Beware of too much inspiration

Here’s a very rare activity sharing post from my part. Rare because I cannot even remember the last time I put out an idea for a task here. Rare because after all the years of on and off blogging, a pattern has started to emerge; I seem to incline more towards reflective writing, sharing the pains and gains rather than offering valuable ideas for interesting activities. So let this post be a sort of reconciliation with the abandoned side.

Having said that, I cannot resist the temptation and fall back into my good old pattern to share some reflections first.

I have been reading Wilma’s blog a lot recently. She’s an amazingly prolific blogger, a feat I find absolutely admirable and enviable, too. In one of her recent posts, she contemplated how the meaning of ‘obvious’ changes over the years. How what seems obvious for us as teachers at first starts to change and grow into something else as our teaching career advances. Anyhow, a passage from Wilma’s response to my comment goes like this,

It’s amazing, and a little scary, what messages we internalize about what a good, effective teacher does and can do. Maybe too many articles about how to motivate your students or how to keep them interested in English?

 That struck a chord so violently, I could barely calm down my excitement. Being a recovering perfectionist myself, I used to get sick worrying about how my personal performance in class would motivate my students. Every time they did poorly in test, I first blamed myself for not having taught them well enough. Every time they sat through a lesson passively, I criticized myself for not having enough skills to get them up and dancing. Looking back now I feel almost ashamed for having felt such things. But at the same time, I feel relieved and happy that I have come so far, that I have been able to unearth my limiting fears and beliefs, so that I can tackle and discard them.

So how does all this tie to Wilma’s response? I became an active PLN user years ago, back at a time when I was still suffering intensely from the limiting beliefs I just described. Reading blogs, going to conferences, following other educators on Twitter was incredibly inspiring and motivating, but looking back now I must also admit that there were times when all that ‘brilliant’ advice out there started to undermine my self-esteem as a teacher. After reading all the amazing articles and books on motivation, it was hard not to blame myself when my students weren’t motivated. Following all the wonderful and witty teachers out there, looking at the pictures of their smiling students and colourful classrooms, I couldn’t but feel exhausted after trying so hard to create an ideal working environment, and often failing, reaching a different outcome.

And let me be honest, I did get a sight of the burnout monster, but was fortunate enough to know to take another turn before colliding with the beast.

Being an active social media user I am well aware of the dangers of constant stream of posts from the inspiring others. I have experienced firsthand how insidious all the happy-clappy images can be. With time I have come to realize that many of the books, articles, blogposts and pictures aimed at teachers can actually have a similarly exhausting effect. It can become dangerously overwhelming if we let ourselves get carried away by the intensity of it, if we forget to read and listen through a critical filter, if we lose sight of our particular teaching context.

During a recent conference, I noticed how much more questioning I have grown. If in the past I would have been immediately influenced by many new ideas and techniques, I have become much more cautious now and weigh possible changes twice before implementing them. I have also let go of the belief that it comes down to teacher’s skills and talent to motivate a group. I do not deny the central part it plays, but I am no more blind to all the other variables that come into play. And while I am still an enthusiastic PLN user and get enormous amount of energy and motivation from interacting with other teachers, I am also more aware that there’s no one size to fit them all.

But now the activity I promised at the beginning of the post.

More often than not, when we do a reading activity in class, I come away with an unsatisfying feeling that too much material was left unused, that there were learning opportunities that never germinated. I have tried the banal ‘Any vocabulary questions?’ trillion times, but as you know, most of the time this inquiry is met with silence (even though I am more than certain the text contains lots of new vocabulary).

So yesterday, after reading a fun article on manners, I asked my students to highlight at least five new words / phrases in the text, translate them and then write the English versions on a post-it note.

I collected their notes and while they were busy tackling another task, I wrote the most frequent items on the board. It was interesting to note that 90 percent of the vocabulary was present on all of the notes.

To finish, we translated and analysed the new vocabulary together, put it in context, tried to think of the opposites in case of adjectives etc. I found that the students were reasonably present and active considering it was the end of a long lesson, and I am confident that it comes pretty much down to the fact that we were discussing words they personally had excavated.

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Empathy in teachers’ room

A couple of months ago I witnessed the following scene.

