Homophones – pain in the neck?

Recently it has come to my attention that I tend to misspell certain words. Such a discovery may not seem particularly groundbreaking since everybody errs. What does bother me a bit though is that these misspellings often pass unnoticed (by me as well as my spellchecker). I’m specifically talking about homophones, i.e. words having the same pronunciation but different meanings. Although for some reason, it’s unlikely that I will confuse mourning with morning, chances are that I will use brake instead of break without realizing that there’s something wrong with my sentence. I mean, I obviously know the difference between the two expressions but I confuse them nevertheless. Other words I tend to ball up are basic words such as heel vs heal, knew vs. new. Believe it or not, I even caught myself using no instead of know once or twice. And yes, once vs one’s can be tricky too. Well, it seems that the more notorious the word is, the higher probability there is that I will mess things up. Also, short words tend to be trickier since generally, you automatically pay more attention when producing more complex language. This implies (to me) that as I write, I actually hear the words in my head. Funnily enough, once I’m using a more complex expression, which I’m not 100% sure how to pronounce, I hear myself spelling it in my mind (the Czech way though).

Anyway, I’ve recently learned that as far as homophones are concerned, a difference in spelling doesn’t always indicate a difference of origin. As a rule of thumb, dictionaries treat homophones as different words simply because they are spelt differently. So a traditional dictionary will not give you a clue as to whether the words are historically of the same origin. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find out that for example flower and flour have much more in common than you would expect. So, a crazy question occurred to me: is this type of ancient knowledge somehow ingrained in our brains? Well, my hypothesis is a bit flawed, at least in my case, because I’m not a native speaker of English. But still, maybe one of my genes was inherited from someone whose mother tongue was English indeed. Shakespeare maybe? Who knows? One thing is certain, language and brains are amazing entities. At the same time, I think it’s not really surprising that the brain, having to constantly make millions of decisions at every point of our lives, occasionally chooses the wrong option out of the two available in its inventory – and opts for no instead of know. It’s not a tragedy after all; unless this misstep influences our future in some way, everything is fine (apart from the fact that we made idiots of ourselves).

But here’s the thing. While I sometimes err when it comes to homophones, my students don’t as often as one might suppose. They throw around all sorts of other spelling mistakes, particularly typos are their favourites, and they like to coin new words too. But homophones? No, that’s not a big problem. There’s this idea at the back of my mind, I must have heard it somewhere, so correct me if I’m wrong, that native speakers tend to make homophone errors more often than L2 learners do. So my hypothesis is (and maybe somebody out there has already tested this) that the more frequently you are exposed to a language, the better you get at it but at the same time, you become more susceptible to committing a homophone error in writing. It seems that when your level of L2 is not high enough, which is the case of some of my students, your brain really needs to focus on in what is happening and is less prone to making careless mistakes of this sort. I mean, when producing and essay, my students probably think twice before engraving their words in stone (at least in the ideal world scenario), so these slips will not happen as often. They simply want to get things right and thus play it safe. So confusing weak with week is most likely off the table because they are familiar with both words but don’t use them too automatically yet. On the other hand, they might not even ‘consider’ confusing words such as wright vs right, simply because they are NOT familiar with the former. However, when they have enough knowledge, they might do so as a result of trying to use a rule in a context where it does not belong (overgeneralization error).

To conclude on a happier note, homophones are not just a pain in the neck. They can be fun since they are used to create puns, which is a feature I like to use in my lessons.

What about you and homophones?

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Lost zeal?

This blog has been around for quite some time now. It’s an inseparable part of me; it’s an extension of my teacher self. But over the past few months, it’s become a bit more external, so to speak. It’s something out there, something I’m aware of but something I think of less and less. The thing is that I’ve always been considered a prolific blogger. When I was given that label some years ago, I happily accepted it. And most of the time, I lived up to it without having to try too hard. However, this year, there were long stretches of silence from me. It’s even occurred to me a few times this year that since I have not enough content to write about, I’ll quit ‚officially’. Some bloggers disappeared into thin air quite inconspicuously while others did say their goodbye out loud and wound up their endeavour for good. But I think comebacks are ridiculous. And I knew that at some point I would feel the need to come back. So what’s the point?

