How to find the deeper meaning

The other day, I came across the concept of logotherapy. At first, I was rather confused by the fact that it was mentioned in the context of education – since it’s a term mainly used in psychotherapy – but as I further explored it, it started to make perfect sense.

So, logotherapy is a therapeutic approach that helps people find personal meaning in life. It’s a form of psychotherapy that is focused on the future and on our ability to endure hardship and suffering through a search for purpose. Logotherapy was developed by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frank and is based on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. In other words, Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a ‘will to meaning’ – a desire to find meaning in life. Also, he believed that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning. 

Frankl believed in three core properties on which his theory and therapy were based:

  • Each person has a healthy core.
  • One’s primary focus is to enlighten others about their internal resources and provide them with tools to use their inner core.
  • Life offers purpose and meaning but does not promise fulfilment or happiness.

Logotherapy proposes that meaning in life can be discovered in three distinct ways:

  • By creating a work or doing a deed.
  • By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  • By the attitude that we take toward unavoidable suffering.

So, what does all this have to do with teaching, ELT, education, etc.? First of all, I strongly believe that apart from teaching English, our primary goal is to enlighten our students about their internal resources and to provide them with tools to use their inner core. We, teachers, can help our students to find meaning through creativity and creation. Also, we can offer opportunities for them to experience something meaningful in the classroom as well as outside of it. Finally, we can dig deep through all the layers of what we see on the outside and find the healthy core each student has.

Second of all, logotherapy, or the realization of its basic premise of it, can help us start the healing process aimed at ourselves. We teachers also have healthy cores and we definitely have the power to realize that even though life (or our job) does not automatically promise fulfilment or happiness, it definitely offers purpose, so the only challenge is to discover it – through creativity and work. And even though we may suffer now and then, or feel unfulfilled or dissatisfied, it’s the attitude we take towards this sort of ‘hardship’.

Thirdly, there’s the question of motivation – a concept so often debated in the context of ELT and education in general. Once you find a purpose in doing something, for example learning a language, things become easier for everybody involved – for the student as well as the teacher.

From the above, it seems that having a meaning or purpose in life correlates with one’s overall health, happiness, and life satisfaction. So, through logotherapy, we teachers could kill several proverbial birds with one stone. We could simply make the classroom a happier place and our work even more meaningful. After all, once the teacher is happy, the students are too (and vice versa).

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The 5 out of 10 speaking activity

Here’s a quick post in which I’d like to share a simple speaking/vocabulary practice activity. No preparation is needed.

Get each student to write down 10 words on a separate piece of paper. These can either be from a specific section of the unit you need to revise, or they can create their own sets based on their hobbies and interests. So, if a student is interested in music, he or she writes down words such as conductor, orchestra, stage, etc. While the first option is probably more practical syllabus-wise, the second alternative is far more personalized and student-focused, and your students will probably like it more because they are in the role of experts and can showcase what they like and/or are good at. Tell our students you will collect their lists.

Before you collect them, though, make sure they sign them. Shuffle the lists and draw one randomly. Call out the author of the list and ask them to come to the front of the class (I asked them to sit on my chair while I sat at the back of the classroom). The rest of the class should grab a blank piece of paper. The student in the front chooses 5 of the 10 words from their list and defines them one by one. His classmates try to guess and write down the words, but they must not say them out loud. After the student describes all five words, they reveal the answers. For each correct word, each student gets a point. The speaker then draws another list from the pile. This goes on until everybody has spoken.

I was surprised by how enjoyable the activity was. Also, it was simple yet very effective. Apparently, my students liked both describing as well as guessing the words.

The 28th P.A.R.K.Conference

In April 2021, I wrote up my blog post about the 3rd P.A.R.K. Online Conference. It seems like ages ago now although it’s just 18 months. Things were so different back then and by ‘different’ I mean, well, not precisely satisfying for us teachers. So before I even begin this post, I need to pause and give a moment of appreciation to the P.A.R.K. conference organizers who, even in the time of greatest despair, didn’t give up and gave us hope by keeping up the good job, albeit in a slightly different format.

