Habit is stronger than motivation

IMG_20180714_083533When I was a student, our class teacher once told us that it’s possible to exercise willpower. Go to a candy shop, she said, admire all the wonderful ice cream they sell and then leave without having some. Back then, it sounded like an interesting personal experiment but, to be honest, I’ve never had the willpower to try it.

Despite this little failure of mine, I’d describe myself as a strong-willed person. At least that’s what my mother says. However, I’m well aware of the fact that there are limits to my willpower since it is linked to control and exercising control requires a lot of energy. Eventually, it can be very exhausting and one simply gets tired of it, especially when they lose motivation.

Well, it’s not exactly fortunate that willpower is so closely connected to motivation in my case. Neither is it encouraging for me to know that once my motivation is gone, my willpower will inevitably fail me too. But I think there is hope. I want to believe. :–)

This summer I’ve been thinking about motivation and willpower intensely. It all began when I started to work out and adjusted my diet a great deal. I dare say that these are two areas which require a lot of motivation and mental energy at the start and a lot of self-discipline later on. Anyway, over the past few weeks, I’ve slowly come to realize that I’m creating various habits: of having a certain type of breakfast in the morning (whereas during the school year, I don’t have breakfast until I get to work and sometimes I don’t have breakfast at all), or of jumping in the pool and swimming for at least 30 minutes (whereas I drive to work on school days and walking is the only physical activity I do).

I cherish these little habits and do my best to strengthen them – by not breaking them. Although for many people habits don’t only have positive connotations (there are bad habits, annoying habits, unfortunate habits, nasty habits, dangerous habits), and they can be boring and repetitive, I believe habits can be very useful because once we manage to condition our bodies and/or minds to expect something at a certain time of day/week/month, or under certain circumstances, we are likely to stick to these habits no matter how strong-willed or motivated we are. This doesn’t mean our lives will become boring; ‘in between’ our usual habits, we can be creative and innovative. In fact, our hands will be less tied once we surrender to the positive habits we have created.

Where am I headed with all this? Well, simply put, next school year, I might want to experiment with some useful, sustainable habits in the classroom. If motivation and willpower are not 100% reliable, habits may well replace them, especially when we are tired and demotivated and feel like giving up. In short, I’d like to focus on the following areas, listed in no particular order:

  1. seating arrangement
  2. warm-ups and wind-ups
  3. board work
  4. use of L1 vs. L2
  5. use of coursebook vs. tailormade, ‘homemade’ activities
  6. types of assessment
  7. testing (time, length,…)
  8. language drills

The list lacks detail at this stage, but I have something in mind already and I hope more stuff will emerge soon. The simple logic behind it is this: try something new with a specific class and if you think it could be useful, consciously turn it into a routine. Stick to it and don’t let anything or anybody break the habit for long enough to prove it’s something truly valuable. Later, provided it is feasible, you can transfer it into a different classroom environment.

Any other thoughts on what areas of ‘classroom life’ can be built around useful, sustainable habits?

 

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My major confidence boosters

IMG_20180702_172836-EFFECTSI’ve recently been thinking about the importance of confidence for one’s well-being, especially in relation to one’s professional life.

The definition of confidence is the quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future. I’d say that feeling confident means being in harmony. It makes you feel calm, reasonable, and generally less vulnerable because you are not haunted by the fear that somebody or something may suddenly ‘attack’ your fragile self.

I think I am a confident person and many would say I have always been. But I realize there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and yes, I’d say I used to be a bit arrogant as a newbie teacher. In hindsight, I thought I knew more than I actually did. Since then, I haven’t changed a lot on the outside in this respect. I probably appear to be the same person. However, deep down I know that the quality of my confidence has changed dramatically. It’s been transformed and refined and it’s influenced how I feel and who I am to myself.

I’d like to say that I’ve worked hard and consciously on my confidence but it’s mostly been an automatic process. Below are some of the components which, I believe, have contributed to my current state of well-being.

Age

It goes without saying that many young people think they are much smarter than their tutors/teachers/parents. I wasn’t different. So it makes me smile whenever I come across an over-confident young teacher of English. You’ll recognize him or her immediately; such a teacher usually speaks very quickly, almost unintelligibly (probably because they’ve just returned from a long trip across North America and they want everybody to know). They are absorbed in what they do rather than what their students do or should do. They don’t need to follow lesson plans because they can make a lesson on the spot. If they do plan, they plan far too much for one lesson. As a result, things get a little chaotic.

Experience 

Well, you gradually come to realize that planning is handy. That sometimes less is better than more. That speaking slowly and intelligibly doesn’t make you look less proficient. That focusing on your students is more beneficial than listening to (and secretly admiring) your wonderful, fluent English (which makes you feel so good because it temporarily gives you the aura of superiority). However, you’ll soon discover that rather than needing a superstar to look up to, your students crave structure and clarity in order to learn. And this is what you need to learn.