The question that really bothers me though is why I’ve lost my zeal? This year (as of today) I have only produced 15 posts, which is the fewest of all times (just for the sake of comparison, in 2014 I wrote 96!). Well, we could blame it on the pandemic. Wait! Last year, I published 22 posts and there was no such thing as COVID-19. So apparently, my motivation to write started decreasing before 2020, regardless of the external factors. On the face of it, it seems I’ve figured things out as a teacher and tried everything out so I have nothing new to share. But, as we all know, 2020 has tested us, teachers, more than enough so saying that there was nothing new would sound absolutely implausible.

One way or the other, the good news is that I don’t feel I’ve lost my enthusiasm for the teaching profession itself. Well, maybe I’m not as passionate as I used to be a few years back but this may well be to the good. Having passion is useful but it may also be rather overwhelming – for the teacher as well as the students. So I think that in a way, I have settled and calmed down as a teacher over the past couple of years, which I consider to be a positive sign. This may (or may not) be reflected in the amount of content I publish on my blog.

Anyway, I hope I’ll be able to be in the physical classroom more than I was in 2020 because it’s the place where the most amazing things worth sharing happen.

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Too much colour

So, between my last post and this one, some time has passed – almost two months, to be precise. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to be back at school again. I’ve seen all of my classes, although some of them for just a fleeting moment. The students have had all sorts of learning ‘settings’; apart from the default face-to-face classes at school, they also had online lessons (synchronous as well as asynchronous ones) and recently a novelty has been introduced – rotation learning. This means that a class attends face-to-face lessons for one week and the next week, they have online classes. This is undoubtedly quite helpful from the epidemiological perspective since it ensures that there are fewer students in the school building at every given moment. However, it does have some drawbacks too.

This is an example of my timetable from one of the weeks (I deliberately chose the most colourful one to illustrate my state of mind at that point).

Wednesday

I’m not complaining; I love to have some colour in my life but to be honest, although I was happy to teach face-to-face again and I didn’t mind online teaching per se, this vibrant mixture was not my cup of tea. Given the fact that some breaks last for only 5-10 minutes, it was plain hectic. After all, you need some time to log in and log out of your Zoom lessons (physically and mentally), plus sometimes you just need a cup of coffee or a bathroom break. Some of my colleagues confessed that it was not uncommon for them to almost forget about their asynchronous online classes (they realized later in the day that they had not hit the publish button) or were late for a Zoom session. All in all, we were all a bit confused as to what day it was and what lesson we were actually supposed to be teaching at that particular moment.

Having said that, one should always be happy for what they have. Now, it’s Christmas holiday and we already know that there will be no face-to-face lessons whatsoever at the beginning of January because the pandemic situation has gotten worse over the past few weeks.

I mean, I don’t think our patience and flexibility has ever been tested more. But one thing is certain – most of us are grateful for every day at school. So because I know face-to-face lessons may continue to be scarce, I do my best to utilise every moment. For example, and this may seem a bit controversial, I almost completely ditched tests. I know that some teachers felt the need to catch up with grades as soon as they met their students in the physical classroom. After all, ‘virtual’ grades are not deemed as valid as the ones acquired during regular lessons. However, I felt that the time in the actual classroom was so precious that I didn’t feel the need to waste it on tests. There are other ways to verify that my students have learned all the necessary stuff.

What about you? How colourful has it been for you? 🙂

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Too personal?

Back in spring, before one of my first Zoom sessions with my senior students, I had sent out a list of questions for them to look at. The questions were supposed to serve as a backbone for the upcoming speaking lesson. Most of them were directly related to the current state of affairs – I asked my students how they were feeling, what they were doing, what they thought of the situation, how their families were copying, etc. In the actual Zoom session, the students could then choose the questions they wanted to answer. Since many of the questions were very personal, I didn’t want to push them into answering all of them.

Half a year later, here I am, figuring out another set of questions, for another Zoom conversation lesson, with another group of senior students. Since I forgot where I had stored the original file from spring, I decided to write up a brand new set and I did. The other day, nevertheless, I bumped into the original set. Now I can remind myself of what I was actually asking my students back then. I can compare my train of thought from spring with what I’m thinking now. It surprises me that the questions from spring are very similar to what I’m asking now (some of them are literally identical). However, I can tell that I felt very different when the pandemic started. Between the lines, I can read what my state of mind was but most importantly, how I supposed the students might be feeling.