But here we are – in November 2022. It seems that finally, things have got back to normal and once again, we can live, breathe, attend ‘real’ conferences and learn from people face to face. And I must say that the 28th P.A.R.K. conference has probably been the most enjoyable experience in the professional world so far. Mind you, the previous conferences there or elsewhere had been as good as this one; the line-up of presenters, the atmosphere, and the catering standards had always been top-notch. Still, this time, I felt more present and focused than ever before. So I wonder… is it my age, my experience or the fact that we have become more appreciative after having been through so much recently?

Maybe it was the enthusiasm, joy and authenticity with which the presenters delivered their talks which resonated with me so much. And to be honest, we all got an enormous boost of energy right at the start because the conference was kicked off by the amazing Hugh Dellar. I had already known Hugh from the online environment and had highly appreciated his work. But once I saw him present face-to-face, I was impressed – by his cordial personality as well as his insights on teaching. In his opening plenary, he spoke about motivation. And I need to make the long story short here because otherwise, it would be a very, very long post (and I have some other things to cover here). So, here’s a summary of the tips Hugh gave the audience on how to motivate students:

  • Listen to your students (identify their goals and needs, listen to the content of what they say, simply make the most of the people in the room).
  • Talk to your students (don’t worry about your TTT).
  • Tell your students about yourselves (show them you are a normal person).
  • Teach your students useful things (what they actually need to say or what they would say in L1).
  • Teach the class first and the coursebook second (don’t worry about the number of pages you need to cover, skip or elaborate if need be).
  • Be careful how you correct (overcorrection can destroy people’s confidence; your goal is to help students to say things in a better way).
  • Test your students (but in a less frightening way, provide positive feedback, use instant revision activities, get students to re-tell texts and re-do tasks, gap words in your board work).
  • Worry less about the topics (even the PARSNIPs, let students ‘bring’ the topics to the lessons).
  • Worry more about the language and anecdotes (sometimes it’s the language that drives the interest, not the topic; any text has language that may be useful to students).
  • Look deep into your coursebook (a good textbook has little bits of speaking often, teaches useful language, and has conversations in L2 that resemble the ones they have in L1).

All in all, Hugh’s approach seems to be very personalized, student-focused, as well as practical, which definitely resonates with me.

And then it was time for the first workshop of the day. From the plethora of outstanding presenters, I chose to see my favourite methodology teacher of all time – Nikki Fořtová. I remember as if it was just yesterday; I was applying for my master’s programme at Masaryk University in Brno and during the oral examination, she was there on the committee – as inconspicuous and humble as I have always known her since. And then, two years later, when I was taking my final exams, she was there too, sitting quietly in the back of the room, taking notes. In the meantime, we had a lot of fantastic methodology lessons with her. So it’s not surprising that I always try to see her – because of my nostalgic memories and because she is such an amazing professional.

Nikki started her workshop in an unusual manner – she didn’t just say Hello, my name is … and I’m going to talk about X and Y. No, that would be too plain for Nikki. Instead, before she even started formally, as if by the way, she bombarded us with tips from the virtual world, such as youglish.com, where you can learn how to pronounce tricky expressions by listening to authentic videos which contain the word you searched for. Or textingstory.com, an app which enables you to write a text conversation, create a video from your story, watch your creation on the screen, and share it with your students. Then she offered a few handy classroom activities which can potentially make your coursebook more engaging. Throughout her workshop, I learned that, for instance, running dictation can be done in groups of three, not just in pairs. I learned how to erase a permanent marker from the whiteboard (by drawing over the marks you’ve made in a permanent marker with a dry-erase marker). I also discovered that according to research, you can either pre-teach vocabulary or teach it later – it doesn’t really make a difference. And learned a new word – maven. 🙂 And I’m definitely going to try the run and rip activity she demonstrated. And finally, she showed us an amazing platform called blooket.com, something I had never heard of before but am eager to explore. On this website, the teacher picks a question set and a unique game mode. Then, the website generates a code that players can use to join the game on their own devices. After the game starts, the players will answer questions to help them win. 

