I would say, hand on heart, that if 2018 was the year that I dug myself out of a hole, 2019 was a year of stability and calmness career-wise, and eagerness to develop as a teacher. I was firmly back on the saddle ready to get back on the trail and in full control of my life and career, something that eluded me the previous year. It was a year that fashioned a trajectory of positivity and yearning to do more that, perhaps, propelled me forward to this time of writing. This year was also less dramatic, so this should be a shorter blog than the previous ones!
Thinking back on it now (being 2021 at the time of writing), 2019 was when things finally started to click, or the way I always tended to be self-critical – overly at times – the needle seemed to slowly move away from that mentality. I was starting to be more assured and confident with what I was doing in the classroom. I guess the nascent stage of my career came to an end during this time.
One thing I remember most about 2019 was when the staff were given training on how to utilise and exploit a coursebook. Looking back at how I used to use a coursebook was egregious before these training sessions. I just wasn’t cutting it. I would often use two pages or more in a lesson. Now, I use a page or just a section from the book and try to get the students to work extensively on the content to help form those concepts firmly cognitively. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to work with one section for 90 minutes, or if the students would get tired of it. I could see other teachers tearing out their hair thinking about using one page or a section which just made me even more nervous about working in this way. Was I going to be able to survive 90 minutes with such limited content? Surely the lessons would need some fillers!
However, it wasn’t bad at all. Students really enjoyed taking their time with the content or skills practice, looking at the content from different angles, having more time to ask questions and tell stories, personalising the content, and using the language through more extensive productive practice; just allowing the lesson to breathe instead of sprinting through the content, which I had done a lot, was a welcome change for a majority of the students. And, in the end, myself included.
I noticed how I was attending to my students’ needs a lot more after this change as opposed to my own. Students want and need time to digest content, to investigate and explore content to a sufficient amount of depth, have their skills go through a serious workout, and for their teacher to up the challenge steadily, keep things varied and fresh, and to provide extensive feedback on work produced (something I wasn’t doing all the time). As a teacher, I wanted to be comfortable, get through a lesson and have enough content and padding to get me there without the need to scramble to find something else to do; not that I wasn’t able to find something or adapt at a moment’s notice, but I wanted to be safe and sound. That’s why I relied on ‘warmers’ which, more often than not, had no correlation to the lesson aims. I was too focused on content and not the learning process. I was paying lip service to the idea that I was a communicative teacher. I was very much not a communicative teacher and more a ‘content teacher’. Now, I was working with less. I was walking into areas that were uncomfortable. This was the kick up the backside I really needed. My needs were now secondary.
I completely forgot that I had a hand in creating the curriculum along with a few other teachers. When I say create curriculum, I mean looking at the coursebook and distilling the units and sections into a document whereby teachers look to see what they have to cover for the weeks and months ahead. This work allowed me to finesse my understanding of the training sessions we had done. I was able to isolate the content and sections from each other much easier. I could easily see that “Yep, that’s for Monday, that can be done another day”. This skill of pinpointing content to be worked on started out slowly but grew faster with every unit that passed. I believe I worked on the Elementary and Advanced levels. The former was a lot easier to do than the latter if I can recall correctly, as there was more content to lock in place than the Advanced book. I can remember relaying what I had done with the books to the teachers that were in charge of those levels. I was relieved when they said as the weeks went by that the document made sense and that they were able to get on with things with little to no fuss.
When I look at coursebooks today, I can see what a lesson needs to be, I can see the road-map, some of the bus stops and attractions along the route that need to be adapted, but the road remains the same e.g. grammar practice on question tags in the context of having an argument with a friend.
So, here I was working well with the coursebook, doing more with less, improving my adapting skills, sourcing decent exercises to complement the learning process for my students, and allowing my students to take over the classroom and me taking a backseat. But, when I came across units I or students didn’t particularly like or felt didn’t challenge my students enough, what was I to do? I’ve always worked with authentic materials, but now that I had received the training on exploiting materials, I decided to apply what I had learnt to authentic content, too.