I remember back then it was a bit painful to talk about feelings. It felt painful for me to ask how the students were copying and how they processed the fears and uncertainties. I can sense that now it might be a bit easier. Although the situation in hospitals is truly dramatic, more dramatic than during the first wave of the pandemic, there is less fear in society (especially less fear of the unknown). So I believe I won’t have to tread so carefully this time. Still, I’m not sure whether my students will be overly excited to talk about their emotions at this stage. They will obediently answer my questions, that’s a sure thing, but if it’s just because they are being polite or because they really feel the need to discuss such stuff, that’s a million-dollar question. The media is full of news babbling about the virus, over and over again. Do we need more of it in the lessons? Well, I could obviously dive right into the school matter I want to cover and completely ignore what is happening. But it would feel a bit inappropriate, especially since I’ll see them for the first time since the schools closed down.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see how a set of questions you want to ask in class tells so much about what’s going on – internally as well as externally, so to speak.

What about you? How personal do you get in class these days?

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Asynchronous learning – in the center of attention

It’s October 30, the last day of the ‘Autumn holiday’ week. Here I am, working on my lesson plans for next week, when the school ‘starts’ again. Well, it’s not a real holiday and the school doesn’t really start on Monday, at least not in the sense one would normally imagine. I’ve actually been working from home for the past couple of weeks and it seems I will be doing so for another few weeks, months, …? Who knows.

So far, I’ve mostly been teaching asynchronously but since the situation regarding the reopening of schools is more than uncertain here in the Czech Republic, I’m planning to include synchronous lessons as well from Monday 2 on. I must say, however, that so far, teaching asynchronously has been a truly enjoyable and creative process for me. Finally, I have all the time in the world to search the internet for interesting materials. I simply love creating quizzes and making videos and recordings of my own. The sky is the limit. But it’s important to constantly ask questions: Is the process as enjoyable and creative for my students as it is for me? How useful are the materials? Are they as efficient as they appear to be? And how do I actually know?

Based on my experience, an asynchronous lesson has the potential to be much better-thought-out than any real lesson (be it in the actual class or via Zoom). It’s a bit like coursebook writing, I guess; you need to think twice before you include a task and the accompanying instructions. For example, you need to carefully consider the length, the actual wording and the fact that sometimes the students are better off with instructions in their mother tongue. You constantly change and rewrite things before you post them. You include a picture if it’s all too visually boring and delete one if it appears a bit too overwhelming. You shorten an exercise once it seems too daunting and you add a sentence or two to avoid the dumbing-down effect. Balance is the key word. And once everything is in balance, you can enjoy the end result to the fullest.

Having said that, while a coursebook writer doesn’t usually know their end ‘viewer’, you do. In fact, it’s imperative to think of the actual student doing the tasks. You need to constantly imagine them in front of their computers: how much time will they potentially spend completing your assignment? What resources will they need? Will their need their parents’ help, for example?

No wonder you end up spending far more time on each lesson than you normally would. But it’s a good investment. I believe that students can gain a lot from a good asynchronous lesson. Why? Particularly because the student is finally working most of the time. You, the teacher, no longer rob the student of their precious time, as you would inevitably do in a synchronous lesson. In other words, they don’t get distracted by everything that is going on in the class and they can fully focus on the task. They are in the center of your attention, so to speak. With that said, the fast finishers get no longer bored (because when they finish, they go about their own business). The slow finishers aren’t so stressed anymore (because nobody is impatiently waiting for them to get a move on).

All in all, it’s a whole new world for me, which I’m really enjoying at the moment.

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Embracing uncertainty

OK. It’s been a week since I wrote my last post and I must say things have changed a lot. Well, actually, things haven’t changed at all, at least not to the better. Still, I feel my perspective has shifted a great deal.

It’s unbelievable how flexible a human being can be, especially in times of despair. People can bear a lot of load. And the more of it they carry, the lighter the burden from previous days seems in comparison to what they are struggling with at the minute.

The teaching and learning conditions at schools here in the Czech Republic (and I dare say in the rest of the world) are nothing like they used to be, say, a year ago. Apart from the physical changes (masks, disinfectants, social distancing), there are some mental obstacles we need to tackle on a daily basis. At the back of our minds, there is this omnipresent fear of something we don’t quite understand. And that’s a hell of a load.

