A life lesson learnt at a music school

When I was a child I used to play the flute. My infinitely patient teacher said I had a talent for music, which made me feel really proud (and terribly vain). I thought (wanted to believe) that talent was all I needed to succeed. I don’t remember how often and how much I practised every day but definitely not enough to make my teacher happy. I think I was 18 when I finally quit; I did so for the most trivial reason one can ever come up with: I suddenly became too busy to carry on (read: I got too lazy to practise, and I couldn’t bear the shame any more). The truth is, though, that I had plenty of other cooler interests at that time anyway. 

When I was about thirty, I suddenly felt a strong urge to dust off the flute and start playing again. I took out all the scores I could find and started practising. They say you never forget how to ride a bike but I soon realized that I had forgotten more than I remembered, and that I desperately needed help. So I hired a teacher to give me flute lessons once a week. I liked her. She was one of those pragmatic people who couldn’t understand why I, a working mother of two, took the effort and time to practise regularly and attended music school on a weekly basis as a regular schoolgirl. Maybe that I wanted to hear, once again, I had a talent for music. Maybe I wanted to step in the same river for the second time. And I did.
However, I wasn’t that teenage girl anymore; I became more realistic in the meantime; I was well aware of the fact that having a talent (or aptitude, to speak the ELT language) didn’t mean very much without hard work. I was wiser and thus I rolled up my sleeves immediately and listened to every piece of the teacher’s advice obediently. It still rings in my ears what she told me about mistakes: she didn’t tell me that mistakes were natural and that I shouldn’t be afraid of making them; she told me instead that if I kept making a mistake in a particular part of a score, all I needed was to slow down considerably and practise the vexing bit over and over again, a hundred times if necessary, until I felt absolutely confident. I simply needed to make strong and permanent connections between my fingers and the brain, she said. Only then could I increase the tempo again and play at the original pace. Her words came to my ears at the right time to be fully understood and remembered for the rest of my life. 

I suspect that many of my teenage students are currently going through the same ‘vain’ period I went through many years ago. And for a change I’m on the other side of the barricade now. I keep telling them that they need to learn and immerse themselves in the language regularly and intensively in order to hone their language skills. I keep reminding them that laziness and procrastination are likely to kill their future success. I get irritated by their vanity and reluctance to listen to my priceless advice. I try to disprove their assertion that good results arrive miraculously and automatically. It‘s so easy to forget all the sins of youth and preach against them as if you’ve never sinned yourself.
I’ve come to believe that the greatest pleasure comes along with success and that success is a mixture of daring dreams, hard work and a bit of luck. In her latest post, Josette LeBlanc writes about the power of leaps. I believe that you manage to take a leap once you’ve made lots of small, seemingly unimportant steps. When I was younger, I was too impatient to take all those small steps, or maybe nobody had told me about the magic power of leaps. Thus I chose to give up – be it only once. I think this personal defeat later made me want to make up for the unfinished job and resume where I had left off. I somehow wanted to repay the debt of gratitude to all those who believed in my talent. 

I don’t play the flute any more; just occasionally and for pleasure. But I do tingle when I hear a good flute player perform a classical piece of music. This could have been me up there on the stage if … Nevertheless, I believe that the journey I made and the lessons I learnt, now meant in the metaphorical sense of the words, enriched me immensely as a teacher and a human being. I have lost something but I have more to offer than I had before … 



The magic of unveiling the truth: critical thinking skills in ELT

One of the big questions I’ve recently been asking myself is ‘What do I wish my students to have achieved by the end of their secondary education?’ I obviously want them to speak decent English – preferably at the B2 level (intermediate or ‘FCE’ level). I’m well aware of the fact that some of my students will never reach this aim but I’ll do my best anyway. 