One of our younger teachers came into the staff room, let his bag drop to the floor with a loud thump, and gave a very tired sigh. He then mentioned a name of a student who had given him some real headache, gave an account of their confrontation and looked utterly worn out. Right after his story one other teacher chipped in telling how wonderful she found this said student to be and how she never had problems with him, and anyhow, it’s probably because of the way she approached him. The younger teacher went out onto the balcony to have his cuppa.

It’s been said many a times that teaching can be a lonely job. We prepare our lessons alone, give them alone, correct the papers alone, all the while brooding over myriads of questions that arise during the intense interactions with students. Often we do not feel like opening up for the reason illustrated above. We might fear being judged (openly or silently), we are uncomfortable exposing what we feel are our shortcomings, we don’t want to come across as anything else but competent.

Yesterday I had one of these lessons which made me cringe and shudder and wish to be anywhere else but in front of this utterly dysfunctional group of older teens. When walking out of the classroom my usual teacher trolls came rushing in, ‘I am unable to manage a class!’, ‘I don’t know how to create a unity in this group’, well, you get the idea. Once in the staff room, I addressed a small group of colleagues with a sincere inquiry, ‘Tell me about this class. How is going for you?’  The answers I received calmed me down instantly. All of the teachers agreed that this was one of these ‘unfortunate’ groups of students who simply did not sync. The atmosphere in the class was always strange, a funny feeling of detachment hung in the air. All in all, yes, it was a funny bunch of students.

Driving home I felt full of energy. Desperation had gone, all the doubts and fears vanished into thin air, and that thanks to my warm-hearted and supportive colleagues. No, it wasn’t about me being a bad teacher, it was simply one of these groups that simply did not get off the ground.

True, I had not exposed myself right away. Before divulging my own disappointment, I tested the waters, so to say. But my message stays the same. We need empathy amongst us. If someone walks up to us and pours their heart out in desperation, instead of describing the fun we have with this or that student, or how we should have acted in a certain situation, why not just listen and try to understand (even if we don’t!). There’s a time for constructive criticism, and there’s a time for helping a colleague through a rough patch.

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Photo credits: pexels.com

Teachers make bad students

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Photo credits: pexels.com

One of the first things I discovered after my return to the PLN ‘party’, was the TEFL Commute podcast. I love the casual and entertaining tone of the programme, plus the topics which keep resonating with me as a teacher AND learner.

One of the episodes I listened to was on bad students. (If you have any time to spare, then here’s the link.) But more than bad students, what caught my attention was when Lindsay and Shaun started talking about teachers as students. Do teachers make good or bad students?

I had just come back from a conference for English teachers, and my first impulse was to say ‘bad’. I was still mildly upset about how some grown-ups, okay, let me be more precise, grown-up TEACHERS, manage to disrupt talks. I find that absolutely mind-boggling! Especially when taking into consideration that teachers of all people definitely know how unsettling such a  situation is. But then I quickly rectified myself, and brushed aside this first negative impression. Oh, how the negative always seems to pop up first!

One of the things Shaun said was that he used to be quite an annoying student as he would over-analyse every task and method used in a language class. What is it for? Why is it used at that particular moment? And so on and so forth. Now, I could relate to that. I feel that being a language teacher myself makes me into a more critical learner. Whether critical becomes bad depends on what I do with my critical approach. As I consider myself a rather empathetic person, I dare to believe that I wouldn’t use my unhappiness with the lesson to undermine the teacher. I would definitely not start chatting with my neighbour, that’s for sure. But I would (and I have done that) start doodling, daydreaming, writing shopping lists etc.

The next thought that crossed my mind isn’t necessarily connected to being a teacher, but rather to being a busy adult who has a family and a yoga studio to run and English lessons to prepare and give. Having little free time to spare, I look for efficiency and meaning. When I attend a workshop, go to a lesson or follow a course, I value the knowledge I get out of it. It is important that my time is well spent, that I truly benefit from the occasion. I remember how a couple of years ago when I was doing my teacher training in Switzerland, I left one of the afternoon lessons in tears. These were tears of frustration because I had just wasted three hours on totally useless chit-chat while one of my kids was sick at home and I had several piles of students’ papers waiting to be corrected.