Yet, we are getting used to the invisible enemy. At least I am.

Last week, the weather was splendid. It was as if Mother Nature wanted to make up for the mess people find themselves in right now. So it was possible to have some lessons outdoors (where no masks are needed). For example, a group of my senior students did a project about their hometown – Šternberk. I split the group into pairs and each pair worked on a different topic. Their task was to find information about some of the places of interests found in the vicinity of our school. Then we wandered around and pretended to be tour guides, meaning each pair presented their findings to the rest of the group in English. Whenever possible, they presented the information on the spot, e.g. when talking about the castle, we were literally standing in front of the sight, Later, they wrote their parts up and sent me the electronic versions so that everybody had the the whole compilation at their disposal for their final exams.

Other group did some ‘outdoor’ collaborative writing. The students were working in pairs, lying on the grass or sitting around in the sun. One group wrote a story starting When I was seven years old … The story was supposed to be written in the past tense (which was the focus of the lesson) and it had to include a moral or an interesting twist. Another group wrote collaborative essays on the topic My future is in my hands? (the question mark is important here). Again, the lesson was based around the topic of future, which we had talked about in the previous lessons. All the stories were finally written up in an electronic version for me to see before the students will present their work in class next week.

Learning outdoors is fun and honestly, it’s great to have a change of scene. However, there are some pitfalls to it too. Firstly, it can get a bit noisy from the traffic. Also, not all students are disciplined enough to be able to concentrate on the given task – there are way too many distractions. Finally, outdoor teaching is not suitable for all types of activities. In fact, unless you have a fully equipped outdoor classroom, it’s something that definitely spices up the time spent at school but it’s just a temporary measure. Not to mention the most important thing – the weather must be nice.

Today is Friday and we are not at school. In an attempt to improve the epidemic situation, The Ministry of Health advised us to stay at home till Tuesday, which is a bank holiday in the Czech Republic. Well, we’ll see what the future holds for us. Hopefully, we’ll be back at school on Tuesday, teaching face to face. Otherwise, hello, online teaching!

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I enjoy every day (at work) like it was the last …

I resumed teaching ‘full time’ on September 2. It was after the long, infamous break starting back in March. I was so happy to see the students face to face again and I was eager to see the new ones. I dare say many of them were happy to see me too. I had had plenty of time to get ready for my job during the lockdown and the holidays – emotionally and professionally – so I jumped back on the bandwagon enthusiastically.

The first days were great and on the face of it, everything seemed back to normal – no masks anywhere. Then COVID-19 ‘attacked’ again so masks were introduced again – inside the building, in the shared spaces. This was still OK although many of us questioned the decision. If the virus was not dangerous in the classrooms, why was it dangerous in the school corridors? Anyway, it was always a major relief to enter the classroom and take off the mask.

Then things got a bit mixed up again and since Friday, masks have been compulsory in the classrooms too. This means that so far I have ‘only’ done one full day of teaching English in a mask (to be precise, I used a shield but I’m not sure if this will be possible in the upcoming days since for some reason, it is not officially deemed to be a proper protective tool). My students had to have their masks on all day long. And they all suffered.

You might be based in a place where this has been the standard for a long time – for example, in Slovakia, the have been wearing masks in the classrooms since the beginning of the school year. So, you might be thinking: why the heck is she complaining? Yet, I am. I simply believe facial masks don’t belong to school – at least at the primary and lower secondary level. Although I know the Czech Republic is not doing well in terms of the COVID-19 situation and I partially understand the reasoning behind the new measure – it is better to wear masks than have the schools closed completely – I am very sad and feel terribly sorry for the students. A school should be a safe space and learning should be enjoyable. Apparently, it is by no longer safe to go to school. Plus being at school is probably a nuisance rather than a joyful experience.

First of all, it is hard to breath in the masks, let alone speak and concentrate. What is more, I fear it may be detrimental to the students’ health in the long term. It may be easier at universities, where the lecturer speaks, and everybody just listens and takes their notes. But in an English lesson, for example, where the students are supposed to listen and speak (preferably in pairs and groups), wearing masks is absolutely inconvenient.

