My intuition failed

handmade-791693_960_720Last night, when I was planning one my classes for today, I stumbled upon an interesting text which I thought I could use with a group of 15-year-olds. The material I was originally looking for was ‘Typical problems of teenagers’. In the text I found, ten most common problems were listed, such as bullying, depression, education, etc., along with the solutions parents or teachers usually come up with when dealing with the problems.  It was a bit challenging language-wise but since these are very talented students, I wasn’t worried about that at all.

What worried me a bit though was the fact that one of the topics included in the article was ‘menstruation’. I should add that I’m definitely not the type of person who finds it difficult or embarrassing to talk about these issues with teenagers. Also, there is a majority of girls in this group and even the boys are quite open-minded but still …  For some reason, I wasn’t sure if it was totally appropriate. Long story short, I cut this particular topic out when preparing the reading activity and we finally ended up with just 9 topics.

Before I handed out the texts, we did a brainstorming activity. I asked the group about some typical problems teenagers face these days. To my utter amazement, the very first idea which I elicited was ‘We girls have periods’. I couldn’t believe my ears. The only topic I hadn’t been sure about and the one I had finally got rid of came up first. What also surprised me was that many of the serious topics listed in the text, such as substance abuse or bullying, didn’t occur to the students at all during the eliciting stage. In the end, I felt it was a shame that the topic of menstruation was not included.

Anyway, this anecdote reminded me of PARSNIPS – the seven taboo topics in English language teaching. You can’t always rely on your intuition or the fact that you’ve known your students for ages. You simply never know what’s palatable for them until you ask. But even asking may sometimes be a risky business and it can cause some unnecessary embarrassment. On the other hand, if your students feel absolutely safe in your class, you can afford to take the risk. I remember once asking the same group of students if there was a moment in their lives when they felt absolutely happy. One student put up his hand and said: Yes, I can clearly remember that. I obviously asked a follow-up question: Can you tell us about it? I was taken aback by his resolute but very mature response: Sorry, it’s too personal. Well, believe it or not, even 15-year-olds can sometimes behave like grown-ups. 🙂

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A strange way to fight discrimination in the ELT industry

ignorance-1993615_960_720I’ve just read this article about discrimination in the ELT industry which really ruffled my feathers got me thinking. I strongly recommend that you read it before you read what follows here. This post of mine is a little nasty (to my taste) but I just can’t help it. I may be biased, though. Or I may have read it all wrong. You judge for yourself….

The article examines whether or not discrimination in the ELT industry is justified and the author, Kevin Lee, offers some advice on how non-native English speakers can get jobs as EFL teachers.

The main problem I have with this piece of writing is that it examines whether or not such discrimination is justified based on the assertion of one person – the author – and provides advice on how non-native English speakers can get jobs as EFL teachers by suggesting a few somewhat absurd tips, such as:

  • Become a citizen of an English-speaking country.
  • Lie about where you were born.
  • Make sure that your command of English is excellent and on a par with that of any native speaker.

The above advice appears a little tongue-in-the-cheek-ish and I wouldn’t have a problem with that. On the other hand, tips such as Develop a network of contacts look like sound arguments to me. I’m confused.

At the end of the first paragraph, the author asks: “Does this discrimination really exist though?” The word ‘though’ in the question already implies doubt but we already know that this discrimination does exist – beyond doubt (see http://teflequityadvocates.com/).

Then the author poses a question which really makes me sit up and take notice: “Is this sort of discrimination justified”? And we immediately get the answer:

“Unfortunately, discrimination against non-native speakers in the EFL industry is sometimes justified. Some non-native speakers have been known to ask some questions about English grammar where the answer is very obvious. Not only that, but the grammar that they use to ask those questions is sometimes also incorrect.”

Then the author provides some juicy examples of the worst grammar sins committed by non-native speakers. When wading through the list, I can think of tons of examples of ‘mistakes’ made by native speakers. But he don’t seem to care, innit? What is more, he also mentions creoles as examples of really bad English and asks a somewhat loaded question:

“With such glaringly obvious flaws in their English, is it any wonder that non-native speakers are having such an incredibly hard time finding jobs as EFL teachers in foreign schools?”

To add fuel to the fire, he asks:

“Would you want such people teaching English at your school? If you were a parent, how would you feel if you knew that your child was getting their “quality foreign English education” from teachers with such a poor command of the English language? If I were the owner of a language school, I would be extremely reluctant to hire non-native English speakers as teachers because I am well aware of the brand of English that they use.”

