At the moment I’m writing a statement of belief about ELT. I’m going to be using it for a project I’ve been working on that I can’t talk much about yet. This is a section that I thought was interesting, maybe controversial, and that I felt very ‘in the zone’ about when I was writing it. It’s part of a first draft, so I’d love to get some feedback if you have any ideas or thoughts.
This was the last week of the semester for me and as a part of that I gave some of my classes feedback forms. It’s been very insightful for me and I wish I’d done it earlier now. You can see that in the feedback form that I’ve tried to ask questions that force students to not just try and be nice to me and to offer some changes they’d like to see. I wanted to share some of this feedback; some of it was thought provoking for me, and it might be for you too. I’d also like to share some thoughts about the process of getting feedback and perceptions of classes.
“It’s too hard/easy”
“Some contents [of the course] are too easy and boring.”
“Some of the questions are too hard to answer.”
Some of the comments that came up over and over again were about the difficulty of the class. The problem here is that the comments were kind of split between students who thought the class was too easy, and those who thought the class was too hard. It’s a much bigger problem than everyone thinking things were too easy or everyone thinking they were too hard.
At the moment I’m teaching classes of around 45-65 students who range in ability from pre to post intermediate. In an ideal world I’d be teaching smaller classes of students of a similar English ability. Next semester I’ll be trying to put some extension tasks in for students who found everything too easy. I think differentiation is something that ESL teachers, myself included, maybe forget about too often.
“Teach us more”
“The teacher is too kind and we didn’t do enough homework so we can’t acquire knowledge very well.”
“What didn’t you like about this course: It includes too much communication practice. I would cut some time practicing communication and increase more knowledge.”
My classes this semester have been very task based. The presentation/practice/production has been at about a 10%/25%/65% split. I’ve tried to lean quite heavily on the production part of PPP because I think my students generally get a lot of presentation and practice but don’t have many chances to just talk.
Some of my students gave me feedback that lots of the things they did in class weren’t new or useful for them. A student in my conversation class said that they’d spent two weeks ‘saying hello’. I had tried to plan two weeks of classes based around saying hello, understanding the different registers we use to say hello and transitioning from hello to small talk. That comment was one that stayed around in my head for a while and, to be honest, made me feel like a bad teacher. On reflection I can see that there probably isn’t anything in saying hello or asking some questions that is new vocabulary or grammar and that might be frustrating if you felt that you’d already ‘got it’. I’d like to go back in time and spend more time early on in the semester explaining why I concentrate so much on free practice activities.
“Let us talk more”
“Actually we talked in English not so much.”
“Give more opportunities to students so that they can talk with each other.”
Despite everything I’ve just written about students feeling like they practiced too much and not actually learned anything, some also wrote that they didn’t spend enough time practicing. I don’t really know what to say about this and I’m not exactly sure exactly what they meant by this. Maybe some kind of free practice without any kind of topic at all?
“I don’t want to talk to people who aren’t my friends/ I don’t want to talk to girls”
“If I have to say a point that I don’t like about this course, maybe boys and girls can’t really exchange their ideas because they don’t know about each other.”
“When we change seats to talk to an unfamiliar classmate, I feel a little embarrassed.”
At the start of the semester I let students talk to whomever they like. It was okay but I found that if I mixed up the class (we did lots of ‘speed dating’ style activities) things were generally better. I had some students who would do a lot of what I can best describe as ‘effing about’: chatting in L1 when they think I can’t hear, playing Hearthstone on their phones and so on. If I said ‘find a new partner’ they’d generally walk around and then go back to their best friend.
I got lots of comments about it being awkward to talk to other people and how it was awkward to talk to people of different genders. I’m not sure if I’m too worried about this feedback to be honest. From my perspective, the classes went a lot better when people were talking to new people. I will be double checking this perception in the coming semester.
Some thoughts on everything
It’s been an interesting process getting this feedback. When I first got the feedback I was actually kind of down about it. My brain picked out all of the bad things and kept them rolling around in there for about a day. After that I started to see both sides of the feedback, but it was a bit more of a confidence knock than I was expecting because I never hear the bad things about my professional practice.
Something I noticed is that the feedback shows that a teachers’ perception of what happened in a class can be completely off. I wasn’t expecting anyone to say ‘you should have let us talk more’. Students have very different perceptions of what their needs are to teachers. Whilst preparing this blog I have also been reading Task-Based Language Education: From theory to Practice (Van den Branden, 2006: 20-21) The author cites a study (Nunan, 1988) showing that students and teachers have very different perceptions of what is a relevant activity for second language learning. Van den Branden contrasts the “objective” perception of teachers and other outside sources with the “subjective” perceptions of students. I don’t think it’s really that simple, surely teachers also have a subjective view of the class or what’s useful. I’m not 100% sure what the right answer is when the teacher and students have a different perception of class, but it is an interesting topic.
