Observation: the cross-curricular approach

Earlier today I observed a trainee teacher in action. It wasn’t actually proper observation; I ended up in the class incidentally. First of all, it wasn’t an English lesson at all; it was a biology lesson. I had been asked to sit in the class more as a ‘guard’ than an observer because the regular supervisor, a qualified biology teacher, was missing. I didn’t mind; I had lots of tests and essays to correct after all. So my initial intention was to sit there quietly, doing my stuff and paying no attention to what was happening. I wasn’t supposed to provide feedback or even talk to the teacher anyway, thus it was none of my business, so to speak
However, I didn’t have my earplugs on me so I did listen and I did pay attention in the end. I think I had never observed a lesson other than an EFL one, but honestly, it doesn’t really matter what subject teacher you observe; teaching principles are similar across the whole education spectrum. I guess it’s even to the good to go and see a lesson totally unrelated to the subject you teach. 
The first accidental observation was that the young teacher in front of me was pretty confident. To be more precise, she looked pretty confident. She spoke in a clear, pleasant and expressive manner – her voice was loud enough to be heard at the back of the classroom where I was sitting, but not irritatingly loud, shrieking or intrusive. The first thing that occurred to me was that some day she might become a fantastic teacher. She had the so-called innate qualities of a good professional – I admired the air of confidence surrounding her, I was in awe of her commanding presence, and I appreciated the proper level of strictness, which will undoubtedly bring her respect and authority once she manages to control what’s going on in the classroom. But it seemed to me that she was also caring. She asked questions to make sure that the students understood. She encouraged the students to ask whenever they had a problem. Later on, when she started speaking about the cranial bones and the best way to commit a suicide (oh yes, that’s what she did!), the students flooded her with curious questions. It was evident that she didn’t know all the answers but by no means did this make her feel nervous – she said she would find out and tell them the next time. This is something experienced teachers sometimes struggle with – the feeling that they must know all the answers at all costs. 
Unfortunately, sometimes she let the students ask too many questions, especially during the test. Inevitably, the students seized the opportunity to gain extra time for completing the quiz but also time to copy each other’s answers. I didn’t want to interrupt and undermine the teacher’s authority so I didn’t intervene, but I could see that the students were cheating, no matter how threatening my expression was. The thing is that I wasn’t sure what kind of test this was supposed to be – a mock test or a real test? One thing was certain; the test had been prepared by the regular biology teacher so the trainee could only guess the requirements and expected answers. The students haggled and squabbled, perhaps in the attempt to divert the teacher’s attention, but she always patiently answered their questions. 
While observing this part of the lesson, I came to a conclusion that one of the advantages of being a teacher with some experience is the fact that you can concentrate on two things happening at different corners of the room – over time, you simply improve your peripheral vision and your approach becomes more holistic in the physical sense of the word.
I must admit that I truly regretted that I wasn’t supposed to talk to the teacher and that I couldn’t tell her about all the positives. However, I also felt the urge to tell her that her board was a real mess; that I couldn’t make out any of the Latin terms she had written on the badly cleaned board. I desperately wanted to tell her that she had spoken when she was supposed to be silent and let the students work. 
I was genuinely surprised at how much one can notice without really paying attention. It also occurred to me that it might be a great idea to stop by in other teachers’ lessons from time to time just to get a general idea of how other subjects are taught. I think there are loads of things I could learn from a maths teacher, for example. One also gets an idea of how much the students actually know in other subjects; we invariably tend to judge them based on how well they can express themselves in L2 but there are students who are excellent at biology, for example, but struggle with English. Also, it’s not bad to see what is actually taught in other subjects so that we can naturally link what we do to other fields of education. 

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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4 Responses to Observation: the cross-curricular approach

  1. Hi Hana. I think you raise a couple of excellent points (as always) in this post. You mention that “it doesn't really matter what subject teacher you observe; teaching principles are similar across the whole education spectrum.” – I think that this is true, but I think that there is not that much crossover between TEFL (or whatever other acronym you might want to use) and 'mainstream' teaching – certainly in my experience – but there probably should be. I wonder why this is? Perhaps it's because some see TEFL as not 'real' teaching? (Not my idea, but I've heard it said).

    And, I think that it's not just the teaching principles that are the same. I'm working with a group of Korean elementary school teachers this semester, and one of the things that they said at the beginning of the course was that they were interested in the UK school system, specifically how English is taught (as a first language subject). It's obviously been a while since I was in school, but my sister's partner is an elementary school teacher, so I got my teacher trainees to write up some questions for him to answer. I found it interesting that he pointed to a couple of resources, so I sent my teacher trainees there, and a lot of the activities are actually very similar to what they use in their classes in Korea. Yet, I rarely see sites that are aimed at both L1 and L2 English language learners.

    I wonder whether we will ever see more collaboration in the future?

    -David

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks, David. Hmm, I’d say that over here TEFL is considered quite a prestigious profession. Teaching in general is sometimes looked down on but languages, and specifically English, are very popular. Also, English is a subject which is most 'looked after'. I mean, there are lots of great methodology resources and the fact is that other language teachers often draw on those. A couple of years back, when I was studying German and needed something education-related for my final exam, it was quite difficult for me to find something meaningful and interesting. What I mostly found was, in fact, a lot of materials directly translated from English (which, I admit, helped me a lot in the end). One of the advantages of being an EFL teacher is that you teach smaller classes, the material resources and all information available are a fantastic bonus.
    Yes, it must be interesting to look at the ways English is taught as L1 but unfortunately, no matter how much you try as a teacher, most of the methods and approaches can’t be directly applied to L2 teaching, especially due to the low exposure to the language students can get at school.

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  3. Hi Hana, yes, I guess coming from our different contexts, TEFL will be seen differently. I suppose I was coming at it from the UK context, where EFL is not taught as a school language. However other languages, such as French, German and Spanish, which are taught at state schools are seen as 'real' subjects, which I imagine would be quite similar then to English with you.

    I agree that looking at L1 and L2 can never be the same, because as you say the amount of exposure is never going to be anywhere near. In an L1 environment, very little of the L1 is actually acquired in the English classroom. But it's there where things are learned (I'm drawing a distinction between learning and acquisition here). And I found it interesting that a few of the activities that practiced spelling, punctuation, and word order, etc. used by primary teachers in the UK were very similar to the ones used by English language teachers.

    At the KoTESOL conference in Seoul a couple of weeks back, Mike Long even suggested that when it comes down to teaching, approaches and methods don't actually exist because it's not what the teachers are thinking about during class – I wouldn't say that I totally agree, but I think it does go some way to suggesting that there might be more similarities to the activities that teachers choose to use in an L1 English class in, say the UK, and and L2 English class.

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    'Mike Long even suggested that when it comes down to teaching, approaches and methods don't actually exist because it's not what the teachers are thinking about during class'….. this sounds really interesting and I'd definitely like to read or learn more about it. Honestly, I can't figure out what the author is suggesting. Does he mean that what we *do* rather than what we think is really important? And is what we do not actually based on what we think?

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