Then, to make things appear a little more optimistic, he goes on to argue that some non-native speakers are absolutely entitled to be regarded as native speakers because they grow up speaking impeccable English and so they speak English as their first language. He gives an example of some Chen, who, to cut a long story short, is now in great demand and is able to find a new job easily at the end of each teaching contract. Moreover, and this seems to be the highlight, Chen is not viewed as a Chinese person by his students:

“His fluency in English and his ability to speak with a British accent puts him on a par with any other British or American teacher that they have had. One of his students even told him to his face, “You are not Chinese!”.

Wow! If that’s what we are seeking in our professional lives, then yes, it’s a big achievement.

So, how can non-native English speakers get an EFL teaching position abroad?

According to the author, the short answer is that non-native English speaker should not be teaching EFL at all. I admit I had to read this sentence twice before I could go on reading the rest of the article.

“If you learnt English in a non-English speaking country, the chances are that you will have picked up many bad linguistic habits which should not be passed on to learners.”

What really strikes me is how often the author uses the word ‘grammar’ when referring to native speakers.

“Foreign students may not speak English well but they have spent years learning the rules of English grammar in school so if your grammar is weak, you will get found out!”

“What is important is that the teachers who get hired have a sound grasp of English grammar, spelling and punctuation and have clear pronunciation with a neutral accent.”

Grammar? Really? What about collocations and idiomatic language?

However, it’s not only non-native speakers who, according to Kevin Lee, are somewhat incompetent, but it’s also the local staff:

“The problem […..] is that the local staff at foreign schools often can barely speak English that well themselves. They would hardly be in a position to assess a candidate’s fluency in the English language …”

The author concludes that if you wish to teach EFL, you must have a native-level fluency in English because, after all, you cannot teach what you yourself do not know.

And that’s that!

 

 

 

 

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The challenges of project work

IMG_20170626_114755For a couple of years now, I’ve been involved in a 4-cycle environment-related project called The Danube in a Suitcase. Each September, issues such as alternative sources of energy or sustainability are discussed. As implied, there are four cycles, each of which is devoted to a different environmental topic. My take on this is a 30-minute workshop held in English. Considering it’s a very short time for a ‘lesson’, it may look like a piece of cake. However, as there are seven mixed-age teams of about 18 pupils, I ‘teach’ the same thing seven times in one day. I deliberately put teach and lesson in inverted commas as it’s not really teaching or lessons what we’re talking about here. I do this project with 6 other colleagues – subject teachers – who look at the same topic from a different perspective (unlike me, they do so in Czech). The different perspectives interweave and eventually create a bigger picture, so to speak.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a similar situation, i.e. teaching the same thing several times on the very same day, but it’s something that scares me a bit each year before the workshop starts. The other thing that worries me, especially during the prep stage, is the little time allotted to each workshop. Also, there are only 5-minute breaks between the workshops plus one longer break after the second team finishes, which means it’s all really quick and pretty intense. Needless to say, it requires perfect organization, which, luckily, my colleague – a biology/chemistry teacher – always takes good care of.

When preparing the workshop, I try to keep several things in mind. First of all,  I don’t want to lose my voice (and mind). Despite the fact that each team is different and brings in a different type of energy, it may feel like working on a manufacturing assembly line. Thus I design the activities so that it’s the students who do most of the work, especially the talking. I should add that I have three assistants at my disposal – older students who went through all the 4 cycles of the project in the past and now they are in charge of the organization. This is great because they know what it’s all about so they can be very helpful and they can finally see the whole thing from the other side of the barricade. This, I believe is rewarding as well as educational for them.

Secondly, I must plan the activities so that there is enough to do but not too much within the 30 minutes’ time. This is not easy because I normally have a tendency to overdo things when planning my usual lessons. However, this year, things panned out just fine; we had a nice warm-up and the main activity, plus we had plenty of time for the final feedback and evaluation, which was really valuable and felt very satisfying. I think I’m getting better at lesson planning after all!

Thirdly, since each student within one team has a different level of L2 proficiency and a different amount of knowledge, the content of the workshop has to be challenging and motivating enough for the oldest students but at the same time, it needs to be comprehensible enough for the youngest ones.

