Reflections on three months of English language teaching

I’ve now been an English teacher for three months. Nice use of the present perfect tense there eh? Notice how you can’t say ‘I have been being a teacher for three months’ because ‘to be’ is a state verb and cannot be used in the continuous (+ing) form. I’ve started to notice these things!!!

Anyway, in my last post I was very enthusiastic about my new teaching career, but thought the shine might wear off if I had to do it full-time. And that’s exactly what’s happened! I’ve been teaching for 25 hours a week and it’s very tiring. 25 hours of teaching also means at least another 12 hours of planning, so it’s really a full time job. I haven’t had much time to do any writing.

I’m aiming for 100% Dead Poets Society….

Another reason the shine has started to wear off is that my main class is pre-intermediate. Intermediate really is the best level – anything below that and it’s quite hard work. The intermediates generally understand your instructions, and can speak enough that a speaking activity can go on for quite a long time, with plenty of error correction afterwards. Pre-intermediates can’t say very much, so none of the activities last that long. Plus, the reading and listening texts they can manage are necessarily simple and therefore a bit boring.

I’ve also found that at intermediate level or above, almost all students are good students. You need to be reasonably intelligent and to put quite a bit of effort in to get to intermediate level. Anyone who’s really slow or not capable of the effort and commitment needed either gives up or simply remains in pre-intermediate. In other words, in my class.

Teaching 15 students aged 16-65, from all over the world and with very different cultures and different language problems presents all sorts of issues. There are definitely some nationalities that are harder to teach than others. That’s not to say that 100% of people from those countries are bad students, just that a lot of them are. I wonder if people in some countries just have wildly different expectations and experiences of education, which plays out in their behaviour?

St Trianians on the rampage = my class on a Friday…

On the other hand, I don’t want to be too negative. I’ve had some pretty hair-tearing moments, but I’ve had some moments of triumph too. I had a shy Latin American student (yes! there are shy people in that continent too!) who was initially terrified of speaking English. He became quite a confident speaker after a few weeks, and when he left he exclaimed ‘never did I think I would enjoy the learning so much!’ I was so proud! I also taught a Japanese student to correctly pronounce /r/ and /l/. Never again will anyone laugh at him for failing to distinguish between ‘rice’ and ‘lice’. I’ve received a few odd presents and one student even said that they felt inspired!

I’ve learnt a lot about myself as well. I really enjoy getting my students talking and communicating. I enjoy teaching creative speaking activities, or even everyday communication skills. I don’t mind teaching grammar. It’s actually pretty interesting, as I’m learning a lot about my own language too, and it’s not nearly as scary as people seem to think. I enjoy teaching vocabulary, especially some of the slightly more advanced stuff, and I find I’m quite good at it. I also enjoy pronunciation work. There’s lots of interest in pronunciation: not just phonemes (individual sounds) but word stress, sentence stress, intonation patterns and connected speech. It’s also pretty fun and can be incorporated into all kinds of lessons. For example, in a lesson on ‘news’ I’ve had students practice reading the news in the style of a newsreader, with their voice falling at the end of end of every sentence to show how serious they are. It’s all quite difficult for my students, but I do try to teach them not to sound like robots. This has mixed results. I sometimes find my class has learnt absolutely nothing except how to say something silly like ‘oh really???’ in a very exaggerated way. The next time I say ‘that is not the correct answer,’ or ‘we’re going to study some new grammar now’, they all cry ‘oh reeeeaaaaalllyyyyyy teacher?’

The stuff I don’t like doing is teaching the exam class. I’ve only covered this a few times, but my word it was boring. The students were very motivated because they want to pass the exam, but it’s just really dull and has no room for creativity. I’ve found that many of the other teachers love the exam class because of the high motivation of the students, and because it’s very structured and has a definite aim. But I just don’t find it rewarding at all. Give me a good role play or a class debate any day! In fact, I’d rather have them messing about and shouting ‘oh reeeaaalllly’ than endlessly writing boring essays about global warming. At least it’s fun.

It could easily all descend into School of Rock to be honest…

The main thing I still find difficult is giving instructions for activities. You need to be incredibly detailed and precise, and to go through everything step-by-step, no matter how simple. You then need to get them to repeat the instructions back to you, to show they understand. You need to use very simple language and talk slowly. Frequently they still don’t understand. I guess I’m just not very good at it yet! I’m also not very patient. I often think ‘well, how difficult can it be to play dominoes where you match the start of the sentence with the end of the sentence?’ The answer is, very, very difficult indeed. I think part of the problem is many students have probably never played dominoes, or a board game, or charades before. The logic of these things escapes them if it’s not something they do in their country. Sometimes explaining the concept of a grammar game is much harder than actually teaching the grammar. But I’ve learnt that and am now very careful with games.