Just before the lunch break, I saw a talk by Charles Stewart. This was a new ELT figure for me and I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I considered it a step out of my comfort zone. But you know what they say: only if you leave your comfort zone do you really start growing. Charles’s workshop was called Let’s Talk About Progression, from B1 to C2, but the main theme was speaking, namely how to achieve excellence in it. In his view, excellence entails speaking fluently, naturally, and accurately. It also means using body language appropriately, knowing what to say in a particular situation and context, and having plenty of time for planning and rehearsal. He also pointed out that it is important to balance fluency and accuracy. Although many teachers would probably suggest that fluency is far more important, we should also aim at accuracy. Teaching it doesn’t have to be a nuisance, though. He advised that we can teach language structures covertly and inconspicuously. For example, you can give your students a list of have you ever questions before you even teach the present perfect. Students will naturally deduce how to use it long before you explain how things work. Also, he stressed the importance of feedback. He believes that some of the most learning he has done was through feedback. We talked about different ways of providing feedback, e.g. sandwich feedback (positive + constructive + positive), triangle feedback (3 different things a student did well or 2 positives and 1 negative/constructive), or two stars and a wish (2 good points and one thing to improve). Apart from formal teacher feedback, he mentioned the importance of self-reflection and peer feedback. Throughout the talk, it was clear that there was this pattern emerging – the rule of three. Charles called it The 3rd Time Lucky.  

In his after-lunch workshop, Hugh Dellar talked about magic. Yes, he believes teachers can make magic in their classrooms and that’s one of the reasons he still keeps doing this job. He shared a few moving anecdotes from his own teaching career and he also recalled one of the best lessons he’d ever taught – it was one of those moments when he felt hopeless and desperate and almost wanted to give up but then, something magical happened, which, in the end, changed things completely.

After this beautiful, emotional introduction, Hugh spoke about the ways of turning a lesson into something meaningful and useful. As he already mentioned in his opening plenary, one of our primary goals as teachers is to help students say what they want to say – in better English. So, it’s a good idea to board students’ real-life stories, reformulate what they say and then encourage them to use the ‘upgraded’ version. To achieve this, the teacher should try to make space beyond controlled and free practice activities, even when they seem under pressure because they have a lot to ‘teach’. He advises us to leave space for chat, small talk, stories, and banter. He says that we should keep in mind that lexis is far more often the issue than grammar. Don’t worry about the syllabus too much. When a student needs a word, they are ready for that word. Also, accept the fact that students sometimes say things that break conventional taboos (they even bring up PARSNIPs), which can be unpleasant for the teacher to deal with. Some of the most unpleasant ideas we have to deal with in class sometimes emerge in response to the most mundane questions. In the same vein, personal responses will often emerge after fairly impersonal questions. So, all you need to do is to provide the language the student needs and then perhaps explain why you disagree. This can help you take the heat off a difficult situation and you will still be able to provide some useful language to that particular student as well as the rest of the group. Remember, though, that you only get better at turning student output into whole-class input with practice. All in all, the process of working with the language is more important than the product. So, learn to travel off map more. When something interesting pops up, be ready to ditch the plan. Learn how to enquire and explore. Even if magic doesn’t happen immediately, at least you have provided opportunities for it to potentially emerge.

And finally, here comes the closing plenary by Nikki Fořtová – the proverbial icing on the cake. You may think that one could already have enough of a presenter they saw earlier that day, but no, you can never have enough of Nikki, simply because she is amazing and she has so much to offer. So I stayed fully focused till the very end, taking notes, trying not to miss anything important she had to say. Her topic was called Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teachers from Someone Who’s Spend 21 Years Trying to Adopt Them. David Koster, the most important guy behind the scenes, had introduced the topic as a bit of a tongue-in-the-cheek one, so we were ready for some fun. And yes, it was playful indeed but quite deep at the same time.

So, what do highly effective teachers do, according to Nikki?  

