different teacher for different age groups?

One of my mentors once gave me the following feedback, I guess we don’t even need to address discipline issue here as your lesson is so catchy and energizing, students feel no need to disobey.

He had just sat in one of my older groups’ lesson and his comment didn’t really come as a surprise for me. Till then I hadn’t encountered discipline problems in any of my lessons. The majority of my students were young adults and we seemed to hit it off right from the start. I liked their maturity and creativity, they seemed to appreciate my sense of humour and my way of teaching. In short, there was positive chemistry in most of my classes.

Yet things started changing as the ages of my students began lowering. I first taught a “young / teenage” class at the beginning of last semester and it hit me pretty quickly – the way I have been teaching till now doesn’t seem to work any more. The jokes don’t work. The allusions don’t work. The expectations are not met. Instead of me being there to help and guide, I felt I was there to police and to sanction. And I hated it. Right from the start! The way I had known teaching – fun and pleasure, was suddenly turned upside down. Instead of walking into the class with anticipation and eagerness, I started dreading the lessons never knowing what will go wrong this time, what will make me cringe, what will make me disappointed. But worse still, I started blaming myself for letting the young down, for not being the right teacher for them. I started blaming myself (surprise, surprise) when the noise levels skyrocketed, when they kept forgetting their books, when their marks weren’t good enough. I felt it was ME who was doing something wrong. It was ME who failed to create a motivating and productive learning environment.

The more I think about it the messier the whole situation gets. On one hand I feel I offer and expect things not really appropriate with these groups. After all, they do not have the same level of maturity my previous groups did. They have different interests (most of which do not revolve around school!), different needs, different attitudes. Yet on the other hand I also reckon that teachers have great power in influencing the students’ image of themselves. If I go and treat them like adults, if I expect them to be responsible and independent and autonomous, then it will definitely push them towards that ideal.

Having said all the above, I would like to ask you some questions. I have been thinking about it over and over but no wise answer has surfaced.

It is clear that different age groups have different needs. Teaching kids is not the same as teaching adults. So maybe not every teacher is up to doing it all? Maybe some of us are made to teach adults, others teenagers or young learners? Could it be that I am simply not the right person to take this responsibility?

But maybe not. Maybe a good language teacher is good no matter what the age group. All that has to be done is more training, more learning, more experience. If so, could you recommend any great books on teaching teenagers?! I guess the fact that my own kids are getting closer to that stage will probably help me improve my teaching skills. But till then, I am in need of coaching!

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woman down

DSC_0140Last Friday was one of the most devastating teaching days I’ve had for a very, very long time. In the middle of my first lesson I felt like vanishing into the thin air, or, as I haven’t found the magic cloak yet, simply walking out of the classroom. After the lesson, I broke down and shed some tears. I had to be efficient because only ten minutes later another lesson started. So I had it quickly and efficiently done with. Had two more or less pleasurable lessons with my third year students who feel like friends by now and with whom no horrible surprises tend to come up. And then, to finish the day with an elegant let’s-close-the-circle, had one more lesson which made me cringe, weep inside, shout inside and hate every teenage student on the planet (don’t worry, it only lasted till the end of the lesson)

The me, who was driving back home that Friday evening, was a beaten woman. The despair, the anger, the hurt, the overwhelming disappointment made me want to crawl to a shelter and stay there healing my wounds. Although the reflective practice mode started to push its way in, I discarded it. I decided to stay down and feel the weakness. To let it wash through and over me. I somehow felt that this time I HAD to give the pain its time and share and not fight it off immediately.

Today, two days after the bullet sent me down, I feel like getting slowly up again. I have the will and the energy to take this big monster into pieces in order to understand what happened.

So here it comes, reflective practice in the making! I decided to share the first lesson with you. I know that doing so will display my weaknesses and shortcoming as a teacher, but, as Bréne Brown has so beautifully said

There’s nothing more daring than showing up, putting ourselves out there and letting ourselves be seen

It’s a class of 16 older teenagers. I have been teaching this class for seven months by now. We have had our ups and downs. There have been lessons that hoist me up on the clouds. And then there have been some that I wouldn’t like to teach again. The students  have EXTREMELY mixed levels of English. Some are getting close to B2 and a few struggle somewhere between A1 and A2. Some speak almost fluently, others stare at me blankly when I give instructions. This heterogeneity is something I keep struggling with day in and day out.

Anyhow, in the morning of that notorious Friday, while drinking my morning coffee, I found a great article through twitter talking about the verbalization of the English nouns. You can read it here. I found the read so interesting and entertaining, I decided to share it with my students. So when I walked into the classroom, I wrote on the board – Do you salad or sandwich?, looked quizzically at my students and asked what they think of this sentence.

Most seemed still so profoundly asleep that no movement came from their desks. Two students looked at the board, and one showed what I thought was a sign of surprise. We had a short exchange of opinions, I talked a little bit of what I thought was an interesting phenomena, but soon stopped as no interest seemed to be stirred.