But what does speaking decent English actually mean? Apart from the obvious aspects, such as being able to understand and produce coherent and cohesive texts, either written or spoken, I hope my students will be able to use the language for what language is – to express one’s own ideas. By their own ideas I primarily mean the results of their critical thinking skills. 
I’ve experience several times in my teaching career that to be able to express their critical thinking outcomes, the student doesn’t necessarily have to be a very advanced user of an L2. Some students, even the youngest ones, think critically and strive to express their conclusions no matter how good or bad their English is. Other students, on the other hand, only repeat what they have learnt by heart or what other people said, even though they do so in flawless English. This prompts another question: what is a more valuable outcome for me as an EFL teacher? What should I focus on then? 
I can’t answer the previous question without asking another question. Can critical thinking skills be taught at all? Well, I’d say that to be able to teach cookery, the instructor should know what spice is appropriate for which meal. Even better, the instructor should be a keen chef. Analogically, to be able to teach critical thinking skills, the teacher needs to have a certain character trait – some call it critical spirit. However, not only keen chefs teach cookery, and like many students, many teachers lack this critical spirit. 
The good news is that they can learn from each other. The only prerequisite is that the teacher will create conditions in which this type of earning can occur. This, to my mind, is the easiest part. I really loved this picture shared by Dace Praulins on the Eltpics Facebook page:
By publishing this image, Dace evoked people’s curiosity and made them use their critical thinking skills. The thing is that Dace invited all the members of the Facebook group to try to guess what it is before she’d give the answer. People immediately started guessing and came up with interesting answers such ice, frozen mud, chocolate, water waves, hair, frosted window glass, cake mix, close-up of part of an oil painting, ostrich feather covered in plastic, etc. I found it really intriguing and thought it would be a great activity promoting critical thinking skills. 
When looking at the image, one will certainly recall something they already saw at some point in the past. During close observation, which is one of the prerequisites of good critical thinking skills, the image will evoke hidden memories of frozen surfaces or magnetic fields, for example. Phrases like this reminds me of … this looks like (as if though) …I once saw a similar image when…. this image evokes memories of …  come in handy here. But this is just the first step. One has to go further and deeper. What the image reminds us of is just our personal belief which has nothing to do with the ultimate truth. However, while walking with the students towards the truth, side by side, we mustn’t forget that the process of searching is as valuable as the ultimate outcome – the truth itself. At this moment I don’t know yet what the picture really is but I can use the power of induction to solve the problem. 
At this stage the students might need and use plenty of functional language to express probability: this could be …. but/ this can’t be because/this may be …however/ … thus this must be ….This activity will work best if it’s done in a group, or at least in a pair. Thus the students will have an opportunity to practise the skill of argumentation. This means listening to each other carefully, not sounding dogmatic, arguing instead of disagreeing, not repeating the same argument again and again, acknowledging the other person’s opinion and elaborating on it, etc. 
The students can also carry out a small investigation; look for similar images on the internet and compare and contrast them with the original one. They can ask other people outside the class and report the results of the interviews. More useful language items will be needed to do this. They can also do experiments – observe water waves, study objects, such as feathers, or materials, such as chocolate or cake mix and look what happens if they let them freeze. They can report their findings in class and again, decide whose finding is the most plausible one. 
I’m truly excited about the fact that so many interesting things can be done with one strange image. I don’t have the answer yet and I don’t know what the picture represents, but while home I’ve been through most of the stages I’ve described above. I opened my mind to find similar images I once saw, I asked the family members of all ages to tell me what they think, I tried to disprove their arguments with more plausible ones, I searched the internet for similar images, I looked again and again, closer and closer… I don’t think that all students I teach are as curious as I am, but I hope I am able to create conditions for those who appreciate the magic of unveiling the truth … 