Having said that, I must confess that I am a genuine procrastinator. Which is actually a very good thing, because it makes me into a more understanding teacher. I like to think that my own flaws and shortcomings help to shed a more humane light on my students and what I expect of them.

All in all, I would say that I am a reasonably good student. What really matters is that I keep looking for occasions to don my student hat. Whatever the experiences as a learner, I am grateful for them. Just like good examples, the negative moments show me the way forward. I have most certainly learned just as much (if not more) from painful instances as I have from awe inspiring learning moments. Observing a hopelessly disorganised teacher or someone embarrasingly shy and unconfident is just as useful as admiring a jaw-droppingly excellent teacher.

And not to mention the ever growing empathy we feel towards our students. Nothing puts things more into perspective than sitting through a week of theory lessons. Oh, how I understand my students’ need to move and giggle and hear the teacher call for a break.

And you? Do you consider yourself a good or a bad student?

 

 

 

 

 

Back on track

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No, no, don’t get it wrong! The conference hall wasn’t that deserted when the talk began, it’s just that I was sooooo eager for it to start. I entered the lecture hall the moment the doors opened and lights were switched on.

I was travelling back home this Sunday late afternoon after an inspiring weekend at ETAS conference (English Teachers’ Association of Switzerland) and thinking, gosh, I wish it was Monday morning, I wish I could be back at school, back in my classroom, please, people, give me some students to teach! That’s what happens when you attend a conference.

I’d had a break. I’d had a really long break. After many years of intensive blogging, tweeting, conference attending and article writing, I’d run out of energy. None of it was left. So I stayed in my own peaceful corner, kept giving lessons, but did not interact with other teachers on social media. Sometimes too much enthusiasm is really burning your candle at both ends.

But I pushed the door ajar again, and I am really glad I did. So here are some of my thoughts on my first conference after a considerably long break. Not all of them are positive, but, hey, how are we supposed to learn and grow if everything was rosy around us?!

  1. I love attending conferences for the wealth of human interaction. I didn’t realise how much I had missed it. Talking to all these beautiful and inspiring people is a much more motivating factor than any pay rise could be 🙂 I’m waving to all of you Rachael, Karen, Patti, Gemma, Sharon, Janice, Ben, Lee, Leena, Trudy and so many other incredible teachers and human beings.
  2. I love attending conferences because it pushes my linguistic limits. Being a non-native speaker means that spending a weekend in the company of all these witty English speaking people teaches me quite a bit of new language (or at least it wakes up a lot of the dormant language snoring in the the recesses of my brain). So thank you, lovely English speaking examples of mine!
  3. I love attending conferences because it gives me a chance to listen to some truly smart and inspiring speakers. Marjorie Rosenberg’s Getting Unstuck was spot on. Marjorie is an incredibly energetic and resourceful teacher whose active participation on social media is absolutely breathtaking. Stirring from my long period of hibernation, her talk was the perfect vitamine shot I needed. She talked about the importance of PLN, CDE and everything that can shake us awake as teachers.
  4. I love attending conferences because it’s like mushroom picking for fresh ideas for my own classroom. I was lucky to get to hear some very resourceful teachers. One of the best workshops I participated in talked about drilling and repetition. You know, it’s these ‘shameful’ notions hidden in the cupboard along with translation and tests and all the other nasty guys. Lee Shutter from the UK shared lots of easy yet wonderful tasks to use with any age group to help them hone their fluency skills. Here’s an example:

How often do you get blank faces staring back at you when you drop the question bomb on Monday morning, ‘So, tell me, what did you do last weekend?’

The chattiest of students would probably respond, ‘Mhm, not much, I slept.’

So here’s what Lee suggested. At the beginning of the lesson ask students to write a list of 5-10 roles they have in life. I would write: mother, wife, teacher, sister, yoga teacher etc. And then the question goes as follows, ‘As a mother, what did you do last weekend?’ etc. You’d repeat the same question replacing the role, and trust me, it gets them talking, or at least, it will get them a little further than ‘sleep’.