I really don’t like the arguments stating that “in other wakes of life people have to wear masks all day long and they don’t complain”. The people doing these jobs, such as surgeons and nurses, who I have always truly appreciated for what they do, have chosen to do what they do. They knew long ago what the challenging jobs entail. But our kids did not choose this; school education is compulsory up to a certain age, so they have no choice and neither do their parents.

So, apart from wanting to rant a bit here on my blog, I guess I just wanted to say this: I love my job even more than I did before even though it may not be as enjoyable as it used to be. I sometimes feel terribly emotional. I feel enormously compassionate with the students, which can sometimes be hard to bear (and lead to such rants). Also, it seems inevitable that schools will be closed again soon so I enjoy every day of teaching like it was the last, regardless of all the obstacles we are dealing with at the minute. In the meantime, I hope for better days. Also, I will try to plan my lessons so that we can be outdoors as much as possible, at least as long as the weather is warm and dry.

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Fancy taking a sabbatical?

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This time it feels like I’m taking a really long break. Apart from enjoying my summer holidays, I’m taking a mental break from anything related to my job. You might have guessed that anyway since I haven’t written a single blog post for quite a while, which is not typical of me – I’ve normally been the most prolific in July and August in the past. I’m not very active on social media either, especially Twitter is being neglected at the minute.

This, by no means, was some conscious decision of mine. As cliché as it sounds, I need to say it just happened. I suspect it’s partly because back in June, an important era in my professional life had ended and I suddenly felt like there was a new beginning on the horizon. And so on a subconscious level I probably felt it might be good to just ‘sit down and chill out’ a bit before diving in my duties again. Also, the pandemic obviously mixed things up a bit so this summer can never feel the same summers normally feel.

Anyways, I’ve recently been doing the most trivial things you can imagine – reading fiction (obviously non-elt related), listening to YouTube videos about simple life and slow living, watching HBO (nothing to do with teaching), cleaning my house, decluttering, organizing, looking for my style (oops, that’s a bit too trivial, even to my taste), you name it. You may think I will probably have a hard time catching up when I get back in the teaching saddle again. Still, I feel I’ll be perfectly ready when the school starts because ironically, my brain is currently taking in much more than it can normally afford during the busy school year.

The only thing directly related to my job I’ve done recently was when I had a session with one of my students to help her to prepare for her final exams. And that was when I felt the flutters in my chest again – I realized how much I love my job. I suddenly felt I couldn’t wait to be back in the classroom. I couldn’t wait to share with my students everything I’d learned over the past few weeks (months, in fact, because I haven’t seen many of them since the COVID-19 started). I’m sure many of them will have changed a lot and I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ve grown and what they’ ve learned.

The other day I read a post on Facebook where someone asked this question in a teachers forum: What are you doing during the holidays to prepare for the upcoming school year? Lots of teachers replied enthusiastically, saying that they are doing lots of stuff: cutting out pictures, looking for new teaching materials, organizing their digital files, etc. There were a few, though, who got a bit angry and accused the person that by asking such a question they are implying that teachers should be working on holidays and as a result, those who are just chilling out and recharging their batteries feel a bit guilty for not being busy getting ready for work.

Well, I remember the days when I ‘worked hard’ during the holidays too because I had loads of energy and ideas and I simply wanted to take advantage of that. This year, on the other hand, I barely think of school and it feels right too. So, I guess the trick is to do what you enjoy doing, whether it is job-related or not. In the end, either will be beneficial for your well-being as well as your professional development.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that being able to take my mind off the stress of my job for a longer period of time (while still getting paid!) and having the opportunity to focus on what I love outside of my work is highly beneficial both for my psyche and subsequently for the psyche of others – my students included. I believe that we, ordinary teachers, should be entitled to a longer sabbatical. This way we could pursue our personal interests, develop new skills – both professional and personal – as well as gain new energy and motivation. Also, it would definitely be an efficient way of avoiding burnout.

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Like seeing an old friend

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Today, after three months of teaching online – asynchronously – I saw my younger students face to face again. I was obviously eager to see how they were doing and to learn all about their learning experience over the past few months. So, in order to get the picture, I asked them personal questions as well as questions about their learning progress. In other words, I wanted to know how they had learned and how they felt about the learning strategies they had had to apply.