The bad thing about coursebooks is that as soon as they go to print they become outdated. Our school was working off books that were published in the mid-2000s onwards which isn’t ideal. The world is changing with every passing week, technology plays a big part in that, and students are very much in tune with what is going on in the world and want to talk about their lives and what’s going on outside of the classroom; insert life in 2020-Present here. With that in mind, units in coursebooks, say, on Travelling or Health conflict with reality with what’s going on today. Or, when you have to cover content on Food or Relationships that may not be appropriate for some students who are fasting or going through a rough patch with their partner.
This is where authentic material can come to the rescue. You can choose something current and there is a plethora of material to choose from based on your students’ interests or needs. I normally like to show students videos, articles, photos, or music and use my training to plan a decent enough lesson. For example, I wanted to explore the topic of Heros or Being Brave with my Advanced students. We watched a news report of an Australian man trying to catch a crook. The lesson was to practice listening with a particular focus on the Australian accent. We did a few bottom-up activities working on the connected speech present in his flow of speech and talked about the topic extensively. With regards to listening practice, I prefer working on recordings that are not recorded for the classroom as coursebook recordings are too clean, rehearsed, have a small sample size of accents, and eliminate a lot of features of speech e.g. pausing, interruptions, unfinished utterances, conversational fillers, etc, all of which don’t really prepare or help students when faced with the everyday situations they face outside of the classroom.
I really like working with authentic material as I get to connect with the students more. I sometimes feel like the coursebook is a barrier between myself and them, acting as the middleman. With that out of the way most of the time, I get to work with them and find out more about the interests and gripes they have with their L2. I also love sharing the lessons I have done with other teachers when they are looking for something fresh to work with.
2019 was also the start of my Delta journey. I knew I was going to do the Cambridge Delta after deciding to stop my pursuit of a career in secondary school teaching the year prior. I will dedicate my tales of Delta in other blogs in the near future, but I will say here that it was a fantastic experience and changed my world forever.
During my preparations for the Delta Module 1 exam in December, management thought it would be a good idea to throw a spanner in the works and asked me to create a 4-week course through CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) for an incoming group of young learners from Italy. No biggie. Knowing that I contributed well to the documents I talked about earlier, they probably thought this would be a doddle for me. I didn’t mind at the time, and welcomed the challenge, and appreciated the faith the management had in me, but in the back of my mind, I was plagued with the thoughts that I was biting off more than I could chew.
My concerns were alleviated, at first, when I was told I would be given two weeks to work from home to come up with the framework for the course, which was all fine and dandy until I was told to come in and cover for a few days. Pressure was mounting for sure. The spec was to come up with 3-hour daily lessons built around the idea of being a European citizen or living in the EU. Fun. The framework I came up with wasn’t ground-breaking, but I managed to mold something decent using the training and experience from the year gone by. I drafted a document detailing a road map the students would be taking, and lesson plans for the second teacher to follow, as there were going to be two groups of young learners. The week before the students arrived, I was told that they would be taught for 4 hours and not 3. I was at the end of my tether at this point. However, I just took it in my stride and tried to stretch out what had been planned, reinserted stages I had taken out due to time constraints, and made sure productive elements of the plans were given more time.
I was told that the students were a mix of B1 to C1. Sadly, when I got them finally in the classroom, a majority of them were very low. I really had to adapt on the fly and readjust the plans at home seeing as the content was far too strong. Thankfully, the other teacher did his own thing and didn’t need any assistance from me, and I decided there and then to scrap the course I had made on the second week and focus on the students’ interests and needs. They were very much into group work and working on Irish culture which was pleasing. We had a great time working together, and for me personally, it was nice to work with teenagers again after having such a horrible time of it last year. I guess I was healing some wounds there.
2019 was the reset I needed.
At the end of that year, I hoped that 2020 would have brought just as much positivity…