  • They turn up (they stick with their students and are available for them; they show commitment).
  • They bring T.E.A. to the classroom (trust, empathy and appreciation).
  • They are organized (they clean and purge and they have a logical filing system; something to remember: according to research, students do better in tests in an organized classroom).
  • They take risks (Nikki mentioned a few memorable things here: the fixed vs. growth mindset, the quote by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”, and the metaphorical journey leading from the comfort zone to growth).
  • They avoid being happiness hoovers, i.e. they avoid sucking the joy of every situation (tip: you can always flip a negative statement into a positive one, e.g. This class just can’t learn. > Every student has the potential to learn).
  • They reflect and have bouncebackability (tip: apply the ALAC model: acting > looking back > assessment of essential aspects > creating alternative methods of action > acting > … )
  • They recharge (tip: help yourself before you can help others, say “no” in a nice way, i.e. hit the pause button, use the Time Management Eisenhower Matrix (a task management tool that helps you organize and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance. Using the tool, you’ll divide your tasks into four boxes based on the tasks you’ll do first, the tasks you’ll schedule for later, the tasks you’ll delegate, and the tasks you’ll delete.)

And that was it. After the raffle, I was headed home – happy, recharged and full of optimism and new ideas to use in class. And I feel the same now that I have finished my post. 🙂

I’m proud to say that this post has also been published on the P.A.R.K. conference blog.

The Honeymoon (Hangover) Effect

So, you may have heard about the term honeymoon phase. It is an early part of a couple’s relationship where everything seems carefree and happy. It usually lasts from six months to two years and can be marked with lots of laughs, intimacy, and fun dates. In psychology, however, there is a term called the honeymoon effect, which gives a name to a state that happens with an increase in job satisfaction immediately following a job change and it’s followed by the honeymoon hangover effect – a decline in job satisfaction.

When I came across the said concepts, it crossed my mind that we teachers probably experience similar states – not only throughout our entire careers but even throughout the school year.

As a newbie teacher, one is obviously excited about their job and what’s in store for them. After some time, you may get a little less tipsy, so to speak, because you start to understand what the real challenges of the job are. And you gradually get less and less excited because, in a way, every day is the same. Plus, it’s not always rewarding to be a teacher. When I personally got dangerously unmotivated in the past, I subsequently and almost invariably experienced some kind of change (which came to me unexpectedly or I simply made things happen). As a consequence, a new spurt of bliss, passion and energy sprang from within.

As I said, I believe the same pattern applies to each and every school year. After the summer holidays, I am full of enthusiasm and a bottomless well of new ideas. I can multitask like a pro. This period can last up to a few months but right before Christmas, I start to feel the first signs of pressure and the hangover effect sets in. For me, the most critical months are probably January and February (and March too), which can definitely be ascribed to the chilly weather and the lack of light too. But it’s not just that.

And in the same vein, within a single day, one lesson can be an amazing success while the next one is a complete disaster. And you ask yourself: Where did I go wrong? Well, maybe you got too excited and thus too exhausted by the triumph that you couldn’t but experience the honeymoon hangover effect.

And finally, the smallest of the smallest units – the lesson itself. It was at uni where they told us that we should be careful – activities should never be too exciting. The teacher should always keep things at bay. Well, now I know why. If an activity is too invigorating, the students simply get tired or worse, they go on the rampage.

Now, negativity aside, the question is how to stay in the honeymoon phase for as long as possible. The following tips are some of the things that help me overcome the periods of honeymoon hangover.

  1. I try to be grateful for my job. As I said earlier, it’s not always rewarding but when it is, I bookmark the moment – mentally or in writing (on this blog, for example).
  2. I give myself permission to feel frustrated from time to time. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies after all. So I try to be gentle and compassionate with myself if things get a bit overwhelming.
  3. I go for every opportunity to learn and share. I go to workshops and conferences, and I read about and pay attention to everything that may be useful or uplifting.
  4. They say that change is the spice of life. So I consciously shake things up in the classroom from time to time.
  5. I constantly reflect on what I do in the classroom and how I feel about it.
  6. I try to keep in mind that change is the only constant, so I accept the fact that a period of bliss will always be followed by a period of distress and vice versa. By merely accepting this fact, things instantly get much better.