One of the great things about this project is that it’s mainly about teamwork and we stress it right from the beginning that teamwork is our priority. As mentioned above, a group of 18 students made up from 4 different classes has to work towards a common goal. They are highly motivated to cooperate as the best three teams get a prize. One of the challenges is that the older students should help the younger ones but at the same, they need to give them enough space. In other words, even though an older student knows all the answers, he or she should wait and let the others do their job or at least formulate their thoughts in their mind. This is not easy for some of the competitive ones.

I love this project despite all the challenges I have to face. It means more work for me as a teacher but in the end, it’s really rewarding.

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The Four Scenarios of Lesson 1

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I should be honest and say that I’m one of those people who, at the end of each summer break, have to pretend that: Oh no! School starts again soon. The truth is that I can’t wait for school to start.

Mind you, I do love holidays and being with my family full time. But I also love my work. I love being in the classroom and I even like all the red-tape and non-red-tape stuff I need to grapple with each year before the real teaching can start. This entails updating message boards, making copious lists of everything, filling in multiple forms, copying and pasting of all sorts, you name it.

And then Day 1 finally comes. Being in the classroom for the first time after a long holiday is always a thrilling experience for me. There are four possible scenarios I usually have to be prepared for:

  1. I teach the same group of students who I know well and who know one another well too.
  2. I teach the same group of students but there’s a new element – a student from a different school or an exchange student.
  3. I teach a new group of students who had a different teacher before so I don’t know them but they know one other well.
  4. I teach a brand new group of students who I don’t know and who don’t know one another because they all come from different schools.

Needless to say, for each of the above scenarios, I need to apply different strategies and methods, especially in Lesson 1.

Scenario 1 is the one I feel the most comfortable with. No ice-breakers are needed and we can dive into the syllabus straightaway. That said, in the first lesson, we usually talk about summer experiences and it feels natural and genuine – almost like talking to an old friend. Nobody feels too awkward or embarrassed and I feel I don’t have to invest too much energy into teaching. This is good because I can save the energy surplus for the other scenarios. There’s one caveat though: based on my and my colleagues’ experience, if you teach the same group of students you didn’t get on very well with before, this situation may actually turn into the worst-case scenario.

Scenario 2 is almost as safe as Scenario 1 but it can also be tricky: the dynamic of the group can change dramatically with the new element present. Conversely, the new student can feel a bit out of place, especially at the beginning, thus me, the teacher, needs to come up with strategies that will ease the burden. This year, for example, we have an exchange student from Brazil – a 17-year-old girl – in a group of students I’ve been teaching for 7 years. In the first lesson, all the other students behaved slightly differently and I think it will take some time for them to adjust. Although I can’t predict how things will eventually pan out, I believe the change will only be to the good.

Scenario 3 is my favorite, especially if it’s a group where the students are already motivated and have good relationships with one another. I’m the only new element there, which enables me to explore and, to a certain degree, shape things in a way I think is beneficial for learning. However, if your colleagues warn you in advance that this or that group is just impossible, you’ll be discouraged and biased from Day 1. I try not to pay too much attention to such negative comments.

Scenario 4 is to me the most challenging in terms of energy investment.  The newcomers don’t know one another and they don’t know me so I have no idea how this particular group is going to respond to my methods; I come to the lesson blindfold, so to speak. This may obviously create some tension on both parts. Also, I believe it’s good to have the same set of rules for each group but we all know that the reality is different; in some groups, everything goes smoothly whereas, in other groups, you discover after a while that you’ll simply need to tighten the rules up a bit. These are insights which you can’t have access to in the first lesson and sometimes they come to you when it’s a little too late.

This year, I found myself in all scenarios except Scenario 4. I find it amazing how varied teaching is and how unpredictable it can get. It doesn’t matter if you have taught in the same school/classroom all your life and you already know your coursebooks and your syllabus by heart. It’s primarily the students who always make teaching and learning a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

 

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It just happened – I blogged

filler-150980_960_720It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t a race. It just happened. I blogged 15 times last month, which means that on average, I blogged once in two days. It may well be my personal record so, in this post, I’d like to reflect on those past 30+ days.

Blogging every day forces you to notice the details of your life. You need fodder for the day’s post. And you’ll scour your world to get it. You become hyper-aware. You find ways to turn little subtleties into big ideas. You start writing with questions only to be faced with answers by the time you reach the end of the post. Your headspace literally becomes transformed. (How one year of daily blogging changed my life by Jonas Ellison)

What happens if you decide to or just blog every day or once in two days? First of all, blogging becomes your life for a while; it becomes an obsession. One of the downsides of excessive blogging is that you can’t get it out of your head and the same acute questions keep niggling at the back of your mind: Have I taken care of all the errors and misspelling in my latest post? Have I expressed myself clearly? Do I sound pathetic?

