How much better?


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.


Gossip and fake news

little-boy-3332111_1280.jpgThis is a quick post to share an activity I did with a couple of classes last week. It is useful if you have some of the following objectives:

Your learners

  • can re-tell a simple or familiar story using their own words.
  • can paraphrase simply when they don’t know the correct word or phrase.
  • can re-tell the main points of an extended story in their own words.
  • can compare and contrast two versions of the same story.

I had my own secret agenda too: Through this activity, I wanted to demonstrate how gossip (and or fake news) is created.

Choose a simple story or a text which contains a reasonable amount of facts (numbers, times, names, etc.) and which takes at least one minute to read (the length will vary depending on the level of your students). You can tell your own story but you should have it written down for later reference. I chose a text from a random coursebook which a particular group was not familiar with.

Divide the class into groups of 3. Give each student in the group a number (1, 2 or 3). Ask all 2s and 3s to leave the classroom. Make sure they are not eavesdropping behind the door. 🙂 Read the text to 1s. Ask them to listen carefully.

Call all the 2s back to the room. Ask 1s to re-tell the story they’ve just heard. When everybody finishes, call 3s back to the room and ask them to join their teams. Now, 3s are listening to 2s, taking notes. Make sure that 1s aren’t helping in any way at this point. When everybody is done, ask the groups to look at their notes and discuss them briefly. Finally, read the original story again and ask the groups to compare their notes with what they hear.

In the end, I got the groups to express how accurate their story was in comparison to mine. (Not so) surprisingly, most of them said that their story was only 50-70 % accurate (even less!). We discussed the whys and then I asked who they think was ‘to blame’ for the fact that some of the information had got lost along the way or been altered – wittingly or unwittingly. I was pleased to see that they did not blame one another; instead, they willingly and proudly took the blame for any loss and/or distortion of information. Eventually, I asked why they thought we had done the activity. With more advanced classes, we touched upon media awareness. With younger kids, we just mentioned that this is how gossip and rumors come into existence and that we should be careful when we present information which we have obtained from external sources.

I’d like to add that the activity can be adjusted to your group’s needs in that you can choose a text with vocabulary and grammar you feel need to be revised, but this was not my primary goal.




Does stress affect learning and memory?


A large number of studies has been conducted to better understand how stress affects learning and memory. The effects of stress were found to be complex, though, with stress having both enhancing and impairing effects on memory, depending on the specific memory process or stage that is affected by stress and the activity profile of major physiological stress response systems. (Vogel and Schwabe, 2016)

This week I had a rare opportunity to deliver a lesson during which the students felt under a bit of stress. I suppose it sounds a bit odd. However, this was neither the type of stress which is life-threatening, longlasting, repeated or even caused deliberately but rather a temporary rush of adrenalin which you get in the anticipation of something ‘dangerous’. I’d compare it to the feeling I used to have when on December 6, I waited for St. Nicolas and his two companions (the Angel and the Devil) to come and knock at our door. At some point in my life, when I was very small, this experience did feel almost life-threatening since the Devil might have put me in his huge, filthy sack and taken me to Hell with him. Later on, when I got a little older, the whole festival felt somewhat offensive and embarrassing. I knew the Devil was not real but he (or she) was there ready to rattle his chains, stick out his tongue at me and make all sorts of ridiculous threats. So I understand that this week, some students might have felt a little uncomfortable and some might have felt a little stressed in the situation I’m going to describe.

There’s this tradition in the Czech Republic called The last ringing of the bell. On their last day of school, before their final exams start, senior students put on various costumes and they pour into the streets to kick up a row. Making a lot of noise, they stop people and ask for money. Then they move into the school building and visit every classroom where they soil every single student who doesn’t give them any coins. They use lipsticks, styling mousse, heavy perfumes, vinegar, flour, you name it. All students are instructed to wear sensible clothes on this day (and to have a spare set of clothing, just in case). Everybody feels a mixture of love and hate in relation to this event. And it’s probably stressful for some too.

I was teaching a class of 12-year-olds when we heard the first signs of turmoil. I saw the excitement in their eyes but I repeatedly encouraged them to stay calm and seated. What’s more, I kept on presenting the present perfect vs. past simple rules. I told them jokingly that we are brave and we’ll persist. The noise got louder and quieter as the older students were popping in and out of the other classrooms. This obviously added to the thrill and intensified the students’ nervousness. Nevertheless, I patiently asked them to work on the exercises in their workbooks. We finished reading the very last sentence of the very last exercise when the villains suddenly stormed into the classroom…

I’m saying this because it occurred to me that maybe, this distracting event may have had a positive impact on the lesson and the matter I was teaching in that it made them more memorable. I wonder whether next time I see them, the students will remember what I told them in the previous lesson. In other words, I’d like to know whether this rather tricky language point will be better remembered because of the link to this somewhat stressful experience. However, the question is: did the students really pay attention? Did they notice?

One way or another, I don’t want to be over-enthusiastic about the effects of stress in education. Alan Woodruff sums up part of the article mentioned above:

The memory-enhancing effects of stress are typically limited to the stressful event: threatening a student with punishment as they learn their multiplication tables won’t help them learn any better (and might even make it worse), but it will make them remember the threat of punishment.



Vogel, S., & Schwabe, L. (2016). Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. npj Science of Learning, volume1, article number: 16011 (2016)