To wind up, I’d like to stress that I distinguish the honeymoon hangover effect from burnout syndrome. It is because the latter results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and thus is a much more serious condition that needs to be addressed differently. However, I believe that some of the tips above may, to a certain extent, help to ease the symptoms of burnout syndrome, or they may at least serve as prevention.

Too much of a good thing …

I’ve always known that there is a fine line between being too passionate about what one teaches and being excited about passing knowledge on to their students. It is generally believed that it is essential for a teacher to be enthusiastic about their subject, and whenever I discuss this with my students they always tell me that they appreciate teachers who are passionate. Of course, there are students whose primary goal is to understand and learn quickly and effectively, and they don’t really care if the teacher loves what they do or not. In other words, their intrinsic motivation is high enough for them to be distracted by the teacher’s excitement or the lack of it.

I’m saying all this because I believe I’m very passionate about my subject (English as a foreign language). It’s crossed my mind a few times though that sometimes my zeal can actually be detrimental to my students – or at least to some of them. This can happen when, for example, I’m too creative, original, artistic, inventive, or innovative. As a result, what I do is almost overkill. Too much of a good thing, as it were. So, those students who like to learn in a calm and structured environment may feel a little confused and disoriented.

I’ve come across this post by Paul Moss called LEARNED HELPLESSNESS AND THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE which discusses both terms in detail. My curiosity was piqued by the former concept – learned helplessness – which is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. This person then comes to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available. After seeing this video, which beautifully demonstrates how a teacher can ‘create helplessness’ in the classroom, so to speak, I realized that maybe, some of my most original and well-intended activities were quite confusing and didn’t lead to much learning. They may have been beneficial for the fast learners and/or talented students but they were useless and even frustrating for the students who performed in the mid-range and lower.

In my defence, most of my students are fast learners and talented, too. But still, I sometimes take it for granted and forget about the ones that may have had a bad day or the ones who simply don’t get the point of an activity that I consider absolutely amazing. In his post, Paul Moss offers several tips on how to design a course effectively to avoid learned helplessness and the curse of knowledge. I’d add that if an activity seems too confusing or even pointless to some students, it’s vital to explain the teacher’s reasoning behind it. In fact, I believe it’s always good to tell students why we are doing what we are doing – not just when they feel lost (which may be too late anyway).

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I still believe that passion and excitement are good things. However, their intrinsic nature is emotional so they need to be consciously controlled by reason and logic. Specifically, they need to be guided by purpose, aim and intention.

It’s important to enjoy the little things

I sometimes ponder this: What is it that makes my job so enjoyable for me. Why is it so that the longer I have been a teacher, the more I love being one? You know, it sometimes crosses my mind that I should be a little burned out … a bit worn-out after so many years of doing the same thing. But I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong; I did experience moments of despair and fatigue in the past, most of which took place at the start of my career and also quite recently – during the remote teaching period. But eventually, I learned from that experience and now I can use the newly acquired and assimilated knowledge and skills to enjoy what I do even more.

But I’m spurting big words here. Life consists of small moments which after all, create the bigger picture. The small pieces of a mosaic are what is important. But what are they?

What first comes to mind is my experience, without which I would hardly be able to fully enjoy anything related to my profession. Not that I didn’t enjoy my job when I was younger and inexperienced. I did. Those joyful moments, however, were rarely planned for. Neither were they too permanent for that matter. I mostly experienced sporadic, spontaneous moments of happiness, followed by instances of hopelessness in quick succession. Just like a rollercoaster. Ups and downs, the ebb and flow. But that was an inevitable part of my evolution as a teacher.

My age is another important factor in the interplay of light and shadow of being a teacher. It’s obviously closely related to experience. However, what I mean is that the older you get, the more easy-going, relaxed and tolerant you can become and thus, you create more space for enjoyment. Also, without trying to sound too dramatic, you realize you have less and less time left. You realize that there will be a point in the future when you won’t be able to do what you love anymore … for whatever reasons. And finally, the older you get, the more you appreciate working with children and young people in general. And the wider the gap, the more you can gain from it. ¨Some say that grandchildren may often have a better relationship with their grandparents than children have with their parents. That’s what I mean.