Apart from small talk, I also tried to include some revision of the things we had covered during the COVID-19 period to unofficially gauge my students’ progress. I took it easy and slowly in the beginning because I assumed that they might need some time to adjust, especially in terms of their speaking performance (after all, they hadn’t practised speaking for nearly three months!). But I was pleasantly surprised – they caught up quickly. Well, I’m not saying they were as fluent as they had been before the lockdown, but I can’t say they were less fluent either. So, I thought to myself that after all, speaking fluency is not that easy to lose once you’ve mastered it to a certain degree, and I felt truly relieved that no damage had been done despite what many sceptics assumed. All in all, we simply picked up where we had last left off. It felt like seeing an old friend at a school union – although you haven’t seen each other for ages, you immediately find topics to talk about.

What surprised me even more though was the fact that in the face-to-face lesson, they were producing language which we had specifically covered during the lockdown. When I asked them if they needed me to re-explain some things, they refused politely. What’s more, they later proved that they truly didn’t need my additional help. Honestly, I should have felt rejected and useless, but instead, I felt excited. To put it bluntly, I was pleased that my online teaching had had some positive effect on my students, which was particularly true for their grammar knowledge. It seemed to me that the fact that they had had plenty of opportunities and time to process the new language items on their own and at their own pace contributed to their progress in the grammar area.

The above-mentioned discoveries shook my beliefs concerning how grammar should be taught. I am not a big fan of explicit presentation of grammar points and I have always believed that grammar should be taught implicitly, inconspicuously, i.e. through meaningful context and plenty of practice – written as well as oral. However, it seems that if you give students the time and space they need to truly grasp a problem, even in an online, asynchronous environment, they may later need less practice than you think they do. Also, it occurred to me that if *I* am given the time and space I need to plan activities and think things through in the online environment, I can probably do much better as a teacher than I do in a physical classroom. Scary, right?

Well, I’ve always known it – it takes each and every one of my students a different amount of time to really master the content I throw at them – but now the truth has revealed itself to the fullest and I can’t ignore it any more now that I’ve seen it. 🙂

 

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My little experiments

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The realm of online teaching is perfect territory for all sorts of experiments – social, pedagogical and educational – especially now when the parties involved are not under too much pressure from the education system. What I mean here is that nobody forces the teacher to produce a certain amount of grades, nobody strictly tells them how much work they need to complete and assign (more is definitely not better) and so they are less stressed by the need to come up with concrete results and tangible outcomes.

So, I wake up every morning and promise myself that from this day on, I will assign tasks which will be totally optional. I will finally set my students free from the constraints of the system. And I will see what happens. Will the participation drop dramatically? Or will I be pleasantly surprised? I keep telling myself that, after all, assigning work exclusively to students who really want to do it will actually save me a lot of time and energy. There will be less feedback to write. There will be less to worry about in general. But, for some reason, I haven’t had the courage to go this ‘unconventional’ yet. I believe it is because for some people (me being one of them) it’s terribly difficult to change their mindset overnight – the mindset telling you that many students won’t do anything if you don’t make them and that people must appreciate your work by responding to it in some way.

But I’m not a monster. I do give my students some leeway in terms of completing their homework. For example, I recently assigned an exercise for students to practise comparatives and superlatives through L1-L2 translation. I asked them to do the task, but I also included the key with the correct answers and asked them to afterwards look at the key and correct the mistakes. The idea that they can look at the key prior to actually doing the task is nagging at the back of my mind but, well, that’s the risk. That’s part of the social/pedagogical/educational experiment. I have nothing to lose and my students have nothing to lose either. They can only gain.

Some say that it is vitally important to stick to a daily routine when you end up confined like this. But I’ve heard others argue that flexibility is the key and that rigidity of any kind is detrimental to your mental health in such a difficult situation; it will kill your spirit and finally drive you even crazier than you already are. I strongly believe in the former and thus I try to work around a regular timetable. I wouldn’t have to be so persistent if I didn’t want to – I could skip a ‘lesson’ here and there or add one on a day I don’t teach a particular class but that’s my experiment. I decided I wanted to be a predictable type of teacher, even though I can’t really say whether it is beneficial for my students or if it actually drives them crazy. It probably depends on what kind of people they are and what situation they find themselves in right now. One way or the other, they can always count on me – I will always be there on certain days and at certain times. Will they eventually appreciate it? We shall see.

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