On lurking stereotypes

I’m not sure whether this post should be published. First of all, I’m not sure about the timing. It’s Christmas after all. On the one hand, it’s the time when people should focus on the positive. On the other hand, it’s also a time of contemplation, reflection and retrospect. Also, I fear that by hitting the publish button my reputation will probably be discredited; I risk losing some of my fans. Forgive me, I’m still going to give it a go …
I’d been thinking about this post for a while but I hadn’t had the courage to write it up until I read David Harbinson’s latest post. I think it was exactly the ‘the teacher rolled his eyes’ bit which gave me a kick. It was then when I asked myself the question I had asked myself many times before: what is the role of us EFL teachers? Part of it is obviously teaching our students English. What else? Should we try to eliminate stereotypes from their thinking? Should we change the way students’ see certain issues?  Are we automatically owners of the truth?
If you ask a five-year-old child what colour water is, the answer will likely be ‘blue’. But you know it’s not true. You also know that there’s no point in convincing your little child that water is not blue because that’s how he sees it now – this knowledge is based on his experience and what he was told by adults. And honestly, water does look blue at first sight – even you must admit that.
If we want to change our students’ perspective on the world and global issues, for example, shouldn’t we have the right answer against which we can judge the correctness of the students’ answers? In other words, if we want to eliminate a certain stereotype, logically, we must believe that this stereotype is inherently bad and we must have an alternative at our disposal. To give an example from David’s post, equalling gypsies with thieves is bad and wrong. Anybody can be a thief. Saying that a certain group or a minority equals terrorists is even worse. Terrorists can be found everywhere in the world. I strongly agree with this viewpoint. That’s why I would obviously try to prevent my students from believing or claiming these things publicly. Do I have the right to do so?
Sometime in June I did something that shattered my beliefs about what I truly believe. The story goes like this: last February I enrolled my six-year-old son in a local primary school – one of the tree schools we have here. I chose this particular school because my elder sons had once attended it too. Apart from the advantage of being within walking distance, the school was, I believed, of high quality because both my elder sons left it well prepared for their further studies. I personally knew most of the teachers employed there; I knew they were passionate professionals.
Just after I’d enrolled my youngest son, I heard rumours that a couple of the best teachers were planning to leave. It worried me a bit but I thought it was just gossip. Then the figures were published: the school had accepted very few pupils and thus was soon likely to be struggling to survive. This was a bad sign. Something was wrong – the administrators must have done something which had put the parents off. I was worried but I wanted to stay loyal.
Unluckily, just before the start of the summer holidays I bumped into a friend of mine – a teacher at the school in question – and I asked her how things were. She informed me that my son had been placed in a small class of about 17 pupils. She added sadly and sympathetically that a third of the class were kids of a certain notorious minority. She was risking her career by telling me, but as a mother herself, she thought it was important that I knew. I should stress that the administrators tried to keep this particular piece of information secret for two more months! Needless to say, this kind of information should not be kept secret; the parents have the right to know.
Anyway, I panicked, especially as soon as my friend started telling me stories about how difficult these kids were and how challenging it was for a teacher to teach a class like this. She told me about cases of violence and the fact that these kids were not motivated to learn because they got no support from their parents. She told me about some hygiene issues too. She added me that if she were me, she would take action immediately. So I did. Even before the school started, I took my son out of that school, and transferred him into another one, much further from our place, but safer, to my mind. It was a very quiet and quick procedure. Nobody blamed me and I only hear words of approval from all my friends and family members, and from all the teachers themselves.
The trouble is that I, a teacher and an educator whose task is to eliminate stereotypes, actually helped to disseminate one. I did so without too much thinking. I ran on autopilot, so to speak. I mean, I do believe that certain ways of thinking are bad and I’ll always do my best to spread the word, but once it comes down to my (or my family’s) personal benefit, I act automatically. Basic instincts simply win, no matter how scary it sounds. What is worse, I wouldn’t act differently if I got another chance.
My point is, and this is related to David’s post, that no matter what we think is right and what we, members of a developed society, should think that is right, we won’t find out what we really believe until we get into a challenging situation. Sometimes we teachers claim certain things in the classroom and we want to believe that this is what we should tell our students, either because it’s politically correct or because deep inside we feel it’s right. But I think that instead of preaching we’d better listen and try to understand – because you never know if what you preach is what you truly and unconditionally believe in. The stereotypes are there, lurking and waiting to emerge from the darkness and chaos of the human mind. 

Parallel text reading resources – a tip for a Christmas gift?

Ever year in December I find myself in a book store staring hopelessly at all the shelves full of amazing books. This year I’m facing an extra problem though; I’m trying to decide whether to buy my son a book in Czech or in English. He’s an upper-intermediate learner so he can read both now, but the fact is that as far as original English books are concerned, the choice is rather limited. Surprisingly, the shelves are packed with parallel text reading resources – books in which the target language and the native language are presented side by side on the same page (or two adjacent pages). 

