? How did it make you feel? How did you respond to it?

  • Whole group recap of the ways people respond to challenging, stressful situations.

(?elicit and write on board adjectives to describe emotions people felt?)

  • ELC as one of the tools to learn to reflect on our teaching in order to make changes.

(discuss the cycle in pairs?). Any comments? —> “experience” that we look at doesn’t have to be a negative experience. It can be any stage of class or a success. (my own note I wanted to remember to say)

  • Let’s explore the ELC together. In pairs, go through a moment you shared before (or a different moment?) with the help of the Cycle.
  • Wrap-up. Share what you’ve learnt today (if), any thoughts before leaving?

Give article to read just FYI. About RP groups in Korea.

Resources to share in the group:

Zhenya’s posts

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/elc-or-the-art-of-experiential-learning/

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/elc-questions-and-answers/

*****

Lessons learnt, Lesson one

Trust myself to plan and organize, trust the group to follow and adjust.

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You might notice in the rough plan I shared above the many question marks I used. Thinking of how to facilitate a meeting to the benefit of all proved not at all equal to planning a workshop, as the underlying thoughts I had were, “Does it help us feel a community? Can we open up? Will we listen to each other? Who has control?”

One of the main concerns I had in anticipation of the first meeting was that, as an organizer,  I’d risk coming across as knowledgeable. That my role of an organiser and facilitator would have me pushing people to do what I think RP meeting is about, what I saw it to be (in Daegu, Korea, in the autumn of 2014). I sweated  and panicked over this. Two meetings later, I realize that being a facilitator is a package deal – it goes with those concerns and responsibilities in hand. Fear of the unknown, anticipation of negative reactions, unclear set-up, unmet expectations – those were some factors that triggered a massive lack of confidence in me. And while to a certain extent they still do, now I know I’m not alone. In this second meeting, it did feel like we were a group. We were making choices together and it proved painless to trust each other and share the reins. It was painless, too, to get the reins back and ensure we’re on track.

 

Notes, thoughts, practicalities

There’s a mental trap it’s easy to fall into – to consciously or subconsciously expect to come out of an event/presentation/workshop/meeting with real take-aways. Well, when I’m present and listening, it’s easy to. Here are the notes I took which count as take-aways.

1. I did take notes of the emotions that were named during the 5-5-5 activity during our group recap of our stories. Challenging situations left the teachers feel frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, helpless, frozen, ignorant, grateful for students’ good communication skills, guilty, caring, angry… Feeling like they’re not doing enough. I’m glad we looked at the bright side, too.

2. Two out of six teachers present at the meeting were Japanese, and it was from them that I heard the following idea: Japanese teachers are culturally more inclined to be negative towards their teaching experiences. In the same way, Japanese students might not be used to praise.  But then, is it really so culturally exclusive? Aren’t we all too obsessed with dwelling on the negative sometimes?…We’re probably more likely to revisit in our minds a tiniest classroom failure than a little classroom success.

3. … And that was when it dawned on me that, in the short time in the very rigid structure of my class that I have for feedback and potentially connecting to the students, I should aim at making my class a more positive experience. Limit the points to improve, extend the praise. Today was the first day when I drew smiley faces in my students’ self-check sheets.

4. I will use a timer for my own writing! I have. We’re reaping the fruit.

IMG_1807

5. In connection with the same idea of obsessing over the negative, I remembered a plenary I attended three or four years ago at a conference in Turkey. The speaker asked us to write down the answer to the question – What am I good at as a teacher? – and tell about it to the partner. Is it an easy question to ask yourself? I struggled to do it back then, I’m not sure I’ll easily do it now. The plenary speaker was Chuck Sandy.

6. During our discussions at the meeting I formulated a couple more things that teaching at Clark taught me. (A) Have students busy with a task all the time; (B) Minimize teach-talk to students – what is an important message for me is likely a mere noise for them. (C) Do not fear to show strength and character, do not fear to not be soft and friendly. (D) I hadn’t realized before teaching in Japan just how much code-switching from Russian to English and back I was doing in my classes and how big the impact was. I never had to think about it!

 

Final thoughts

I have said it many times, to myself and others, that I’m good on my own. I have said it so many times that I believe it to be true. Indeed, imagining me spending a Saturday night alone sketching, colouring, reading, writing this, one might agree that there’s a lot of an introvert in me. Yet there’s no denying the fact that reflecting in a group for two hours gave me so much energy that I nearly finished this blog post in an hour’s time. After struggling for months to get my momentum back.

Maybe there’s something to it, even if it only were a once-in-a-month kind of effect.

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What Clark (school) taught me.

It’s time to stop whining about not having the time to write and just make this time. It’s time to stop worrying so much about not being in good shape (was I, ever?..) for a long, thoughtful and well thought through piece of writing. It’s a perfect night for nighttime paragraph blogging, and maybe I can be back in the saddle.