But there are perks to intense blogging too. I can’t help smiling when I think of all the enthusiasm with which I looked forward to every new morning. I would wake up around 8:30 am, when all the house was still in bed (teenagers and teachers on holiday are impossible!) and I would work on the post I had started the previous day or I would start a new one. Alternatively, I would just read other people’s posts, which lead to more inspiration.

Over time, the process of writing has become incredibly enjoyable for me. This joy is the consequence as well as the cause; the more I write, the easier and thus more pleasurable it gets and the more pleasurable it gets the more I want to write. Plus the more I write, the more I’m keen to read and the more ideas come to my mind in return. Blogging has become a drug, in the best and worst sense of the word.

However, while in the past, it was the clicks and likes I got from the viewers that to a large extent affected my writing enthusiasm and confidence, these days, my passion springs from another source. While I deeply appreciate the fact that people stop by and take the time to get involved in a discussion, my primary motivation is the desire to put words on paper.

It may sound terribly shallow, even self-indulgent, but it’s obviously not just that. Producing random words or sentences is not what feels so good about blogging. In my case, it’s the joy over the ability to express myself in another language. It’s the satisfaction I feel when I manage to get the message across. It’s the struggle of transforming my inner voice into a coherent piece of text. It’s the process of playing with and shaping that text until I’m fully satisfied. Plus the fact that it gets easier and faster each day, with each try.

*****

Based on what I’ve read, many bloggers like to save random blog-worthy ideas in the form of many separate drafts which give them great content ideas to come back to. Some say they even have up to fifty drafts. This is amazing given that I’ve never had more than one draft at the same time. Once I turn an idea into a draft, I need to finish it. Starting another draft usually means abandoning the previous one. It’s no longer worthy of attention and it will never be because it wasn’t finished. Having so many drafts would feel somehow cluttered for me anyway. It sounds strange now that I read it back but this is the way I write (and live?) – I need to focus on one thing. Once it’s completed, I let go of it and move on.

Some bloggers say they like to polish their writing by reading it backward and that they like to sleep on the final draft before they publish it. This pragmatic approach is probably suitable for most types of writing. Unfortunately, I’m not that patient and conscientious and this is where my blogging productivity may actually stem from. Upon finishing a post, I suddenly feel a strong urge to publish it even though I suspect there might still be some flaws. At some point, perfect or flawed, it must go and start living its own life. And each post clearly has its own, independent life – it’s shared on different social media, it’s read by a different number of people, it’s of interest for a different amount of time, and it gets a different type of response. I, the writer, have virtually no control over any of the variables.

This lack of control is daunting as well as thrilling. You can obviously delete a post if things go out of hand but it’s like wanting to delete words once spoken. They will never disappear completely.

Anyway, I’ll soon be away from my laptop so I’ll clam up for a while. I’d like to thank all the people who were with me all the time during this rather hectic blogging period. I’d like to thank those who appreciated the strengths as well as those who pointed out the flaws. Thanks for helping me make my obsession bearable.

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Burnout syndrome of the TEFL community

It looks as if it was all over; we seem to be in the twilight of the shiny happy TEFL PLNing era. It’s a bit like looking at the famous painting of The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up. We watch the end with nostalgia; we reflect on how great it once felt to be connected. But there’s this bitterness …

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Recently some strange things happened in the online TEFL sphere. A couple of fellow TEFLers disappeared without a trace from a particular social medium and some folks I know are considering the option too. The reason behind this exodus is that people can no longer take the hostility they witness and/or experience in the online interaction. But what’s more disturbing, some people are suspiciously quiet these days. And then there are the loud and proud ones – those who were quiet up till recently but decided to speak up against all the injustices. By doing so, they opened the imaginary Pandora’s box and since then many angry voices have joined the crowd.

It seems that all the good has been said and so some feel the need to counterbalance this fake niceness and complacency. Their response is brutal honesty. Needless to say, it’s a shock!

But some changes are almost imperceptible. For example, I’ve noticed that people quit starting their comments with the obligatory ‘thanks a lot for stopping by and dropping a line‘. They go straight to the point. Mind you, I don’t think it’s downright rude or something. After all, why should we lavish niceties when our time is so precious?