Related to all the above, you gradually have better relationships with your colleagues and bosses. You know your stuff so you’ve become immune to all the potential trickery and abuse. In other words, you know your worth. You can easily navigate yourself in the world of your profession – you know what to look for and what to discard and fake and useless.

And finally, the everyday moments of joy – when a student approaches you and tells you that she enjoys your lessons. Or when they come up to you and ask for help, which you can easily provide. When they beam with enthusiasm and energy in your lessons. When they tell you that you are their favourite teacher. When your effort is appreciated by your boss or a colleague who has just observed your lesson. And so on and so forth. It’s right here in your hands and has always been. It’s just that you can clearly see it now.

The perfect warm-up activity

So, I haven’t shared anything practical or not-so-practical here on my blog for some time. Not that I haven’t had any ideas going on in my head … it’s just that I somehow lacked the need to write about my professional endeavours. I didn’t even feel the urge to write about my recent trip to Scotland, which is really strange because quite honestly, it was full of potential. Maybe it was too good … too intense for me to materialize it in the form of words. Maybe at some point, I will be able to verbalize what I experienced but not just yet.

Anyway, the time of hibernation is over, apparently. One of the reasons I may have a sudden spurt of energy is that I recently attended an ELT conference. And every teacher knows that conferences are immense sources of inspiration and creativity. The people, the venues, the atmosphere, the memories of the previous events – this all creates a unique experience that invariably recharges everyone’s dead batteries.

So, today I’d like to share an activity which I’d like to call the perfect warm-up/speaking activity. It’s perfect because it’s suitable for all levels of proficiency, for almost all age groups plus it doesn’t require any preparation whatsoever (if you wish so). What’s more, it’s highly personalized. I should not forget to credit Sarka Cox from ILC Brno, who presented this activity in a workshop.

Here goes … While in class, it’s best if you demonstrate the activity briefly and then it’s pretty straightforward. Simply put two words on the board. Ideally, they should be opposites (dark – light, day – night) or two things from a category (train – bus, dog – cat). Ask the students: Do you think I prefer travelling by bus or train/Do you think I like X or Y (for lower levels). When they make a guess, reveal the correct answer and the students who guessed correctly get a point. Then briefly explain why you prefer X to Y (you may also want to put some functional language on the board for students to be able to talk about their preferences). Then it is your ‘partner’s’ turn (choose a student to demonstrate what they would ask you next).

The students can ask about their preferences gradually or they can prepare a list of a certain number of pairs in advance (I prefer the former option because the latter alternative will actually be used later on). Tell your students that they should always record the two options in writing but that they should never indicate the correct answer (by ticking or underlining the prefered option, for example) because their lists will be used in the follow-up stage of the activity.

After some time (a couple of minutes or when you observe that most pairs have, let’s say, a minimum of 5 pairs of words), pause the activity. Ask how many points each student got, i.e. how well they know each other. In the next stage, change pairs. The students take their original lists and swap them with their new partners. The new partner then guesses what the student’s preferences are plus they speculate and give reasons why they think so.

As I said, no preparation is needed but you can create a nice PP presentation with pictures of the options. You can have photos from magazines or other visuals at hand, which, I admit, may be more suitable for young learners. However, I used the simple version of the activity with all my classes (12 – 18 year-olds), i.e. writing the pairs on the board/paper, and it was absolutely sufficient. The good thing about this activity is that it is highly personalized; the students can decide what they want to talk about and avoid what they don’t want to discuss. Also, when I tried it myself during the said workshop, it was quite challenging and enjoyable because I had to make an effort – I had to come up with the options and actually think about what I prefer and why.

If you decide to try the activity out, enjoy! 🙂

Let it be(e)!

One of the things I’ve always liked to have in my life is control. It sounds a bit authoritarian but I believe it’s one of the basic human desires no matter what anybody says. This has also long been one of my deep-seated convictions about teaching and classroom management. So, as a teacher, I like to have the upper hand in class, too. Not that I crave power because I like the feel of it, it just feels safer to hold the reins and be in charge. To be more precise, deep down I believe things go more smoothly and effectively, i.e. students learn more when there is an order as opposed to chaos.