*****

It’ll be a month in a few days since I’ve been working in a university in Tokyo, which, when I come to think of it, is exactly the kind of job I aspired to do in Japan in the first place. Actually, this job so far looks even better than what I could expect, but that could be too soon to say, or an entirely different post anyway. This paragraph is about what a year in a Japanese high school taught me, and here goes:

  1. I shouldn’t expect myself to miraculously connect with the students in a different country/culture simply because I seem to do so quite easily back home. It took me around four months to establish and feel their trust. In those first months I was desperate, angry, frustrated, and scared. I couldn’t adjust my teaching style so easily, I had to let go of some of my beliefs, I had to open up myself and be sincere.
  2. I realized instructions matter. I think I no longer mumble and ramble over what’s got to be done, expecting students to “be smart and get it”.
  3. I realized students do not necessarily understand whatever it is I am saying. It can be unfair to assume they should easily all do so.
  4. Working true Japanese style, namely doing morning, evening, and 3-hour monthly meetings, requires stamina annd patience. I seem to have those. But then I don’t have the energy to read the blogs, or write myself. I feel drained.
  5. No matter how wildly you may believe that TOEIC and other exam scores focus is detrimental to learning, students will stay aimed at those. They will ask for practice and exercises and more worksheets, and it’s not their fault. That’s not even what they believe to be right, but rather the system they have to get through.
  6. Working with people requires soft skills that I found out I need to have developed. It’s not an easy ride even with the best of intentions.
  7.  I possess character traits that I am ot proud of. I can get too forceful with my opinions, too direct, snappy, or even careless with my remarks. While I’m trying to hold these off and watch my act, it’s both painful and good to recognize my flaws. I think with this increased awareness, I am getting better at communicating. It is a process though, and I’m sorry for the times I might’ve hurt people on the way.
  8. I remember a conversation I had with my friend Kevin Stein a while ago, before I moved to Japan. He’d been a high school teacher for some time and I’d been a university teacher for 5 years. We discussed how different these jobs are in terms of emotional connection to students they offer. My students only saw me maximum twice a week, and most often for one semester only. No matter how much we enjoyed our classes, it seems like we all knew I’m just another teacher, one out of dozens they get to meet through their years at the uni. It seemed to have struck Kevin that the bond between me and my students, due to the very nature of a university class, was  so weak. And I could not picture what kind of other bond he meant. Now I do. I cried when my high school kids went on stage to get their graduation diplomas. I cried and felt terrible to tell other students that I’d not be teaching them anymore. Being around these kids every single day just flipped the whole teaching experience for me, turning it into one of extreme emotional vulnerabilty as it approached the imminent logical ending.
  9. Cultural differences play such a big role in a classroom, and I have to get familiar with them as much as possible before I go and teach. An example off the top of my head is silence in response to my questions, or the challenge that spelling poses.

There certainly are more, many more things that Clark (school) taught me, but this blog post is already too long. Thanks for reading and I hope to give you a reason to return here soon.

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to whatever is in charge of all the good luck I’ve had for giving me a most amazing boss in my school. Were it not for Peter, his constant assistance, understanding and great attitude, I might be less positive about all the things Clark (school) taught me. Thank you, Peter, you will never be forgotten. =)

 

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Breaking: English in Japan is pretty useless.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for 10 months. There are 20+ other blog posts I should have commited to finishing writing about this time, but here’s what’s coming and some background story is likely needed.

One of the courses I have been teaching these 10 months in Clark High School is Culture Course. We have watched videos, took part in an online exchange project with teenagers from South Korea, Russia and Canada, learnt to explain Japanese phenomena to non-Japanese people, read about what constitutes cultural differences in general (the boring part they didn’t really care about all that much). All that has hopefully been coming under the big important umbrella of learning to speak and think of cultures beyond stereotypes. One activity that we all enjoyed was reacting to common generalizations of Japan, its culture and people (the concept was borrowed from an activity I witnessed in Mike Griffin’s class over a year ago). All students without exception were highly responsive and keen on discussing the many common images of the Japanese that are shared in the world. (Sidenote: when compiling that list, I did some research online but also relied on my own friends’ and family’ s ideas, that are probably exactly exemplary stereotypes. In fact, I might have said “My granny/ parents think this and that” n number of times in class… Every time meaning well.)

The part coming below is responses of third-year students to a task in their final test on the course. The task was to give a clear comment on three statements, which happen to be stereotypical ideas about the Japanese. As I was grading the tests, I couldn’t help it but be moved to blog their thoughts, accompanied by my own comments. I wish I could spend more time in class with these students. I wish we could talk about these things, among all others. Instead, I am offering the typed version of the conversations that never happened. Enjoy.

 *****

Statement:

English in Japan is pretty useless. A lot of people, even young people, don’t speak English. Even if they can, they will be too shy to speak when the chance comes.

get along

Student —> Anna

Yes! Yes! Yes! Actually, Japanese study English since they are junior high school students, but many people can’t speak English. Even if we can, we tend to not speak. I think Japanese hate to make mistakes. So they are afraid of making mistakes. We should be confident. We should adapt to globalizing society.

Me: As hard as I might try in my class to help students feel more at ease about making mistakes, I know what you mean. There might be additional, contextually Japanese reasons intensifying the fear but maybe most learners are prone to that sort of reaction? Well, I myself certainly am. One of the many excuses reasons for my profound lack of Japanese speaking after a year living “immersed” in the environment is the fear of being misinterepreted, misunderstood, the fear of using a wrong phrase, sounding too casual, too incoherent. It’s little of a consolation, I know, but it is my way of offering empathy as a fellow language learner.