Well, at least it got us, the teachers speaking … but then again, language teachers aren’t language teachers by accident. We LOVE speaking, don’t we 😉

5. But that’s one of the things that sometimes annoys me at a conference. It’s when we forget to LISTEN. I find it extremely important to show respect to people who are presenting and not chat at the same time. I am always puzzled when grown-up people, and especially teachers, start chatting during a talk disturbing everyone in the hall. I mean, we, of the all the people, should know what it means to have inattentive people in the audience, so please be patient, bite your fingernails if needed, but listen to people who have taken the time and energy to share their efforts with us!

So that’s it for now. I sincerely hope the door I’ve just pushed ajar will open wider and wider and that I will be back to share some more.

Cheers!

Daring to learn …

 

I’m just not up to it.

There’s simply no way I can keep posting regularly on this site. Only yesterday I checked Hana’s blog (after a loooong summer break) and couldn’t but gasp with admiration. Hana, you’re absolutely awesome and I love every single post of yours! And most of all, I admire your discipline, what seems like an unstoppable stream of ideas and extremely enjoyable writing style.

I’m waking up to a new school year. On one hand, I’m a little stressed about getting back into the classroom. I get these usual pre-school nightmares which mainly consist of totally unprepared lessons, absurdly arrogant students and trying to find classrooms that don’t exist. My summer has been so incredibly rich in people, places and experiences that school was like a heavy bag that got dropped in June and needs picking up again.

On the other hand, as soon as I sit down at my desk and start organizing the coming year, I feel the excitement, too. What was an empty workspace rapidly fills up with dictionaries, books, flashcards, post-it notes, diaries, markers and lists. I’m a Crazy Miss Lists right now. Lists of this year’s objectives, lists of materials, to-do lists. I doesn’t matter if any of the stuff on my list gets crossed out or not, simply putting it down on a list, makes me feel rather organized and productive. We all have our make-me-believe’s …

In her last blogpost, Hana encouraged us to think about what kind of teacher we would appreciate learning from. The thing is, I have been thinking of that for a long time now. This year is a special year for me because I won’t  be wearing only ONE teacher hat but TWO! Right after the kick off of the academic year, I’ll start my very first yoga lessons. I have been lucky to be able to turn a small room into my very own yoga studio and will welcome my first yoga students in three weeks. Thus, the whole notion of a guide, instructor, teacher, helper has been very much on my mind this summer. As I was asking myself what kind of a teacher I would love to grow to be, I automatically started pondering on what would I expect of a teacher. And here I mean any kind of teacher, be it yoga, English, photography, cooking, you name it.

Here are the words that jumped out at me:

Inspire – I wish that my teacher INSPIRES me. A great teacher makes me want to perform better, aspire higher, achieve more.

Trust – I want to be able to TRUST my teacher. I want to be able to lean on him / her if needed. I want my teacher to show me how to grow wings that carry.

Enjoy – I would love to ENJOY the learning process. And I don’t mean play. I mean enjoy it even if it gets tough because I would be aware that what I’m doing is getting me somewhere. But enjoy it also on a human level. For me a great teacher is also a great person. Someone who has this amazing ability of making people around them feel good and worthy. And with the feeling of worthiness comes trust and with trust comes the DARING 🙂

Do you dare?

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Happy new school year!

Snippets it is then!

I promised to be back before another year, didn’t I!

I actually know why so few posts get written in this space. It’s a monster called ‘thoroughness’. Oftentimes interesting, noteworthy, surprising things happen in the class. I might cringe over a stupid move, laugh till in tears, flush because of embarrassing situations, and every time I make a mental note in my head, ‘blog about it!’ But I never get down to doing it. I am put off by the enormity of the task. I feel I need to develop, analyse, create smart paragraphs. Suddenly the pleasure of sharing is replaced by yet another responsibility, another hard labour.

It’s actually silly because these long, highly developed, hundred paragraphs long posts are hoped to be read by other busy teachers.And do they have the time?! How many teachers out there really crave for never-ending posts that will take two cups of coffee to finish? Blogs  aren’t scientific magazines which require daunting guidelines to be met. And even though teaching blog isn’t simply a personal lifestyle blog and still goes under a more professional category, I think we, the teachers are absolutely entitled to write snippets if we wish to do so or if we don’t want to miss out on the blogging fun yet have a family life as well 🙂

So that’s why I decided to dedicate myself more ferociously to paragraph-blogging instead of slowly fading into the teacher blogs oblivion.