I must admit that I have long been pondering the benefits and pitfalls of so called parallel texts (or ‘mirror’ texts) without coming to a definite conclusion. Many years ago, when I started studying English at a university level, I bought an A4 paperback volume including two stories by Oscar Wilde – The Nightingale and the Rose and The Remarkable Rocket. I should stress that it was an unabridged version. Apart from the fact that it was a bargain, I found it fascinating to have an original version of classical literature, but I confess I considered it extremely difficult to read at that time. For some reason I’ve never actually read the whole thing. Nevertheless, I’ve kept it for all those years hoping that I might use it in my own teaching some day. I never have so far. 
One of the reasons for rejecting this teaching material may be:
1) that I’ve never used it as a learner myself, so I don’t believe in the benefits of using them in the classroom. 
2) that the way it’s printed out is rather unattractive; there are no pictures or any visuals whatsoever; there are paragraphs in two columns (on the left there’s the English text and on the right its liberal translation, and under each  paragraphs there’s some space left for the reader’s notes). This, to my mind, is very disruptive and spoils the pleasure of both reading and learning. 
3) that somebody I respect once told me that parallel text materials have more disadvantages than advantages. 
Nonetheless, there are many proponents and fans of parallel text learning resources, who believe that there are sensible ways of using them in ELT or in autonomous learning. The publishers probably think so too and the offer is the tangible proof. Needless to say, unlike twenty years ago, nowadays one can get glossy books with plenty of visuals, additional exercises and audio CDs. The trouble is that I can’t get one big question out of my head: what is it that makes these materials dangerous for language acquisition?
The key problem is obviously the translation; if it’s a liberal translation, the less advanced learners may find the structure of the target language complicated, and thus the Czech translation, for example, will not be very helpful. The thing is that the flexible Czech word order doesn’t correspond with the relatively fixed English word order, and this discrepancy makes the reference between the two texts almost impossible, at least up to a certain level of proficiency. Thus learning will hardly occur because without understanding there’s no learning.  
I must admit that when reading a book in English, I’m often tempted to find out how a professional translator has handled this or that phrase, so I occasionally peek into the Czech version, if I happen to have it at my disposal, and I compare the original text with the translation. But I’m a keen linguist and an advanced user of English, not a pre-intermediate learner of English. A word-to-word translation from the target language would solve the aforementioned problem, but the result would sound unnatural and clumsy, and it would probably annoy patriots and Czech linguists.  

So far I’ve mainly discussed unabridged versions of English literature. What about simplified versions then? As a big fan of graded readers I strongly believe in the benefits of using them in a language classroom. However, a simplified version of a book, in my opinion, doesn’t need to be turned into a parallel texts resource at all. What’s the point? In my own experience, if I know that the translation is within arm’s reach, I will unintentionally switch between the two versions. This is rather disruptive and it will deprive me of the opportunity to think and work out the meaning. I get everything on a silver plate, so to speak.   
I haven’t conducted or stumbled upon any research which would prove that the materials in question are either beneficial or harmful to language acquisition, so if anybody reading this has some further knowledge or links to articles, posts or papers, I’d love to read them. I think it would be interesting to do an experiment with parallel texts learning/teaching materials, and I already have some ideas in mind. One of the ideas is dividing a class of pre-intermediate/intermediate students into two groups, providing one group with some parallel text reading material of an appropriate level and the other one with the same text but in English only. It would be interesting to compare the amount of incidental vocabulary acquisition, for example.  
My hypothesis, mainly based on my personal experience, is that parallel texts teaching/learning resources can be used as extra practice for advanced/ fully autonomous language learners and/or students who specialize in translation. However, I consider them quite useless for beginners who have not grasped the way the target language works. If I get a short, simple text in Spanish, for example, (I don’t speak a word of Spanish) with its liberal translation, I don’t think I will learn a single vocabulary or a grammatical item. If it does happen, it will be due to the fact that I already speak several languages and I will recognize the cognates, for example. As far as the word-to-word translation alternative is concerned, I don’t think I’d like to learn or teach a language this way. To me parallel text reading materials are terribly anti-communicative (and unnatural), no matter how popular they appear to be with publishers or general public.  

Some things are worthwhile

I’m sitting here behind the teacher’s desk, facing a silent class. The room is not empty though; there are 15 fully concentrated young learners writing a progress test. I’m not really busy at the moment so my only task is to watch them and enjoy the silence. 