*****

I agree with this. Many people think so, including me. In my opinion, people think that Japanese English pronunciation is so bad to speak. English is still a “foreign” language for us, because we don’t use it much.

Me: This comment made me cringe on the inside, feeling so sad and yet grateful to this student for spelling it out. Who are those people thinking so, saying so, instilling such thoughts in learners? Is Russian English pronunciation any “better”? When I was in Thailand, I took pains to understand Thai English, but not because it’s “bad” – it is just so different. It offered variations of sounds that my ear was not accustomed to.

I wouldn’t want it for any of my students, Russian or Japanese, or wherever else I might go to teach, to feel ashamed of the way they speak English.

*****

I agree with these statements because I am shy to speak. Also, at first we learn English grammar. It causes us to feel “we have to speak English with correct grammar”. It also causes us to feel nervous and tense when speaking English.

Me: Again, I just want to reassure you that both nervousness and tension while speaking any foreign language is such a natural, human reaction… The way I see it. It is a teacher’s job, to a great part, to make that stressful experience less so. I’m truly sorry we don’t always manage, or explicitly show that we care to manage.

*****

I agree with this stereotype. Japanese people usually start studying English when they are 11 years old. That’s why Japanese people are not good at English and speaking.

Me: Russian people usually start studying English when they are 6-8 years old. Many of them still don’t find themselves to be good at speaking English when they grow up, even after 20 years of learning. I’m not sure what it proves.

*****

I don’t think that English in Japan is pretty useless because over 80% companies in Japan use English and in 2020 we’ll hold Olympics in Tokyo. At that time, many foreigners will come to Japan. So English will be considered to be an important skill. I do agree with the second sentence, because I do become shy when I speak English. In Japan people don’t use English in daily life so people tend not to speak English, even if they can.

Me: I am with you and thanks for pointing out that good reason to keep motivation up for learning to speak English. As for the last sentence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people in most countries around the world don’t use English in daily life! What I am saying is that we’re all in the same boat here, and it’s good, and there shouldn’t be pressure to necessarily speak the language!

*****

I agree with this comment. As I wrote, Japan is an isolated country so we don’t have an opportunity to speak another language, not just English. We will be too shy when we try to speak other language.

Me: It’s a most interesting idea for the background behind that stereotype. I wonder what sort of isolation you have in mind…

*****

I have to say yes to this stereotype. To be honest, Japanese way of teaching English is horrible. They are looking at English as a tool to get a good grade on exam but not as one language. I think this is a reason why Japanese can’t speak English very well. This is one of the reasons why I didn’t go to a normal Japanese school.

Me: Now this is analysing the “problem” on a whole new level! I am constantly left speechless at the amounts of testing that is happening throughout the term, as well as at the worksheets for English classes that I catch sight of in the staff room. All I can do is sigh, and yet you’re saying this is not a “normal” Japanese school..!

*****

I agree with this sentence. Japanese feel shy to speak English in front of other people because they have a little opportunity to talk with other people in English. Moreover, Japanese character is passive so they hesitate to express themselves.

Me: This comment struck a cord with me. Is that so true? Is there something I could do in my class, in those few hours a week we spend together, to unlock the expressive side of that character (that I am certain exists in every teenager at the very least!)..? Or is that being too bold?

*****

I think Japanese people have no interest in foreign countries and if Japanese people spend their life in Japan, they think “I can live if I use only Japanese.” That’s why they don’t try to speak English so much. Even if they can, they try to be same with other Japanese people. Maybe they pretend to be shy.

Me: In my first months here I used to feel the very same way, that Japanese don’t care about travelling abroad. That was an opinion I heard a lot in class, that was the attitude that used to bother me so much. Now that I’ve grown to be more accepting, I think I see more than when I was overly focused on these opinions. As an example, this weekend during a party/informal meeting for the parents in the school, I was approached by a couple of parents. Both Japanese, very polite, their kid not being in the International Course (which is where I primarily teach), they used all English they had at their disposal to ask me…. about tips for arranging a visit to Saint-Petersburg! It turned out they are planning a vacation there, and they would like to visit the Hermitage museum, go to a concert of classical music, enjoy the architecture of the city. Needless to say how happy I was to share my ideas and recommendations with them, as well as finish our conversation by thanking them for their interest in the culture of my country. …On second thought, I wonder how far English is going to get them in Russia (I honestly don’t know). I hope they join a tourist group 😉

*****

I agree with this sentence. First, in Japan people don’t have a lesson in which they can communicate in English. School teaches us how to write perfect grammar. So, a few people can speak English and during speaking are too shy.

Me: There’s nothing I could add here… wait, no, I have a question. Don’t Japanese junior high schools have ALTs? I don’t have experience working as one or working in a school with one, so obviously my knowledge is limited to the stories I’ve heard… but it was my understanding that they were there in school to ideally produce some sort of English-speaking environment, or an impression of such. Just as a sidenote: Russian schools don’t have an equivalent of that position.

*****

I think so, too. These days a lot of foreigners visit Japan, so there are many chances to talk in English, but the way of studying English in Japan really focuses on writing too much <…> Japanese are shy to talk with strangers in English. I think it comes from the historical reason. Once upon a time, Japanese people used to keep distance from foreigners. I think that reason made people these days think they can’t get along with foreigners.