Here’s my first snippet.

Last week we looked into the topic of lying. To introduce it, to get students interested and activate their brains, I used the good old ‘which is the lie?’ warmer. I had carefully prepared five sentences about myself (one being a lie!) I thought I had been very clever and nothing, really nothing, could possibly give my lie away.

So there I was, all proud and beaming in front of my students reciting my sentences. I took extra care to look very casual, especially when I got to the lie part.

And then, as soon as I stopped, a hand went up and a boy shouted out the sentence, the LIE! I was flabbergasted! How on Earth could he know?!

Well, it turned out that …

YES, this boy LOVES police investigation series and YES, he is very observant and YES, I …

I had shaken my head when pronouncing the lie 🙂

I was utterly unaware, by the way!

 

 

The exciting business of teaching

It’s been a year! A complete year with all of its 365 days. Check the date of the previous post if you don’t believe me!

I wouldn’t be lying if I said that dusting off this tiny ‘teaching’ corner didn’t seem very likely during that long absence. Fortunately I took no drastic measures like closing down this page altogether. My ‘teaching’ low was simply so void of energy and initiative that even such terminal move was a mountain for a little mole. So yes, sometimes best action is  no action at all!

But life-force is slowly seeping back into the teacher blogger in me. Maybe it’s thanks to iTDi that asked me to write a post on their blog. Maybe it’s other courageous teachers out there who keep blogging no matter what. But maybe it’s thanks to Anna and her willingness to start a spontaneous mini project to make our students interact with each-other, a kind of flash communication between Japan and Switzerland.

Working with Anna and her students gave me lots of positive energy, it motivated and inspired me, but mostly it made me realize once again how exciting, yes, EXCITING teaching can be.

As mentioned above it was as spontaneous as a project can be. There I was sitting at my desk late at night chewing on the pen hoping a lesson idea would miraculously appear. Yes, once again late at night, just before the next day’s lesson! I really believed the term procrastinator doesn’t apply to me. Well, it’s time I faced the facts, right.

Anyhow, I knew I wanted to revise questions with my students. I had some handouts ready, but this something that adds sparkle to the lessons was missing.A truly miserable situation to be in. And then, bang! It was there. The generous teaching muse took pity on me and dropped a brilliant idea onto the keyboard. I sent a message to Anna, who, miraculously replied instantly. I write miraculously because, she’s in Japan and I’m in Switzerland, so if I receive a reply to my message sent late at night from the middle of the Alps, it can only mean one thing – Anna in Japan is skipping her night sleep!

Anna agreed on the spot and the next day my students got truly excited about the mini project we were about to have.

After a short introduction and necessary background information, my students got down to writing questions they would love to ask from teenagers in Japan. As lots of my students are very keen on that country and its culture, the questions as well as their imagination flourished.

Anna did the same with her students.

Then the questions got exchanged and the following lesson was writing answers to the inquiries. We also took class photos, so seeing the people who had written those questions made the whole activity even more real, fun and motivating.

Here are some of the questions the students asked:

What do you think is the strangest Swiss dish?

Which Swiss cheese smells the most?

What are your country’s traditional foods?

What do  you eat for breakfast?

Do Swiss people drink alcohol?

Is it true that all Japanese people like mangas?

When you celebrate with your family, what’s on the table?

Which Japanese tradition do you enjoy the most?

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The mini-project finished with reading the answers to the questions our students had asked in the first place. Anna added a nice touch to this part of the project. Instead of simply handing out the answers, she cut up the questions and replies and made her students match those. An idea I would definitely use next time we embark on this cultural exchange.

All in all I have only positive reactions to this spontaneous exchange we set up. To begin with, I saw my classes come alive and vibrant with new kind of energy. The fact that we were interacting with real people, doing an activity that had real consequence, made the whole task brilliantly meaningful and thus highly motivating. I had an immense pleasure of seeing totally involved students writing with almost tangible pleasure. They truly wanted to tell the Japanese students about their life and country!

We’ve already promised with Anna to look out for new ways to co-operate next year and I sincerely hope it’ll come to pass!

What about you? Have you had the chance to make your students interact with students from other countries? What did you do?

Till next time (I hope it’ll be in less than a year!)