I have to smile when I look at the girl right in front of me who’s mouthing words while reading the instructions. She looks so cute with her nose almost touching the paper. She has a very important job to do today – to come up with the correct answers to my questions. She probably spent all day revising for the test, instead of doing something more enjoyable, and so I honestly keep my fingers crossed for her.
When I started teaching English I didn’t use to be a fan of proficiency and progress tests; I didn’t like them because they usually spoilt the students’ average grade score. This was mostly true for the weaker students in the class. I couldn’t get it why the kids who got straight As or Bs in all short tests did so badly in a progress test. When tested on separate grammar features and vocabulary items, they did well but when all these things were put together in one longer test, they messed it up completely. I obviously blamed myself for being a bad teacher. 
I’ve just heard somebody coughing. I think it was the girl in pink trousers, chewing her pen nervously. She’s going over her answers now and scrutinizing her brightly polished nails. Now she’s put her head on the desk – I think she’s not well; she seems to have a cold but she’s here anyway because she doesn’t want to miss her lessons. 
Some sneezing and nose blowing again. It’ the boy who never stops smiling – he’s such an optimist that it sometimes irritates me, especially if I’m in a hurry and have no time to listen to his stories. He enthusiastically talks about his imaginary worlds and the journals he writes. He’s written a few so far – mostly fantasy stuff, I think. But my breaks are too short for me to fully appreciate his creativity… In the morning he told me that his mother is a massage therapist and that I *must* check out her Facebook page. Just before the lesson he asked me if I had done it yet. 
Now a girl has asked me politely if she can go to the bathroom. She says thanks when I nod and rushes out of the classroom. To the left there’s a girl who uses thick markers to take notes and to fill in her tests, which makes them absolutely illegible. Well, I usually lend her my own pen. She finished a couple of minutes ago and it seems she’s writing a poem now – with her thick black marker, of course. This girl is terribly forgetful; she rarely remembers to do her homework but she’s a brilliant student anyway and amazingly creative. Whenever I announce a project to be done, she jumps up happily. And her work is usually fantastic if I manage to decode her handwriting. 
The sick girl has finished too so she has more opportunities to cough and sneeze and blow her nose, paper napkins all over the desk. I’m surprised I haven’t caught flue yet; everybody seems to be under the weather these days.
It’s so refreshing to watch the kids work when you’re not involved. I wonder what happens in their little heads. Do they have to rack their brains to form the past tense? What about the functional language – we’ve practised it so many times before; I hope it’s a piece of cake for them to recall the correct answers.  
Now everybody seems to have finished. One boy has collected the tests and the kids are checking their answers against their workbooks or they ask each other to compare what they came up with in the test. Most of them seem to be happy with their answers. That’s a good sign. I don’t think I’ll be able to mark their tests by Christmas even though I’d love to. The quicker the feedback, the better but the day only has 24 hours.
It’s the last lesson before lunch so they’re getting slightly impatient and want to start packing their books and stuff. We’ve only got a couple of minutes left and I think I can let them go because they’ve worked really hard over the past 45 minutes. They’re off to their own worlds – to horse clubs, music schools, libraries, dance clubs, parks, or bedrooms. 
I’m really glad that I spend more time preparing my students for progress tests than I used to in the past. I tell them what exactly they may expect and I draw their attention to things that cause problems. I sometimes give them a mock test or even show them the real test in advance. This, in my experience, gives them a sense of security and encourages them to go over the things we have covered in the course so far. This works best with young learners. My motto is: no surprises but the rest is obviously up to them. This approach pays off and the reward is the shiny happy faces glowing with satisfaction and pride after they finish and hand in their work. This makes me happy because I know I did my best to help them succeed, and it also makes me feel less frustrated when they fail.  

Teacher training: a battle in the sandpit

Yesterday taught me another precious lesson. I don’t know exactly what the most valuable part of the lesson was, and I’m hoping to find out by the end of this post. By writing this up I want to dissect and decode the whole situation and come up with a plausible explanation. 

Some of my colleagues and I have enrolled in a course that is a part of an EU funded project called Modern Educator. The aim of this training is to help teachers to become familiar with modern technologies and use them in education. One of the perks of this project is the fact that all the participants get tablets for free (formally the are owned by the institution I work for but in reality we can use them for personal purposes as well). An external trainer is supposed to come to our school on a regular basis to present, but part of this training is going to place in an e-learning form.
The very first f-2-f session took place at our school yesterday. It was in the afternoon, after our regular teaching schedule. We had been told that the session will last four hours. Thus we (rather reluctantly) gathered in the ICT laboratory and waited for the trainer to start.