Then I tried to make a link with the topic and asked where we could possibly encounter such a sign … (the topic of the lesson was advertising). Out of the 16 students NOBODY had a clue. And that’s when it dawned on me – this lesson is doomed. Full stop. And I still had another 1 hour and 20 minutes to go.

I consider myself a rather confident teacher, but there are moments when my Achille’s heel gets a fatal blow and I lose the grip.

I pushed the students further, giving them hints, until one girl saved my face and answered that it could be in a café. I grabbed her answer as the straw to save my life, gave a ridiculously enthusiastic yes! and moved to my main lesson plan. I wrote advertisement and commercial on the board, asked them to figure out the difference (which they did) and then invited them to recall a recent commercial they had seen. I asked them to tell their partners what had been the product or service advertised, who had been the target group and what kind of adjectives they could possibly associate with the commercial. Out of eight pairs, four started talking in English, two in French, and two kept their mouths shut. When I went to their desks and asked which commercials they were thinking about, they shrugged their shoulders and responded that nothing came to their mind. I tried to help them a little proposing places and occasions but no answer came. The collective feedback was a disaster.

By now, I felt I was whizzing down a water slide with nothing to stop the final drowning. I had lost my students (well, I hadn’t been able to join them in the first place), I had lost any confidence I thought I had, and I felt a growing animosity in the classroom.

We then moved on to the reading part. I saw it as a ways to gather my thoughts, to calm down and think of the best way to continue this lesson. I wrote down some questions I asked them to find answers to while reading. And as usual, encouraged them to highlight any new or interesting vocabulary. The article was full of shocking and incredible information, but none of the students seemed to think so. There was no reaction whatsoever, no raised eyebrows, no questions, nothing!

You might actually finish this story yourself by now …

The final activity which I was sure would take up a lot of time and hopefully stir a considerable amount of interest, neither lasted long nor excited most of them. (there were some exceptions – bless them! probably students finally woken up …)

When the time was finally up, I felt like collapsing right there and then. I felt no relief, only disappointment, anger and hurt. As usual, I immediately started scrutinizing my own actions to find where I had taken the wrong turn. Probably, immediately in the morning, when I decided to wake up. Shouldn’t have 😉

So here you have it, my shameful and disastrous lesson! I am in the middle of working on this script right now. Rereading, editing, rearranging. I am trying to find a new path to tread with these students. I’m looking for a new toolbox. And I will keep you posted!

very bad move

Don’t teach the book, teach the students!

How can any sane teacher argue against that? It’s not about the book, it’s about how the book can complement the learning, how it helps the teacher plan the programme. The book is a sort of skeleton around and over which teacher and students add meaningful layers. And that’s why, even though I use the same textbook in many different classes, the lessons are never the same.

Yet having said that, not every book makes a good skeleton.  Skeletons should be strong, healthy and resistant. They should keep the whole standing. They should provide the springboard to successful learning.

When I started in my current job five years ago, I had nobody to tell me what materials to use, how to plan my lessons or where exactly I should take my students. I started off, tried and tested, stumbled, fell, had a cry or two, got up again, refused to give up until one day I felt it wasn’t bad at all. I tried various textbooks and finally, by the end of the second year, made up my mind about which course books to use and I was really happy with the material. So were my students! When I asked them at the end of book 1, if we should continue with the same series, the answer was an overwhelming yes. So why change, right?!

However, this summer, a nagging thought started bothering me. The dialogue between the nagging thing and me went something like that,

“So, same old, same old…”

“Well, yeah, I love the book. And so do the students.”

“Comfortable choice! Starting to rest on our laurels, are we?”

“Not at all! But why change when it works so well?”

“Of course, of course, that’s what they all say! Why change when you’re SO comfortable? Why try something new? Why invent? Why be original? Why bother?”

“No! I just don’t see the point in changing it right now. And what’s more, the book’s fun, it’s easy to use, it’s incredibly well structured, it’s logical!”

” … till moss starts to grow … Soon you’ll be like some rusty and tired teacher simply opening the book and giving a yawn or two.”

“…”

And I changed. I changed the book. I asked for several sample copies from various publishers. I browsed, I studied them, I looked at the images, at the layout, at the summary. After, what I thought was a thorough analysis, I ordered the books and started teaching my new classes with the new books.

And I am extremely unhappy! I have now used these books for a whole semester and my verdict is – they make my life hell. When I was browsing them, they seemed to make perfect sense to me. They seemed to be interesting and well structured enough. Yet working with them in real classroom is a pain in the neck. So I guess it is almost impossible to know if a book is great or not unless we have given it a good try.

So here I am with my two classes and 36 brand new books. I don’t dare to change them as students have paid for their material. I simply look forward to the moment most of the book has been covered and I can order a new set of good old course books.

When I told this story to one of my colleagues, her instant reaction was, “That’s why I don’t use course books!”  I almost stuttered when I answered because that was not the point of my story at all! I like course books! And a good course book makes everybody’s life easier! A good course book is a help for students and for the teacher!

What about you? Do you use course books? Who chooses them? Are you happy with your (their?) choice?