Me: I’d argue that focus on writing is not the cause of trouble in itself. It is the kind of writing that matters. Regarding the final thought, it was thought-provoking to read… Can it be ingrained that deep in the culture to transfer from generation to generation through the subconscious of a whole nation?…

*****

Finally, a ray of light in the grimly painted picture of English language education for the shyest nation of all:

That’s not true. I speak English every day no matter where I am. I partially agree with the idea that Japanese are shy though. It really depends on each person’s personality. If you are good at English, you can go to a good university, so it’s not useless at all.

 

*****

All of these students have successfully passed the test. Moreover, they sort of nailed it, making me really happy with their language improvement and clever reflections, well-put in what they say is still a foreign language to them. Thank you for inspiring me to face the blank “draft” page on this blog, too (and for effortlessly filling half of this page with your own writing!)

 

Thank you, reader, for reading. Make what you will out of this post.

 

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Drafted to be written

***** Abrupt beginning *****

Time dragged on … And then I had an idea. If I ever come to actually realize one of my deeply held aspirations to become a contributor to a magazine or a columnist, I need to learn to write on demand. So here’s an unnecessary test, consciously self-inflicted pressure: below are the original, unedited titles of my 44 (!) drafts currently saved on this blog, with a few words of an explanation of what I initially had in mind for this or that idea. As it goes for drafts for me personally, they largely hang out in the “Drafts” section. To change that, I appeal to you to choose one blog post idea that you might be interested in reading about and leave it in a comment below. In my turn, I will do my best to write up those posts, which otherwise might just stay neglected, and thus lost forever.
Game on.

1. going, going, gone – reactions of others to my decision to go to Japan and my own emotional storms regarding the same thing

2. in japan, notes – more random culture observations (part I to be found here)

3. Look at my food – lesson plan on Instagram

4. about Peter – what I have to/ want to say about my boss (brave post))

5. answering Sandy’s questions – responding to the questions Sandy Millin left for me in her comment to one of my recent posts

6. read an essay, give it a thought – there’s a quote copied and pasted from somewhere, which obviously sparked an idea in my mind back then but was never followed up on

7. 4 months in Japan. Classroom challenges. – a post based on my presentation at EFL Teachers’ Journeys conference in June 2015

8. things I learnt from my students today – a focused day reflection, an idea which might have been inspired by one of Anne Hendler’s posts

9. Why and how English teachers Instagram – just letting the word out

10. A post-training listicle, or … things I thought about – notes I took during my training days at school

11. TTT (and not what you think) – on my first experience team teaching

12. classes gone wrong – really terrible classes that I whined about on Facebook in May, I guess

13. A paragraph letter to my older teacher self – an inverted response to a popular blog challenge

14. message to students – about how I don’t want to play games in class

15. things my colleagues taught me this week – results of a conscious, focused reflection

16. things my students taught me this week – read above

17. Fanselow training notes – first training in my current job and my thoughts on it

18. 9 towns of Russia – a video my students took for me to share with Japanese students (shame on me for not sharing it months ago!!..)

19. on losing it – on losing confidence and motivation for teaching (after my Asian trip of 2014)

20. Let’s forget it is a lesson. – trying to formulate my belief for this type of class when students study/ learn but don’t feel they are being taught

21. teach travel write about it – my desire to continue travelling, teaching online, visiting classrooms, writing about it

22. Ridiculous vocabulary for EFL learners – examples of such vocabulary items I encountered in textbooks and materials (are now still sparse, collection in progress)

23. something else – about teachers writing something other than ELT-related things

24. 2 countries, 8 classrooms, 8+ teaching ideas – pretty much covered in this post for iTDi, but there could be more to say

25. intro into any post – a template! But it might have already been partially used))

26. challenges ahead analysed when over – challenges I had outlined for myself before going to Asia in the fall of 2014, analysed upon return

27. how Skype classes fail – based on experiences from that same Asia trip

28. learning from spam – classes we could teach using junk mail as material

29. communicative aptitude and emphatic listening – contemplating on my personality flaws in those areas

30. random thought post-holland trip – culture and laguage related notes I took on a trip to the Netherlands in the summer of 2014

31. teacher face – on how I sometimes struggle to maintain a “serious” teacher face and behavior

32. Japanese 9 months – should be born and breathing now – much outdated idea, but there is still a post I could write on my studies and progress in Japanese, or rather a devastating lack of such

33. Focus – rambles on how I sometimes find it hard to keep the focus on, and what it leads to

34. Google doc for building up syllabus – this is one area that can’t already fit into one post since it’s become a prevalent part of my teaching … anyway, this blog post was promised to be written for a joint project with a wonderful lady you all know but the promise came at a wrong time (for me) and was, to my big regret and shame, never fulfilled… With conference presentations on this topic approaching, it just makes sense to finally do it.

35. Camp memoirs – notes I made during the three days I spent in the forest near Ryazan, doing workshops for kids in UP!Camp (June 2014)

36. creativity – paragraphs that did not go into this post for iTDi

37. As teachers, we need/ should/ must… – supposedly my thoughts on these, but the draft is merely a blank page..)

38. superficial elt – another blank draft page! But sounds so promising

39. blog about reflection (possibly doing challenge) – I was honestly determined to participate fully in the reflective practice blogging challenge.