Finally I think It’s important to talk about your teaching philosophy with the students, especially if it’s a little different to what they’re used to. It’s one thing to have a kick ass teaching philosophy, but if your students don’t understand why you’re doing what you do, they might come away a little confused, demotivated and unsatisfied.
Van Avermaet, P and Gysen, S ‘From Needs to Tasks: Language learning needs in a task-based approach pp. 17-46 in Van Der Branden, K (2006) Task-Based Language Education: From theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nunan, D (1988) The Learner-Centered Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Business English was never an area that really attracted me. When I taught it in Korea it was a private class for two businessmen who had to be there, but didn’t really want to be. They frequently missed class, but when they did come they wanted to focus on textbooks. All in all I had a really miserable experience teaching it and it put me off business English. This semester I’ve had to teach 5 business English classes. I’ve actually really come to love teaching these classes. I think the classes themselves have also been prettay prettay prettay good. I wanted to share for things I’ve tried to do to make them work.
1. The Negotiated Syllabus
In theory, negotiated syllabi are my cup of pedagogical tea. The idea is that you talk to your students and figure out what their needs are. You continue to work together on what is covered in class. I spent my first class with each group getting them to discuss ‘What is business English?’, ‘What do you want to cover?’ and so on. The main thing my students negotiated with me was that I never try and negotiate a syllabus with them again. The whole experience seemed very awkward and confusing for them. I can’t really say why, but I think some kind of combination of large class sizes, it being my first ever week at a university and 15 years exposure to very didactic education was to blame. If anyone has any ideas for making it work, I’d love to hear them.
This is probably very cynical, but it’s effective. I teach at a university specialising in finance and economics; lots of my students want to learn English to get a well paying job. I’ve found it really useful to remind them of this as often as possible. We spent time talking about English being an international language. When they do a role play, it’s always a role play between two non-native speakers doing business in English. I try and frame tasks as ‘If you can do x well, you’ll make y amount for your company.’
Different students have varying degrees of response to this, but no one has responded to potentially making money badly.
3. Give Them Some Firsts
When I did my first class on holding a meeting in English, about 25% of my students had held a meeting before. For the rest of the class they got to have their first formal meeting in my class. For all of them it was their first meeting in English. For a lot of them it’s quite exciting to do these things for the first time. Not every class can be a super interesting ‘first’, but they’re very motivating for students. These classes also teach some useful skills so it’s win win.
4. Tasks Tasks Tasks
This is a big one.
The classes I teach are two 45 minute sessions with a 10 minute break in the middle. This kind of class is hard to teach and from what I remember of university, hard to pay attention to. These tasks replicate real world business English as closely as possible. One of my favourites went like this:
- 15 minutes discussing job interviews and looking at some job descriptions.
- 20 minutes brainstorming ideas for interview questions, feeding back and discussing them.
- 20 minutes looking at some ‘tough’ interview questions and their answers. For each one practice asking and answering with a partner.
- 30 minutes doing mock interviews. We could squeeze in a change of partners three to five depending on various things.
- 15 minutes discussion and then feedback on what interview questions were easy, hard and useful for finding a good job candidate.
Let’s start with a sad story:
The Fountain Pen
At my primary school, there were regular handwriting tests. If you got a high enough score, you got to graduate from writing with a pencil to writing with a fountain pen. I didn’t know why yet, but my handwriting was barely legible, so I watched as one by one all my classmates moved up to a fountain pen. It took another six months of low test scores before I got my pen. Not because my handwriting was good enough, I think, but because they felt sorry for me. Even today I really love fountain pens too much and spend too much money on them.
My dyslexia today
The young me would be pretty shocked to find out that I spend lots of my time writing on a board for 60 people to read, teaching spelling and grammar. The idea that I could ever be good enough at those things to teach people was impossible. I was lucky to go to a really good school that gave me a lot of personalised support that taught me how to cope with a lot of things to do with dyslexia, but of course, it still effects me.
I make spelling mistakes a lot. This is less of a problem now that it’s so easy to look up words with a phone, or online. I get embarrassed if I forget a spelling I need to write on the board. Something that happens all the time is that I’ll see a word and the spelling will look wrong, even though it’s right.
Strangely my students don’t often seem to mind me making a spelling mistake, sometimes other teachers can make a big fuss about it. I use an app called Grammarly to spell check everything I put out and it has made a big difference to me. I’ve made some pretty public and embarrassing spelling mistakes, so it’s important to use this app.