Language proficiency

Having said that, your English obviously should be good. Students will spot your weaknesses regardless of their level of proficiency. And let’s be honest, it’s pretty embarrassing if a teacher makes basic errors over and over again. So, again, you will have to learn. Non-stop. Forever. It’s only logical if you realize that a new generation of students comes each and every year. So you’d better keep up with these students because they will always be more knowledgeable in some areas of the language. This may appear daunting at first but in fact, it’s quite motivating.

Education (degree)

Education is not the same as degree for me. In the Czech Republic, most teachers have an MA degree but obviously, they don’t come from the same educational background. I hold an MA degree from Masaryk University, Brno, which I am extremely proud of. Moreover, I finished my studies at the time when the quality of the program was at its best (I think). While my colleagues complain that they didn’t get enough methodology courses during their studies, I had plenty. What is more, I was tutored by two great teachers, Nikki Fořtová and James Thomas (both well-known in the online environment), who provided us with the latest approaches and methods in the field of ELT. It was after I finished my studies when I joined the online community of ELT teachers, which, in return, boosted my confidence tremendously.

Having a degree (by which I mean a piece of paper and a few letters in front of your name) is very important too. I used to ‘live’ with a BA degree for many years and, to be frank, it was devastating at times. Given the fact that most teachers in the state system of education hold MA degrees, I was ‘different’ in this respect. Something was missing for me to feel completely confident. Although I did feel confident as a teacher, my ego never let me fully accept the fact that I was ‘less’ than the others. So, I’m really happy that I finally picked up where I had last left off. This contributed to my confidence like nothing else before.

Actions

This is the area which seems to be under our control to a great extent. Still, there are no actions if there are no opportunities. And although we create the seeds of our opportunities inside of us, they eventually come from the outside. I don’t even remember when and how it all started. It’s kind of blurred now. I think it was Shelly Terrell and her fantastic team of teachers who gave me the first nudge to start a blog. I should also thank Nikki Fořtová, who mentioned that there was a huge community of online teachers. And then, the first opportunities came. People responded to my posts. I was invited to write for other blogs and journals. I was invited to present at a conference and to be a conference reporter at two important events for teachers here in the Czech Republic. You know the story … If these were not the major confidence boosters then what?

Looks

Well, this looks like a paragraph from a different post, maybe even a different blog. No, I’m not starting a beauty blog. I just want to say that appearance matters. I feel much better in front of a class when I’m fit. I think I can deliver a better lesson if my clothes fit well and I’d be very nervous if I discovered that I forgot to put on my mascara. Yes, these things happen. 🙂

Anyway, what are your confidence boosters?

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Should your boss know what you do outside your working hours?

IMG_20180622_131405The other day I received a complimentary copy of the ETAS magazine, where my article was published in the Summer 2018 Special Supplement.

I’ve had a couple of my articles published elsewhere but this was the first time I’d received a hard copy. Wow! Isn’t it ironic that these days, in the electronic era, a hard copy of your achievement stands out? Also, I don’t know about you but for me, it’s a big thing to find my article in a high-quality journal which invites the submission of articles on various aspects of language teaching and methodology, lesson ideas, surveys of teaching materials, and reports that address language issues in Switzerland or beyond Swiss borders.

Anyway, I was really proud and I wanted to scream it from the top of a mountain but I was cautious at the same time. Apart from sharing it on social media, where, ironically, I feel safer than in the offline environment, I only showed it to my family and a colleague of mine (my best friend and an English teacher too). Well, you can’t expect your family or your close friends to be completely honest with you; I mean, they will probably always be nice no matter what. However, I could tell from my friend’s expression that she was really impressed. In fact, she couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the double page and my photo on it – the ultimate proof that it had something to do with me. “Are you kidding me?! ” she exclaimed.

IMG_20180622_131451Let’s get to the point. My friend’s positive reaction motivated me to do something really crazy. I decided to go to my boss and share my success with her. I hesitated a bit before I entered the office because, well, it felt somewhat awkward. But then I thought that as she’s an English teacher, she may be interested in what I do. But more importantly, it occurred to me that as she’s my boss, she should know what I do outside my working hours – voluntarily, enthusiastically and for free. It’s not like I’m telling her I’ve won a game of tennis, right?

To cut it short, she was impressed too and she asked if she could make a scan of my article. And then she urged me to record my success into my CPD portfolio. This is a file where we keep track of all the activities which we do outside our compulsory agenda. I realize I haven’t done so yet because, well, it feels a bit awkward, but I may well do it when I find the courage to fully acknowledge my achievement – to myself.