40. withdrawing self – learning to be less of an “I!” kind of blogger and teacher.. failing miserably!

41. annoying words in elt – buzz words that at some point started to seem almost empty to me

42. good school stories – trying to remember bright moments from my two years of working in a school in Moscow (to balance out the blue feelings brought about by this post)

43. making excuses for my expertise – musings on the way I seem to make excuses for expressing personal opinion in my posts, provoked by a discussion of my most recent post with my boss

44. excerpts from tips on writing – processing and summing up the multiple tips and advice from writers

***** Abrupt ending *****

Thanks for reading (and participating, if you choose to). AND for believing I will have enough will power to pursue this! If …

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A day that felt different

What does it take to feel warm, welcome, belonging, excited about your job being a teacher in a high school? I am feeling just that right now and it’s a sudden overwhelming emotion that needs to be outpoured. Hence this impulsive paragraph blog post. So what did it take this time? Over a hundered teenagers gathered in a room; three university undergads (Japanese studying abroad) sharing their experiences, highlights, concerns and tips about studies overseas – from making this choice and preparing applications to managing your life all by yourself, enjoying college life and facing racism. I’m once again reminded that nothing leaves a more powerful impression than a personal story shared from your heart.

It takes leaving that obnoxious teacher’s platform and taking students’ side, that is, sitting on the floor next to them.

It takes talking to them naturally even knowing their English is low and they most likely struggle to understand what you’re saying. They do make it out, though, even if I can use that level prejudice as a barrier and thus limit my own communication with them.

It takes smiles which are more sincere than morning greeting requires.

It takes a hearty laugh about something together.

It takes months, too, but this moment and these bubbles inside feel special and precious.

 

Also, on a more material/ physical note, today I guess I got closer to the Japanese culture in that I “touched” students (well, rubbed a few shoulders wishing well and expressing appreciation) for the first time, and was “touched”, too. I shared (or created?) some personal moments with students, just by being myself, showing interest, asking simple questions and showing care – because I do care. Finally, today it felt natural to express it.

 

Thanks for reading. I am happy today, or right now, and I wish you the same. 🙂

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13 things that happened in class, excuses provided

With a headache piercing savagely and incessantly through my brain, I’m commuting home. It’s stuffy and stinky in this metro car. I wish I could just close my eyes and enjoy the blank space of an empty mind, but images, scenes and conversations that took place today keep flashing by. The 5 ninety-minute classes I’ve given today provide enough food for thought, as any teaching day would.  This particular long teaching day has come to its end with the following thoughts:

1) I held a whole class in Russian. I gave instructions in Russian, gave comments in Russian, allowed conversations in Russian.

Excuse: the level of the group is very low, much lower than the material that has to be taught expects them to be. The majority of students struggle (and I mean it, struggle) with recognizing spoken English, even the easiest English of instructions. The conversations that I mentioned above were 95% around the language issues we were dealing with.

2) I did not explicitly check homework I’d assigned.

Excuse: I saw half the class were unprepared and today I didn’t feel like having an uncomfortable “strict teacher – lazy student” type of talk. We partially covered the homework material in the lesson itself.

3) I let the shy students sit through the class without uttering a word in whole 90 minutes.

Excuse: The energetic students “seized” the lesson space (see point 11).

4) I let grammar mistakes slip off my students’ tongues and go uncommented or corrected.

Excuse: Point 11. Some mistakes were made and quite a few times corrected on the spot by most active and confident students. Other times I took notes of points to pay their attention to later, but the lack of board, white or black, for that class (as we were studying in a corridor) imposed certain restrictions on my teaching. As the conversation drifted off and away from my grasp, my chance to voice out the comments from my notebook was missed (and, frankly speaking, plain forgotten).

5) I played an audio file which was way too hard for students.

Excuse (and a comment): Without a specific task, I played the file “for the gist”, with an idea in mind to acquaint them with the podcast I’d long wanted to recommend. Previously they’d expressed interest in the idea of using podcasts for autonomous learning in their free time (their level being positively upper intermediate). My belief was (is?) that by demonstrating a tool/ activity/ learning opportunity in class you increase chances that students will actually pick it up and try by themselves. However, today we learnt that these very students are, in fact, not excited about any podcast-type, pure listening kind of language input. Three minutes was enough to put people to sleep. Video is the way to go, they say. One more important factor: the class was held in late evening, after a full working day, so unsurprisingly concentration levels could be at their lowest (both students’ and teacher’s).

6) My mind fell blank when students inquired for certain words and ways to express their idea. Multiple times.

Excuse: Not a native speaker or a walking dictionary. Some days memory lets me down badly, much worse than it normally would. And of course the right word/ phrase lights up my brain on the way home, several hours after the moment of need.

7) I was late for class.

Excuse: Traffic jam.

8) I spoke too much and offered too much of my own personal commentary.

Excuse: I want to be part of conversation in my class, especially so when I have something to add and/or believe students will learn from what I say (either new info or new language). Students looked interested, reacted positively, asked for more info, added own relevant comments.

9) I did not use a warm-up activity.

Excuse: It did not suit every class I’d planned.

10) I did not monitor group activity effectively.