When I was younger, I often lost ground when things slipped out of control in class, especially with younger kids. Consequently, I would feel really bad about myself. In my book, it was always my fault. Luckily, it’s much better now because a) I’m more experienced so I don’t often let things go out of control – simply by taking precautions, b) if it does happen, though, I have some strategies and coping mechanisms to handle the situation, and c) I’ve come to realize that after all, losing control may not always be a bad thing. I’ve learned it the hard way, though…

I’ve learned there are many situations when things can’t be controlled. And you have to accept it. When a bee flies into the classroom, there’s not much you can do to stop the disorder and confusion immediately. People feel threatened in such situations. It’s their basic instinct to start screaming and jumping around like crazy. Well, you, the one in charge, can kill the bee (which I’d rather not do) or let it out (which I always opt for), but this intervention takes time. Needless to say, by the time you handle the situation, the class has already fallen apart and you’ll need a lot of energy to restore some kind of ‘law and order’. When your student gets so sick that you need to call an ambulance in the middle of your class, you can bet your bottom dollar that you will never be able to resume the lesson. It’s so strange, you know … when the sick student is safe and in good hands of the paramedics, your teacher-self automatically wants to pick up where they left off because you feel you owe the other students. But it’s not possible and it’s actually insane to think you can simply rewind and start over. And let’s face it, it’s you who desperately needs the restoration, not the students.

It may sound too harsh but apart from being a control freak, I also like to mentally abuse myself. When I feel things have slipped out of control, I always ask myself: What would people think if they suddenly entered the classroom? What would they see? Chaos. Mayhem. Havoc. They’d simply see the opposite of what a normal lesson should look like and I’d probably have to explain myself, which automatically adds to my dissatisfaction with myself as a teacher.

But sometimes I’m kind to myself, which is happening more and more these days, so when things slip out of control (because kids are having too much fun during an activity or something has just upset them), I force myself to stop and quietly observe. In other words, I do not jump up and interfere right away as my true nature dictates to me, but I take a step back, metaphorically and literally speaking. And sometimes things settle down after a while without the slightest intervention of mine. The chaos in front of me gradually reshapes and remoulds itself into something perfectly harmonious. It’s just a bit noisier. Sometimes I realize that things are actually perfectly fine even though at first sight, they may look a bit disorganized. And oftentimes it is not chaos at all; I just see it that way because I’m such a despot.

This is not to say that I believe that all of a sudden, things can go all liberal. What I’m saying is that it’s often the teacher’s (read: me) focus and perspective that need to change. And although there has been a lot of self-flagellation in this post, I still believe I’m a good teacher and particularly my classroom management skills are my strongest suit. I just think that I could be happier and more content if I just let it be. 🙂

Better be prepared than sorry

So, we are currently finding ourselves in the post-covid situation. Well, whether it’s really post covid is a question I’d rather avoid elaborating on. One way or another, we are back at school having regular face-to-face lessons and it seems things have truly come back to normal at school. By normal I mean we are in the actual classrooms doing the things we used to do. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean the same.

Truth be told, last year around this time, we also felt things were getting back to normal. Except they weren’t. Schools were closed again. With this in mind, I can’t help constantly feeling on my toes. The other day I even caught myself looking at my timetable, drafting a potential Zoom schedule from my classes. In other words, I was considering all the possible combinations for the ever-dreaded scenario – the lockdown.

Not only that, I’ve been intentionally training my classes, especially the new ones, to navigate themselves in the online platform that we were using during the last lockdown. Ironically, although we spent quite a long period of time in the online realm, I’ve come to the conclusion that people (me included) tend to forget soon and quickly. For example, when I wanted to design a quick online activity for my classes back in September, for a moment, I was struggling to remember how things worked. For that reason, I thought students may have the same problem.