I should stress that this wouldn’t be possible without Gemma Lunn. I’d like to thank her once again for offering me the opportunity to write an article for ETAS Journal and for helping me to refine the text. It’s a bit more challenging to write for a peer-reviewed magazine that for, say, your blog. 🙂

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Telepathy or lexical priming?

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Some may say that I like finishing other people’s sentences. I’m aware of the fact that outside the classroom, it may get on people’s nerves and I definitely try to avoid this habit when talking to friends or Czech people in general. However, I must admit that on some occasions, I’m quite proud of this ‘unique’ skill because it can be very useful in communication; it can speed it up and make it more fluent and thus more efficient. To give an example, in English, it comes in handy when helping my students to find the most suitable word or when speaking with other non-native speakers of English. And to be completely honest, I like to make people think I’m a telepath. Well, I’m not, of course; I’m only good at finishing/predicting other people’s ideas because I am a language teacher.

I like my students to practise this skill in English lessons too. For example, students work in pairs and create an oral gap fill. In reality, it means that Student A reads a sentence from a text, stops at some point and Student B finishes it with the most suitable words. If it is a familiar text, I insist on Student B using the exact expression which is in that text. Students usually prefer oral gap fills to classic ones, simply because they are more interactive and fun. Also, each pair can work at their own pace. To make it more telepathy-like, you can ask students to make their own texts, i.e. they can tell a story and when they pause, their partner tries to predict what they wanted to say.

Anyway, before holidays, to make life at school more bearable, we turned this activity into a classic naughts and crosses game. I drew a huge, empty grid (8×8) on the board and divided the class into two teams. I asked a member of each team to come forward and listen to me reading a familiar text. At some point, I paused and the first member to guess the word was allowed to draw their symbol into the chart (X or 0). At this stage, the other members of the team could help. The winner of a round was the team who managed to fill four squares in a row, either across, down or diagonally.

Quite unexpectedly, the activity took up almost all the lesson (45 min). I was surprised to see that some students were almost invincible. Their ability to finish my sentences quickly and accurately was amazing. This made me think about the processes going on in their heads. How come some are so quick-witted while others need much more time to find a suitable expression. Is it a huge advantage for a language learner to be able to predict what comes next in a sentence with such an accuracy? Fluency has probably nothing to do with intelligence. That fact that native speakers of all types of intelligence are fluent speakers and sound effortlessly natural leads me to lexical priming:

The theory of lexical priming suggests that each time a word or phrase is heard or read, it occurs along with other words (its collocates). This leads you to expect it to appear in a similar context or with the same grammar in the future, and this ‘priming’ influences the way you use the word or phrase in your own speech and writing.

So, have the students who excel in the ability to finish a sentence correctly had more exposure to English outside the classroom and thus it’s now easier for them to predict/guess/recall what comes next? Or do they have a special gene that makes them so exceptional? Or do they just remember things better than others?

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When there’s almost no sand left

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Each school year works like an hourglass. When there’s no sand left, there’s no sand left. If you want to go on, you need to turn it over.

This metaphorical sand obviously stands for time, i.e. 10 months here in my teaching context, but also for energy and motivation. It’s as if students (as well as teachers) constantly keep an eye on the hourglass and when there’s only a little sand left, everybody starts switching off. The process of switching off is clearly intensified by the rising temperatures. In the middle of June, it can be over 30 degrees here in the Czech Republic – outside as well as inside – so there’s no point in doing some ‘serious’ teaching and learning anymore. Summer is in the air and you can do very little about it since it seems that from now on, the student’s brain refuses to absorb new stuff. Besides, grades have been sorted out so you can’t make the horse drink anymore.

Still, you are at school and you are the teacher and your job is to do something relatively meaningful. But is there anything meaningful you can do at school apart from teaching and learning? Well, it’s a perfect time for the teacher and the students to chill out together. At last, you can introduce silly games and fun into the classroom without feeling guilty. However, you may find out that language games only work with young learners at this time of year. So, while you can play Battleships or Naughts and Crosses with 12-year-olds, the 17-years olds may appear a little fed up with anything teacher-generated which, in addition, they only see as teaching in disguise.

I’ve always thought we English teachers are a bit better off than the rest of the subject teachers in this respect because we have movies and songs – two things that almost everybody loves. So, at this time of year, we can easily switch roles and let our students entertain themselves. I ask them to bring movies or TV shows in English which they like and we watch them with English subtitles. I like to hope that there is still some learning involved but there are no specific tasks or goals written down – we just sit and watch. I’ve come to realize that this is extraordinarily liberating for me as a teacher – to have no goals, aims, lesson plans, agenda, whatever. I just am in the classroom and engage in something very natural that people normally do together in their free time.