Excuse: See point 11. Also, by midday my headache had got stronger and I had to limit my own movement (aka sit on a chair)) so as to survive through the remaining classes. So I trusted my students to manage themselves and each other.

11) I let students take control over the lesson and followed their lead.

Excuse: They were active, they were willing to share and participate, while I felt uncomfortable to interrupt their genuine desire to speak English with their groupmates (and teacher) during an English class because I had it differently in my plan.

12) Students did not move from their seats.

Excuse: Come to think of it, in two out of 5 classes they did.

13) I was sarcastic.

Excuse (?): Notably less sarcastic than I was 2 years ago, as I now pay more attention to my commentary.

Time to finish the list now. A teaching day, once brought down to pieces like this, could drive an exhausted and sensitive teacher to a depressed state. Tonight I wanted to write about a long, hard day of a non-exemplary teacher giving not exemplary classes. Reading the points I jotted down a couple of hours ago in the metro, I come to a helpful (?) realization that some of these could actually be recurrent issues for me.

I know my eye is twitching by the end of the day. I’m emotionally squeezed out and exhausted so much that I can’t bear the simplest verbal communication. I worship silence and bask in it now, yet it’s true that 5 times today, for 90 minutes at a time, I was 100% present with the people in that class, gave them all emotion (and material) I could.

I know one can always do more and better, especially better. Still I’m wondering if on an average day doing just enough could be enough, for learning and teaching to happen. And be reason enough for a teacher to not beat herself up. Whatever rules, patterns or guidelines it is that I failed to follow today, I refuse to believe it was a bad teaching day.

Thanks for reading.

*****

I’ve just now read this post by Sophia Khan about an observed class, which was described as a synonym of waste by the observer, and all the eye-opening outcomes of that experience for the teacher in question. If my classes today had been observed, the verdict would have certainly been some stronger “northern” slang word. Yes, every class is an amazing opportunity to develop something. I’m grateful to Sophia for her post as it’s just what I need today, or these days: a clear picture of what happens in other classes and how. I don’t remember feeling that low in professional confidence in a long while. Sabbaticals have their faults.

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More about 30 questions

So I blog sporadically here and there (and there) but this particular emerging space is my comfort hub. There’s no, or little if ever, sense of a critical eye frowning over what I post on these pages, which fact makes me feel free to blabber my way from month to month, all through the year into the next. Namely, into Orthodox Christmas day 2015, right into this post about how I asked myself and my students 30 questions.

 

***** Taking personal (and a personal journal) into class *****

 

As much as I’d like to fantasize about myself being special, I really am no different. Every end of the year I look both back and ahead to come up with reflections and resolutions that are then shaped into something on paper. These have been lists, mindmaps, structured passages, incoherent passages, questions and answers. Well, frankly speaking, this is the first time the year analysis came round as answers to 30 questions. You can find the questions themselves in this post I just wrote for TeachingEnglish Blog, and to make your life even simpler here’s an extract from that post to shed some light:

 

In the end of December I decided to do a certain exercise that I’d found on the Psychologies mag webpage (here’s the link, but I feel the need to warn you that the page is in Russian). The idea of this exercise is to help you shape your reflections of the year by asking yourself 30 questions. These questions were picked by the author of the article from the book “My 5 years. 365 questions, 1825 answers.”

 

Unimportant note with a possibly more useful link: after 2 minutes of googling and finding this page for the English (original?) version of the diary book, I realized I’d seen it before. Josette LeBlanc would know where =)

 

As I was thinking, smoothly and effortlessly retrieving the highlights of my year, and methodically writing my way through the questions, I saw this as a perfect task for my class. The following day the following class happened:

* Students (2 girls in their twenties) and I worked together on translating the 30 questions from Russian into English. The task was good for their level, but more importantly, it was a useful time to collect their thoughts for the future answers.

* The task assigned was to pick any 3 questions to talk about; any other 2 questions to write about; 1 more question to ask their partner and ensure some dialogue happens. As I’d brought my journal into class, they could see I’d already answered a few questions myself and kept writing as they were writing. Initially, I had not planned to actually share my answers or participate in the 3-2-1 task but I had no problem doing so when they invited me to.

 

Then we ate gingerbread cookies that I’d cooked and brought, drank cherry tea and were off for holidays, more deserved for the students than for this idle travelling teacher this term. The class was as pleasant and smooth as I’d seen it to be, but the most exciting thing was to find the impact of it in my Instagram feed right on New Year’s Eve. One of these students tagged me in a long post she’d written there (in Russian)), which summed up her reflections of this, important for her, year. It was the first long Instagram caption (post, I insist!) for her, and of this sort, and she mentioned that our class had inspired this. It was undoubtedly the best present and, in plain honest words, – just made me feel happy and even somewhat special for a fleeting second.

 

That’s all that happened. It took me 2 more days to finish my 30 questions which, in fact, did not cover most significant points and shifts in my own year 2014. It was a truly special year and parts of it I have been sharing in this space throughout the year. I will continue to do so with no promise of my posts to be solely about teaching. In the meantime and to finish the first post 2015, here are three of my *23* resolutions for this new promising year, accompanied by 1 image:

1. I will try to write one blog post or an article once a week (“What a lame resolution it is”, I thought to myself as I found this new blog project by David Harbinson!).