I got a compliment on my board writing recently. I don’t think it’s particularly good but with lots of practice, it’s become legible but not pretty. I don’t write as quickly as I’d like to, but it’s passable.
Lots of people thing dyslexia means you have to be bad at reading. That’s not always true. My reading is generally pretty good. Words don’t move around or look blurry for me, but I do look at a word and sometimes see a completely different word.
Can you be dyslexic and be a teacher?
If you’ve read everything above, I hope you’ll say the answer is ‘yes!’ Being dyslexic definitely makes some things more difficult, but there are always ways to cope. My teaching style is a little bit chaotic and I use a lot of humour when I make a mistake. I make a point of asking pupils to check my spellings on the board when I don’t know something. Dyslexia is said to offer a different way of seeing the world, so I hope that in some ways it helps me as a teacher too.
You may or may not know I’ve started a new job teaching English at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics (NUFE). People are always curious about other people’s teaching jobs so I thought I’d share some things.
The biggest thing for me is I have lots of freedom over my classes now. In the past, I’ve had a syllabus that I’ve had to follow with specific things that have to be covered each week. Having freedom means I can try out new things in the classroom which is important. I’ve got a business English class, a conversational English class and a debate class. There are different things I want to do with each one and I’ve had the freedom to experiment. I hope I can share some of these experiments in the coming weeks.
I have a good mix of students. Some of them are distracted in class but for the most part they are very committed to class. They’re quite shy sometimes especially if they have to talk to people they don’t know, but they’ve already started to open up a little. I hear lots of stories about them going to English Club at 7am which is way more dedicated than I ever was at university.
My classes are quite big. My last class of the week on a Friday has 68 students. At first this worried me but it doesn’t so much any more. I can’t give as much one on one feedback as I’d like to, but I’ve tried to make up for it by working on reflective skills. After big activities students have some time to discuss what went well and badly and how they can improve. They spend a lot time doing group work and it’s hard to make sure everyone is working on what they’re supposed to be. I asked on Twitter for advice and got told to use a ‘think, pair, share’ or ‘think, pair, produce’. Having students feed back from their groups is a great way to make them responsible for their time. They all want to have an answer when called on in front of the whole class. It also gives a way for students to learn from each other.
I used to be either teaching or caring for children from 9-4:30 with an hour off here or there. At my new job I teach nine blocks of two 45 minute classes (thirteen and a half hours a week). I have most of my afternoons off and all day on Tuesday. Pretty nice!
I’ve been using the time to catch up on some reading I’ve wanted to do and see a bit of China. It was very handy before excitELT to have lots of spare time to prepare things. I have to use some of the time for planning, but it’s quite nice as I like trying out new things.
One last thing about my schedule is I teach the same classes a lot. I do the same business English class five times a week. It’s quite good for me as a teacher to be able to try the same class in a few different ways and learn from what goes well. I do worry a little that my Friday classes get a better experience than my Monday classes though.
All in all I’m really enjoying teaching in China. If there is anything you’re curious about that I didn’t answer, feel free to leave a comment.
When I used to teach in Korea, I was teaching some big children and some little children. I used to feel very responsible for them. They were too young to make decisions for themselves to I had to help them make good decisions.
You’re in your first year of university; you’re not a kid anymore and you’re supposed to be responsible for your actions. I can’t pretend to be a great life decision maker and I don’t know you. I don’t know if it’s a good life decision or not to watch TV shows on your phone in class. It could be fine for you. You might not care about English as much as other things, and maybe you shouldn’t.
After I saw you on your phone I called you out in front of the class. I thought it was okay at the time, but I’ve been wondering about it since. I’m not sure what my job is supposed to be now that I teach at a university.
The reason I did make an example of you is because I know cultures get created in class. When people see each other doing things, they copy them. I don’t want to have five students watching TV in class next week. I also hope if you take part a little you’ll really enjoy the class and not want distractions next time.
There’s still a part of me wants to just say ‘fine’. If you don’t work in my class, you can do the test at the end. If you do well without concentrating much, maybe my class was kind of a waste of time for you. If you don’t do well, then it’s your responsibility.
One of the other teachers told me not to give students the chance to mess about in class. He does lots of drilling and doesn’t give students time to work independently. All of the students in his class are always on task and he says it works well. One of the reasons I personally got into teaching was I really like teaching independence and reflective skills. I know lots of students are really benefiting from independent work.
I’m sorry if you were embarrassed or mad at me in class. I’m still thinking about how to deal with these situations and I might get it wrong some time.