The trainer was a good-looking guy in his late thirties (maybe early forties), who spoke with a clear, strong voice, and I sensed immediately that he was pretty confident. At least I thought so. Anyway, we sat down behind the desktop computers and we were asked to enter the e-learning programme. While logging in, we signed some paper documents, posed for the camera (the photos presumably serving as a proof that the training did take place) and listened to the guy and his jovial discourse. I must admit I didn’t really pay attention because I had trouble logging in, so I was trying to fix my problem. But although my attention was not 100% focused on the guy in front of me (actually I had to turn my back on him in order to be able to work on my PC), I could feel there was something wrong with the way he spoke. Maybe it was his somewhat aggressive tone that worried me a little. A feeble red light started blinking when he uttered: “You know, we can make this in 20 minutes if you wish or we may well stay here for 4 hours”. I read it as an implicit threat which I couldn’t be bothered to take seriously because I knew this doesn’t work. 
Anyway, during his speech, some of my colleagues kept chatting and interrupting (I think they talked about something related to the lecture, though). I didn’t even notice their disruptive behaviour until the trainer lost his temper and asked them, to my taste in a somewhat harsh way, to stop talking. To make things worse, an IT guy entered the room and talked to one of the administrators about a problem which had nothing to do with the session. When this happened for the second time, the trainer got really impatient and scolded the IT guy, too. From this moment on, nobody dared to say a word. I kept working on my problem, half oblivious to what was brewing in the room. I remember that at some stage it occurred to me that I was worried that the trainer might tell me off for not paying attention, but my problem seemed a priority to me so I carried on fixing it anyway. 
When he was about to finish his mini lecture, he made an attempt to apologize for having been harsh on us but all of a sudden, one of my colleagues, the one who had been scolded most, uttered a very dismissive remark. It was actually not a remark at all but a very sarcastic “Ha-ha”. This was the last drop before the huge explosion. The trainer got terribly offended and started ranting: “Oh, yeah! You teachers are not used to being scolded, right? However you do scold your students every day when they are disruptive. Unfortunately, unlike you, I don’t have the tools to make you pay attention. You can threaten your students and fail them if you wish, which I obviously can’t.” 

This started an avalanche of defensive remarks on the participants’ part, who began to throw stones. It got very nasty in the end; it turned into a battle in the sandpit: one of my colleagues even maliciously pointed to a grammatical error in the trainer’s PowerPoint presentation, and another teacher triumphantly corrected his pronunciation mistake (in ‘slides’, a word which we use in Czech but some people pronounce it as ‘sleids’). 

I felt very uncomfortable. I wanted to leave the room and slam the door behind me, but I tried to make myself as compact and invisible as possible instead. I wasn’t scared of the trainer anymore; I was terribly ashamed, even though I was convinced I wasn’t entitled to the slightest credit for this embarrassing situation. At some point I was even imagining myself in the trainer’s shoes and I eventually felt sorry for him ….
There’s no doubt that mistakes were made on both sides of the barricade and there’s no point in blaming either party for inciting the trouble. What went wrong then? 
  • The trainer might have come to our school with some prejudice. Maybe he thought we would be fed up with being there on a Friday afternoon, at Christmas time when most of us would rather be at home baking Christmas cookies or doing the shopping.
  • He might have been fed up himself, though it didn’t seem so at the beginning. 
  • He might have expected us to be excited about the fact that we get tablets for free but he was bitterly disappointed with our disobedience. I don’t think he’s a teacher so he’s probably not accustomed to this type of behaviour. I’m neither, I must admit.
  • Maybe he had simply had some bad experience with secondary school teachers. 
  • The session was initially supposed to last 4 hours. The guy had planned it for only 30 minutes and expected us to be grateful. 
  • Apparently the guy was a very dominant person and he met a bunch of equally dominant teachers. 

What surprised me most was how I felt during the incident. I felt paralyzed but emotionally detached. I felt I didn’t favour either side because I knew that any other remark or attempt to calm the people down would be a stab in the dark. I knew that every word in this ‘dialogue’ was absolutely redundant – the whole thing was actually totally redundant. I was a silent observer with no thoughts and judgements – only a sense of physical discomfort. 

In spite of the deadlock situation that emerged in the room, I think everybody finally took something valuable away. I’m sure some of us realized that this is how we sometimes make our students feel. The dialogue between the judge (a teacher) and the defendant (a naughty student) never takes place just between the two of them; everybody present in the room gets involved in one way or another, and it may become very embarrassing because words are said and can’t be taken back… 

The teacher who tries to sell her Ferrari

As I confessed in my previous post, I’m currently going through one of my zen periods. This happens to me once in a while and there’s no way of influencing the when and answering the why. Although something probably constantly brews within, it always comes out unannounced. This usually means that I lose interest in earthly possessions and I get into all sorts of esoteric and metaphysical literature. I replace rich social life and the hustle and bustle of big towns and shopping centres with solitude and moderation.