2. I will try to look for a chance to write freelance for some online magazine. NON-ELT. Challenge of all types – to create more opportunities for writing with deadlines; to see what I can write about if not about English language teaching. It’s a resolution with roots all the way back to my teenage years, you gotta start some time.

3. I will be this (see the picture). In my class and out of it.

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My current personal journal, thanks to Cecilia Lemos, still true 3 years after.

Thanks for reading.

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The Life of Me, Teacher

This unembellished narration, telling briefly about almost 9 years of my life as a teacher, among other roles, was written for a reason. The reason is not to say yet more and more about myself – I’m certainly coping with the task to be running a self-centered blog very well. The reason behind writing this is the upcoming IATEFL webinar. On July 19th Barb Sakamoto will be talking about the Lives of English Language Teachers. This story is just one particular professional journey of several years up to now. It does not aim to impress, ask for a moral, or inspire. I’ll say more after the 3 paragraphs of the journey.

A beginning teacher (9 years ago?).
I didn’t enter a teacher training university to become a teacher. I wanted to study English and I wanted to work in a profession that would mean being around people, that was my reasoning. Like most of my university mates, I started tutoring kids when in my second year of studies. That was more of a game at first, having fun making own crosswords and cutting lots of flashcards (apparently, there’s an age when it is a fun game)). Then, as part of our study course, we had to teach for a month in a comprehensive school in the 4th year of studies. That experience involved intensive teaching, planning, observing, feedback receiving and handling extra-curricular activities. Somehow it happened that I, surprisingly for myself, fell for the excitement of working with the kids. A month after this mandatory teaching practice finished, I found myself a job as a part-time English teacher at a small private school. I felt the thrill, pride and importance of being a teacher. Well, to cut a long story short, 2 years after I quit, both happily and with a heavy heart of feeling frustrated about education system in my country that I’d experienced (more about why it so happened in my blog post here).

About halfway, and getting to the tipping point.
For a little over a year after I quit there was downtime and feeling down, too, for me. I toyed with an idea of trying myself in some other job, went to a couple of interviews, and that was enough to realize teaching felt as a best fit for me at that time. I started teaching in-company (both General and Business English), I got employed by a leading university in Russia. All in all, I found myself in a good place, where I finally felt interested and comfortable teaching. I’d describe the time as smooth and routinely exciting. The familiar routine was rocked incidentally by joining Twitter, learning there’s a whole global world of ELT (also learning about the acronym), and meeting Chuck Sandy online, all of that in the spring of 2011. Since that time my life as a teacher has changed in many ways, some of which can be traced online – on iTDi website, on Twitter and Facebook, on my blog.

Now, summer 2014.
I’m still working at the same university and I’m enjoying it. I’m still teaching English to adults, while also helping them to remember (or often to relearn) how to learn. I’ve found out there’s comfort zone and it feels challenging, necessary and rewarding for me to be stretching it by presenting at conferences, talking to other teachers, listening to them, thinking about my classes and writing about these.

I never wanted to be a teacher and I don’t presume I “was born to be one”. It’s my belief that a person can be anything he/ she wants as long as there’s realization about this, confidence, pain and effort, and acceptance of the way to be thorny, though sometimes rosy, too. That totally depends on your perspective. My way now is interesting and inviting, allowing me to have time and chance to think and improvise. Now I’d like to change my teaching context in a way more radical than instructing learners of another education stage (besides, I feel like “a veteran” who’s seen enough of it here – I get the idea of ELT in Russia). I wish to see how I would cope with teaching, students, and teaching students in Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, etc. At the same time, I wish for myself to be writing more and better, about things I know or spend so much of my time contemplating about. I imagine I could very well be anything other than a teacher, still, and maybe I will. A columnist, a psychologist, a gallerist, some other -ist. I wouldn’t mind being a teacher all the while, too. 🙂

Thanks for reading and I hope to see you there —> Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto – ‘The Lives of English Language Teachers’, July 19th.

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Quitter.

How (maybe not why) I quit my job as a school teacher (2008).

Pre-story.

I am 20. As a matter of fact, now that I’ve started writing this post with this three-word biographical note I see it was crucial to all that followed. Let’s see how the story unfolds with this new light of truth hanging over me.

So I’m 20, I’m in my fourth year of studies to become a teacher of English, and we’re mercilessly thrown into the chaos of comprehensive schools, in groups of 6 naive and trembling girls, to give lessons to classes we’re attached to for the whole of September. No wonder that I get the class (6th grade) with the worst reputation in that school. Plus it’s one of those rare situations when the class is not divided into smaller subgroups, as it usually is the case in Russian school system (a language teacher would normally get a group of 13 kids max). So I get to teach 19 frightening not-really-kids-anymore. I look too teenage-like to be confidently standing in front of the 19 pairs of eyes sizing me up contemptuously. I don’t know what happened and how it all turned out like it did, but I had such a great great time teaching these eyes. I honestly did. I remember though disastrous lessons that we co-taught with 2 other girls, who I thought appeared more serious and knowing than me at that time (until I saw with my own eyes that appearances made no difference). Well it really is hard to explain for me now why I felt such drive. I think it was about this challenge that I had to deal with during my very first teaching experience.