Sometimes students bring films I know, such as the Harry Potter series, of which we watched three parts with one class over the previous week. Sometimes I learn about new stuff, such as the Young Sheldon series, which is a great hit here it seems, or this amazing animated movie called Coco, which I will definitely recommend to my ten-year-old son.

We sometimes just sing along with YouTube videos and I’m grateful to my students as I can add some new hits to my Spotify playlist.

I mean, it’s great that we can finally chill out a bit together. If somebody wants to read their favourite book, I let them do it. The only condition is that all smartphones must be switched off because smartphones and headphones drag people away from now and here.

Anyway, that’s how things are at the moment but I think that I’ll soon be looking forward to things starting over again.

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Translation – enough or not enough of it in the L2 classroom?

Teaching students with whom I share the same L1 (Czech) has some advantages, the biggest of which is the fact that we can engage in L1>L2 and L2>L1 translation. Although translation may still connote the old Grammar Translation Method, I feel it is no longer a pedagogical crime in the CLT context, especially if the teacher focuses on learners’ ability to use the language rather than on their ability to analyze it. I personally try to make valuable use of translation to sort out some classroom teaching and learning issues. 

IMG_20180524_100621Here’s an example of an activity I’ve recently been doing with my classes when practising various grammar points. On the left is a classic exercise from a workbook where students complete the gaps using the passive voice structure. Obviously, filling in such an exercise can be helpful but it’s not enough for them in order to fully grasp the passive voice and its use. So, after we check the answers, I ask them to work in pairs. Student A closes the book. Student B reads the first line in Czech. Student A listens and translates the line back into English. Student B checks Student A’s translation. The Czech>English translation should be as close to the original as possible. However, at the same time, I ask students to use ‘nice’ and natural Czech structures during the English>Czech translation stage. I always remind them of Google Translate and that I don’t want them to sound like it (even though I must admit it’s getting better and better). So not only do students practise some tricky grammatical structures but they also develop a sense of what a good translation entails, i.e. that sometimes it’s not possible to translate everything word by word and literally.

Sometimes I ask students to work with unknown (or newish) texts and translate simultaneously. One student reads an English text line by line, while the other student translates straight into Czech. This works best in groups of three. The third student can be the WRITER – he or she can record the Czech version on a piece of paper and then the group translates the whole thing back into English. This is a real challenge but quite fun too.

When I ask students which part is more difficult, the answers differ but I often hear that the English>Czech translation is a bit trickier. I think it’s because translation activities are not often included into (my) English lessons. I myself feel a deficit in this respect. It can take me ages to come up with an accurate L2>L1 translation of a word or a phrase. What’s worse, although I do have a vague idea of what the phrase means, I sometimes don’t know what the accurate translation is. Again, I think it’s the CLT approach to blame here; it’s pretty superficial and creates the illusion that it’s enough to use L2 fluently, which, to a certain degree, is true, but sometimes accuracy is equally important.

 

 

 

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How much better?

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Whenever I feel like scolding my students for something trivial they’ve done, I always remind myself that I’m probably looking at a future Nobel Prize winner or a well-known writer. I imagine that each of those naughty little creatures is a potentially famous figure that may change the world. Or, even worse, one day, they might become teachers themselves and they may end up sitting next to me in the staffroom. You never know.

When I started teaching many years ago, generally, the quality of English teaching was desperate. After the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism, English teachers were in demand so everybody with some knowledge of English (by some I mean very, very little) could deliver English lessons. I’m not saying there were no highly qualified English teachers around at that time but in some cases, to put it bluntly, the teacher was only a few coursebook units ahead of their students.

These days, it’s almost the same but for a very different reason. The quality of English teaching has improved tremendously. The thing is that although we teachers always have a head start, with all the technology and social media available, our students will easily catch up and they will always be on our tails.

I sometimes wonder how much ‘better’ the teacher must be in order to do his or her job well. By better, I mean more proficient and knowledgeable. Deep down I know it’s a pretty useless question because it’s not feasible to measure how much ahead of their students one actually is. You can test your proficiency level or your vocabulary size, yes, but that doesn’t tell you much really. Even if your scores are higher, there will always be stuff your students are better at than you are. So, generally speaking, are they better or are you? And how much better and for how long?

One way or another, the fact that we are more knowledgeable than your students should not make us feel superior (don’t forget about the Nobel Prize winners!). However, it can help us feel more confident. And confidence is one of the prerequisites of being a good teacher, I think. That’s why we should never stop learning if we want to be ahead of the game. It looks selfish but it isn’t at all because as we get better and more proficient, our students do too – either because we pull them or because they push us towards greater achievements.

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