I must admit that this metamorphosis is not bad at all; I think it keeps me sane and eliminates the dangers lying hidden in ambush; the dangers waiting patiently for most of us involved in the teaching profession. For me this change is the philosopher’s stone; it’s the secret which gives me comfort and limitless hope. There’s no point in discussing whether it’s real or imaginary as long as it makes me feel better.
But even during these ethereal periods of zen contemplation my feet are firmly on the ground; I never stop thinking of my students and my profession. My teacher self is there – it’s part of me, impossible to uproot. So when reading books that have nothing to do with my job; books I read because I want to stay away from everyday problems, I keep stumbling upon remarks and allusions which direct me back to my calling – or at least I think I see the connections. There’s no point in arguing whether the connections are truly there as long as they make sense to me.
Take this example I’ve just come across: “Zen tradition speaks of a beginner’s mind: those who keep their minds open to new concepts – those whose cups are always empty – will always move to higher levels of achievement and fulfilment. Never be reluctant to ask even the most basic of questions. Questions are the most effective method of eliciting knowledge”. To me this sounds like a perfect opening passage to a reflective post. I don’t know whether it was the word ‘elicit’, one of the most common concepts in ELT, or the phrase ‘never be reluctant to ask questions’, which transferred me from my comfortable chair back to the classroom. It just happened and I caught myself making mental connections. 
And now this one about setting and achieving goals: “Step one is to have a clear vision of your outcome. Step two is to create positive pressure to keep you inspired. The third step is a simple one: never set a goal without attaching a timeline to it…… and remember that a goal that is not committed to paper is no goal at all. Go out and buy a journal…” If you didn’t know the origin of this excerpt, you may think it’s taken from an ELT methodology book. To my mind this bit may well refer to learning an L2, namely a way of becoming a fully autonomous learner. It can also describe a way of becoming a better teacher through reflection.
And finally this one: “Every event offers you lessons. These little lessons fuel your inner and outer growth. Without them, you would be stuck on a plateau…….most people have grown the most from their most challenging experiences. And if you meet with an outcome you did not expect and feel a little disappointed, remember that laws of nature always ensure that when one door closes another opens”. It’s no surprise that whenever I hear the word ‘lesson’, almost in any context, some invisible buttons get switched and I’m a teacher again. Also, I must be a lost case but when reading this passage I immediately thought of the intermediate plateau, one of the most debated ELT terms these days. What also sprang to mind was the concept of demand high; an approach whose proponents argue that tasks should be challenging but doable. The door metaphor made me remember the fact that we should encourage and motivate our students, and even if they fail, they should know that there’s another door waiting to be opened.
Every person will probably interpret the passages above slightly differently, and their interpretations will be based on who they are and what they believe in – they will draw on their experience and knowledge. But this is the point; I see the examples as metaphors which offer a variety of views. Obviously, not everyone sees teacher metaphors everywhere they look. But as far as I’m concerned, no matter how zen I am or try to be, a tiny part of me is probably reserved for my teacher self. I think it’s because I really love what I do and you simply can’t ignore things you love, even if it’s sometimes to the good… 

References: Sharma, Robin S.  (1997). The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. HarperCollins. 