To cut it short, unlike 80% of my university mates I am suddenly very keen on the idea of actually teaching English. So keen that within a month I find myself a job. It is a small private school (around 50 kids altogether) in my neighborhood. There’s no interview as such. I’ve got good references from some *influential* parents, I’m “sweet”, young and full of energy. I’m in.

Story (started in the final paragraph of the pre-story).

For the rest of that school year (November to May) I study full time at university and teach 12 hours a week at school. By the end of the year I still love everything very much. I’m involved, interested and take weird pleasure in cutting out things and making flash cards. Kids are great, parents are sometimes a nuisance but mostly nice, and the Director of Studies is a very adequate helpful woman. In fact, if she hadn’t left that year, my life might have gone some other way.

Next year, final year of my university studies, we are all required to be teaching at schools, attending classes and writing our theses. Obviously, employment is not a problem for me and I start teaching 18 hours per week. Our school goes through some questionable merging process (for prolonging their license or something) and we end up losing half the staff, the DOS and the bigger part of pupils . New teachers are fine and friendly, new pupils from that other school are smart and energetic, new DOS is the start of the end for me.

I can see it now that we had a false start to our relationship from the very first meeting. When I was informed that from now on I was to use a certain textbook (which is written for schools specializing in English) and that decision is non-negotiable, I suddenly felt bold and experienced enough to air my protest. Indeed, it was a very outdated textbook plus the one that didn’t meet the needs of our learners and expectations of their parents (well I thought so at least). When at a big parent meeting, where all staff and all parents were present, I announced my “professional” (aged 21, mind you) view on the matter of materials, the majority of parents supported me and agreed to go for change. That meant my choice of coursebooks for each class. Sounds soooo unreal to me now. I must have said something very convincing. Anyway, my colleague and I took all pains to organize the transition, worked out the syllabi for our classes with the help of our university methodology teacher I believe (and hope). We ordered and carried books for all kids to school by ourselves. Parents seemed happy, kids loved the colourful pages in their new books. The DOS woman had no choice. It was some kind of a very small but locally significant revolution to me then. I’m now sincerely amazed at how I could pull it off. But the revolution led to the fact that my colleague (also my university groupmate) and I started getting all kinds of ill treatment from “the bosses”. I might have been too emotional in my reactions then. My colleague gave up and sheepishly quit without an official notice or a note to me in April, leaving me to be the only English teacher in that whole school. Those were fun times. Kind of.

Well in that year I had a nervous breakdown, several ambulance calls and countless tears shed as I stepped out of the school yard.
In October 2008, after working as a school teacher for 2 years, I quit.

Factual.

Reasons I could now think of, very subjective and prejudiced, possibly not well arguemented and too childish.
– emotionally fragile for the intense battle I found myself to be fighting (attitudes; humiliation of my feeble persona; being pushed about)
– couldn’t stand the hypocrisy
– outrageous, frustrating, disarmingly open dishonesty regarding certain financial issues which I couldn’t then stand up to and oppose as was too naive and soft
– living in a neguices routine (writing useless lesson plans, pretending to teach with a textbook we weren’t using)
– depressing and depressive atmosphere and air about the place
– health issues (this is funny, every time I need change but am scared of making it, my body generously provides me with a chance))
– losing hold of English

Lyrical.

There was this one absolutely lovely teacher. She was as intelligent, well-mannered, thoughtful, kind-hearted, likeable and charming as I can possibly imagine a school teacher to be. If I had been smarter and more thoughtful myself I wouldn’t have lost touch with that wonderful lady. Anyway, she would never give me any topdown, I’ve been a teacher for 20 years kind of advice (some problem with punctuating it right here, my apologies). Instead, she would carefully hint at what challenges those kids presented, how special they were, how I could try to help them learn at their own pace. I could always sit in her class and never felt any slightest pressure when she was there in the back of the class during my lesson. On the contrary, I’d feel at ease.

During one of our conversations (which I now realize were not too many and definitely not processed deeply enough by me) she said this: “If you teach in a school for three years and don’t leave, you stay for years.” I believe she did mention the word bog then. She was mostly wishing me well. She said she used to write poetry and prose. She always comforted me when parents, DOS or other teachers made me lose the very shaky emotional balance that I had back in the day. When a couple of years after quitting I had a dream about me visiting the school again, she was the only light in the nightmarish scene.

I believe I would like to see her now, to say a more articulate thank you or something.

Afterword.

This post is facts from a part of my life that certainly had an enormous influence on me and helped to make me the teacher I currently happen to be.
I hold no grudge to anybody in that story, about anything in that story. There is no reason why I should, as every turn, every reaction that followed was mine, caused by my lack of control.
I still remember almost all kids. They were fantastic. They did cause me tears and suffering at times, but also made me smile and laugh and be proud of them. I know for sure that if I now went in those classrooms, we’d have very different lessons which I’d enjoy more, in which I’d teach them better. Well, there’s the right time for everything. But I am not going to be back to school again.
It just started feeling rotten for me. I mean the system. The authority I was supposed to respect provided no opportunity for me to do so. I started feeling small in all senses.

That’s the story of me as a quitter. I don’t feel bad about it at all now. I got the experience and learnt a lot about myself.
Thank you for judging or not judging me in your comments below, if you care to leave some)) I kindly welcome you to do that, no matter what it is you want to say.

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