I’ve also got used to the fact that some don’t even bother to say ‘Hi!’ in the comment box or address the person by a name (not necessarily here on my blog). I’m fine with that provided I know who the person is talking to. Comments do sometimes start with ‘Dear X‘ but this way of addressing has now taken on two distinct connotations: dear = beloved or dear = idiot. It depends on who is replying and to whom. The reader will usually be able to discern the difference after a few lines.

I’ve also noticed that one of my favorite bloggers recently removed the like button from his blog.  Was it an attempt to get rid of a widget so overused in the online communication. It seems to me that some people are so hurt and disappointed that they want to strip emotionality from all the online interaction – negative or positive.

Finally, I witness that like in every dispute, the onlookers tend to favor one side at the expense of the other. For example, they say that if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. I agree. Except that I’m not always sure who the oppressor is or if there is one at all. I’d appreciate more well-balanced views, I guess.

I’m writing this to say that although the online TEFL community seems to be on its last legs, I’m more alive and kicking than ever before. I want to connect, share ideas, and read about other people’s experience. But do people still care? I can’t help the feeling that blog posts offering practical advice and teaching resources have gone out of fashion. It’s rants, like this one, that are in these days. I know it’s summer and teachers are on vacation, but given the fact I follow about 80 blogs and sometimes not a single post pops up in my WP Reader for days is telling. All quiet on the western front. Are people resting or fed up?

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised by the latter scenario. It’s a well-known fact that teachers can suffer from the burn-out syndrome. But I wonder whether an online community as a whole can face the same problem. We used to be so engaged, so enthusiastic. Have we become frustrated by the lack of appreciation on all fronts? Those who were here to support us unconditionally (or PLN) have either left or become silent. Suddenly, we’re standing here, all alone. Or, given the omnipresent threat of sharp criticism, do we just feel too endangered to stick our heads out?

Anyway, I’ll wrap up on an optimistic note. Let’s hope it’s just chrysalis time – the time when one chapter of our lives has ended and the next one hasn’t come into being yet. As Tara Mohr puts it:

This is the stage of old things giving way, the stage of goopy mess, of being neither caterpillar nor butterfly. It is the time of being something in an undefined, transitional, un-presentable state.

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Why you can’t tickle yourself

It’s a well-known fact that it’s almost impossible to get a laugh by self-tickling. The scientific reason behind this is that the human brain anticipates unimportant sensations, such as your own touch, so when you try to tickle yourself, the cerebellum predicts the sensation and this prediction cancels the response of other brain areas to the tickle.

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In an analogical manner, it’s sometimes hard, even impossible, to anticipate what impact our own words or actions will have on others until somebody lets us know retrospectively. In other words, we can’t directly sense the feeling other people get from our words or actions; we need to be told.

Some say that they use words because they just fit (a particular genre, for example). Those who say so should probably check out this blog. Particularly in written communication, every expression or even an exclamation mark has its purpose as it can dramatically change the meaning of the message if used inappropriately or carelessly.

silhouette-2480321_960_720But no matter how hard we try and how careful we are when communicating, words slip out of our mouths (or rather keyboards) and accidentally convey a negative message that is buried deep inside. And although it’s rarely our intention to deliberately hurt others, sometimes, the words we use and the way we use them reveal our deeply rooted biases and prejudices – those which do harm once they emerge from within.

Some tricks can be learned and applied to circumvent this; after all, a lot has been written on how to improve communication skills. However, if there are some truly negative thoughts and beliefs residing deep inside our mind, such tricks may prove quite ineffective. The people at the receiving end will see through the trickery since self-conceit and contempt can be detected from miles away no matter how well-disguised they are.

Apart from minding every single word we use, we need to do constantly and patiently scrutinize our beliefs from all possible angles and if we come across something rotten, we should at least be honest with ourselves (and others). Trying to hide or fake things doesn’t help.

The people at the receiving end may be immensely helpful in this respect and we should listen very carefully to what they have to say. If someone misinterprets our ideas, for example, and gets upset, it may not be their fault. It may be the wrong choice of a word or phrase on our part. So we should cherish the honesty of the reader since it may help us uncover the motives we were totally unaware of. In other words, it’s by ‘tickling’ us that the people at the receiving end help us experience some important aha moments and become sensitive to other people’s feelings. We can rarely make it on our own.

 

 

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