(Un)happy teachers have (un)happy students

I’m writing this post because I notice that I’ve recently become less interested in ELT-related stuff. I feel less excited about various methodology tips and ways of teaching English. I’ve even bought a few books in Czech which have nothing to do with teaching or education. Yet, I’m convinced that this break is an inevitable, temporary part of my journey.  
The way I see myself as a teacher has changed dramatically over the past few months. The metamorphosis is evident and the impacts of it are apparent. Until, say, August I was primarily an EFL teacher. English was in the centre of attention and I suppose that my students saw me the same way. My goal was to be a good teacher of my subject. That’s why I went to conferences and learned about new methods. I attended webinars to sort out my ideas. I got involved in social media to compare my teaching against the backdrop of other people’s teaching ideas. 
I started this blog a year ago. I’ve written about lots of things but the focus could be summarized as ‘my students learning English and I teaching it’. Back in September when I became a class teacher and got a group of 23 students to ‘look after’ things changed. In this particular class, the focus is not just English; the focus is the people, relationships, needs, praise, reprimands, love, desires, behaviour, illnesses, sorrows, joys, parents, sisters, parties, trips ….. I teach four lessons a week in this class and I’m supposed to teach them English. I have one extra lesson a month plus all the breaks between lessons to deal with all the issues listed above. Obviously, I can’t manage to be a class teacher for 45 minutes a month. So inevitably, the extra ‘class’ issues eat away our regular lesson time, which, I admit, makes me feel a little uncomfortable. 
But although being a class teacher is challenging and time-consuming, and maybe it even spoils some of your teaching principles, it’s also exciting. I think it’s similar to becoming a parent – you suddenly have someone to care for. You feel more important – needed. Before you become a parent you have all those ideals about how to bring up a child. You plan and organize; you are firm and persistent (and often judgmental too). But then, everything is different when the child is born. You react as situations emerge. The quality of your parenting depends on what kind of person you are; it depends on all the experience you’ve got so far.
It’s the same at school. I don’t think there’s a general manual telling you how to be a great class teacher. The quality is closely related to your personality – rather than, for example, to classroom management skills that you are taught in methodology courses. As a class teacher, you can’t just close the coursebook and leave the room when you finish the lesson. You must be there all the time, though not always in the physical sense. You are the roof and the shelter. When something happens, a student misbehaves in a PE lesson, for example, the teacher comes to the class teacher to complain. This is extra pressure you need to deal with because you’re expected to take action; you’re supposed to fix it. 

The truth is that you also become a little possessive. You catch yourself saying ‘my class’ more often than before. You feel aggrieved when someone talks badly about ‘your’ class and you even make enemies among your colleagues because you defend ‘your’ brats. You feel proud when ‘your’ student wins a competition, even though you aren’t entitled to the slightest credit. And the headmaster is watching all the time …..
I guess I’m writing this post as an apology. I haven’t taken part in the #eltchat for some time because it’s late at night when I either crave sleep or esoteric literature instead. Stories about Buddhist monks help me blow off steam and get a wider picture. They help me understand. And when I finally close the book I spare a few minutes to think about my class – I think of student X, who is new in the class and I wonder how he feels. Have the others accepted him yet? I think of Y who is so shy and quiet all the time …. what does he think? Shall I talk to him after school? Are they happy? I hope they will be happy once I’m happy myself. That’s probably the reason why I’m working on my own state of mind – that’s why the break I’m taking. Unhappy teachers have unhappy students. An inevitable part of the teaching profession is to seek balance and harmony in life because happiness, as well as passion, is infectious and can be easily passed on to people around you. 

A short one about gratitude

I have good students. I actually have wonderful students. Not only are they clever, they are also well-behaved and nice. Obviously, there are some that are occasionally disruptive, but that’s ok. They mean well; they are excited about something so they giggle and chat when they shouldn’t. They are also forgetful but that’s natural; I also forget about things that are not too important for me. And it’s not just their fault that something seems unimportant to them. 
I always shudder when I hear stories of students who send their teachers to hell. It’s hard to believe that the only thing the teacher can do is survive the lesson. I hear stories of students who put their feet on the desks, sleep or even smoke grass (if they ever come to school). They are rude or refuse to do anything at all.
I’m lucky. I’ve never had such students and I’ve never actually seen a class like that. But I have friends who go through this every day. It would kill me if I couldn’t do what I love; if I couldn’t experiment, explore and pass on my passion. You can only teach English or any subject to kids who listen and pay attention. There’s no point in talking about the best way the present perfect is learnt in a class where the kids don’t care.
So I should be grateful because my students enable me to live my life happily. They allow me to fulfil my dreams. Although I sometimes forget how lucky I am and I start complaining, deep inside I know that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I know that instead of grumbling I should be thankful for every single moment I spend with my classes.
I have another problem though; most of the time I get too excited about my students and my job in general. And I’m not sure if it’s good to love my job and my students unconditionally. They’re not my own kids after all and I’m not their parent or even a relative. I need to repeat this over and over again to myself because I don’t want to get hurt and end up bitterly disappointed. Expectations can get too high and any failure can be taken personally. Burn-out is always imminent.
The truth is that I’ve always seen burn-out as an imbalance between output and input – especially with regard to emotions. If you work too hard and love too much you need somebody to appreciate it and give something back to you. Whenever I feel I’m on the verge of self-pity or grievance, I stop and think for a while. And I usually decide to be happy with what I’ve got even if it’s not what I expected ….