What I’m trying to say is that I decided to keep one foot in the online environment in case things went south again. So, we do tests on mobile devices rather than on paper. Some homework is online too. This blended approach has some advantages as well as disadvantages but overall, I’d say that there are more pros than cons. As always, it’s the notorious internet connection that makes our lives difficult. But so far, we’ve always figured things out. If, for instance, a student doesn’t have a phone at all (yes, there are some who don’t), they can borrow my laptop.

On a more positive note, one of the major advantages is that the feedback is instant. Also, in order to work properly, the quizzes need to be designed immaculately. So I tend to put a lot of thought into the actual design, especially into the decisions regarding what I want to test. As a result, not only do I feel more content and in control but I think the students feel the same way. The younger students told me explicitly that they actually like this approach. I mean, they are at school and they are allowed to touch their phones! Wow!

There’s one thing I’m still on the fence about – does this type of online testing allow for cheating? I obviously monitor the class all the time but I know there are ways to outsmart the teacher, so to speak. Students can make print screens and they can easily share their answers via some messaging platforms. They might google answers as well. Anyway, I’m aware of all these potentialities but I’ve actually never seen anyone cheating so far. So, fingers crossed for us.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of an extremist as far as technology is concerned. I’m well aware of the fact that mobile technologies, and especially social media, can be truly damaging if not used wisely. But as I said earlier, we need to be prepared for the worst scenario. If students are stranded at home again, they will be forced to use mobile technologies no matter what we think about their negative effects. 

Store, bookmark, catalogue!

Although I like change and variety, I’m also drawn to perfection. This may seem like a great combination of personality traits, especially for a(n English) teacher, but it is a source of conflict too.

You know… I’ve always dreamt of colour-coded folders in which teaching materials would be neatly organized based on specific categories (year, level, skill, etc.). And then, before each lesson, I’d just run my finger over the spines of the files and I’d fish out the handout I needed.

Unfortunately, this strategy has never quite worked out for me. The thing is that first of all, there are simply too many categories that overlap and intersect so grouping and cataloguing become confusing. It may be feasible for someone but for me, it’s only a source of additional stress because, well, the result is never perfect. Also, I feel that maintaining such a system would be quite time-consuming since the materials go out of date too soon and if you want to move with the times, so to speak, they constantly need to be updated. And although specific types of materials, such as grammar sheets, don’t necessarily expire that quickly, the way I approach teaching grammar is constantly evolving so they may also become quite redundant at some point. However, the main reason I’ve given up on this ‘ideal’ way of storing materials is that these days, it’s simply futile to do so. Why? Because the Internet itself is a great catalogue where you can access everything quickly and easily without making too much mess on your desk.

Just think of all the fellow teachers out there who, now and then, recommend something one simply can’t resist trying out in class so there is no time (or no desire) left to keep doing the same old tricks. Also, the students will never be the same; their skills and needs are evolving too. While one group might have been quite happy with an activity handout five years ago, this year, another group at an allegedly same level may find it totally inappropriate. Plus, I sometimes feel like a cheater when introducing the same activity over and over again.

Anyway, the past couple of years have shown me that having stacks of paper folders and laminated cards is a touch obsolete and those materials I had collected over time were actually pretty useless during the pandemic. I do admit, though, that such a collection can be a source of inspiration and a backbone of your course, even during a remote teaching period, but I personally didn’t use them much, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to bring them home from my office. 

So, as a result, instead of sticking to the safe old tricks, I had to widen my horizons. There was no other way. I had to step out of my comfort zone (oh, how I hate this phrase!) – I had to visit new websites and download new apps.

Well, times have obviously changed … but what has also changed dramatically is my attitude to teaching materials. Although the quality of the resources we use is definitely crucial, they are not (and cannot be) the part of the teaching process we spend most of our time and energy on. It’s primarily the student and our teaching skills that should take centre stage. In other words, it’s not important what kind of resources we currently own and in what form we store them, it is important to be flexible and creative when looking for suitable materials we need at a given moment. Subsequently, the same amount of creativity and flexibility will be needed when applying those materials in class. So, I believe it is the experience that we should store, catalogue or bookmark (i.e. remember), not the handouts.