I’m looking forward to teaching in Portugal, where the groups will probably be monolingual and more monocultural, and hopefully with less of an age range. That should make things a lot easier: at least most of them will have similar problems. Then again, I might be surprised! I’ve been surprised by so many aspects of teaching that perhaps it’s best not to make any assumptions.

Goodbye to a glorious work-free month

We live in interesting times my friends, and since my last post a month ago I’ve simultaneously done loads of different things, and a whole lot of nothing.

I applied for 6 different teaching jobs, five of which were on TEFL.com and one of which I applied for on spec. I heard back from three of them, but decided not to pursue one as the application process was very complicated. I had interviews for the two other jobs and got offered both of them. I turned one down and will be sticking with a job at a really great language school near Victoria, which offers a lot of training and pays you for it. It starts… tomorrow! I’ve prepared for my first class. More or less. Gulp. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere and it’s preparation for going to Portugal.

On that front, we’ve done some painting and decorating in preparation for letting out our flat, and systematically sorting through our things and taking stuff to charity shop, chucking things out, giving things away. One of my concerns is the sheer amount of weird experimental foodstuffs we have in the cupboards and the freezer. I know everyone ends up eating some weird meals before moving house, but ours are going to be much, much weirder than most, and probably consist of seaweed, sauerkraut and a bizarre assortment of pickle and spices.

I’ve also been learning Portuguese, using a book and recordings and an amazing online app that accompanies the book called ‘memrise’. This ‘gamifies’ the memorisation of vocabulary and phrases. Essentially it’s the same thing as using flashcards and repeating it over and over, but way more fun, as you get awarded points and can climb up a leaderboard according to which learner has done the best this week. Not that I’m competitive or anything, but I love it! Memrise is kind of like wasting your time playing a game, only it’s actually useful.

I’ve also been doing some writing. I’ve finished the first draft of a sort of gothic horror story, which is about 9,000 words long. Many of those words are pretty silly and will have to be removed or chopped and changed a lot, but I think it has shape and potential. I’ve joined a meetup group for writers, so I may get them to critique it once I’ve redrafted it. The meetup was wonderfully weird. Writers are interesting, erudite, imaginative, intellectual, passionate people, who are also socially awkward and obsessive over bizarre things. It was lovely to hang out with odd people I didn’t know, talking about books, plot structure, characterization, the devaluation of currency in Zimbabwe and the history of glue and eastern European television towers. I’m definitely going to go next month, and I’ll try to go to a couple of their weekend meetups as well, where everyone goes to a café and sits in silence for 2 hours doing their own writing before having a critiquing session. I never did these kinds of things before my Arvon week, but it’s very motivational to work with other people and to have something to aim for.

I’ve sent some pitches to several history magazines, suggesting articles I could for them on various subjects, but I haven’t heard back yet. I’ll chase them up and then I’ll bombard them with a new round of ideas of try different magazines. I think that getting articles published is a numbers game and you need to be persistent. Just like applying for a job, really!

I’ve also sort of drafted an essay on Aldous Huxley, which I intend to finish, polish and send to a literary magazine that I’ve recently discovered and really liked. I fear it may be setting my sights too high, but if they don’t want it someone else might, or perhaps it will just end up on this blog and have been at least at good writing exercise. But my sister has a cookery motto ‘If you’re not in, you can’t win!’, so I might as well give it my best shot. I’m not sure if ‘if you’re not in, you can’t win’ is in fact a great cookery motto – sometimes less is more. It probably depends on what you have in the cupboard, because putting Japanese fish flakes in your ratatouille does not, in fact, improve it. You can have that lifestyle tip from me for free.

I also went on a wonderful holiday to Northern Ireland with friends. It rained the whole time, but we had a very relaxing time, did some wonderful cooking and added some more odd ingredients to the store cupboard (are you sensing a theme here?). I also enjoyed a wonderful spa day with my sister, to celebrate our birthdays.

And now my glorious month of unemployment is drawing to an end. I think it’s going to be a terrible shock getting back to work! But I’m looking forward to it, and as it’s part-time, I should have time to continue with the writing and the Portuguese as well.

All change! Learning to teach English the CELTA way

My blog has been hibernating since Christmas because I’ve been far too busy to write anything, or to do anything much interesting enough to blog about. That’s because in the the first week of January I started an English language teaching course, and am now the proud owner of the Cambridge Certificate in English Teaching to Adults (CELTA).

For the last three months I’ve been going to classes for three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and four hours on Saturday mornings. The Saturday mornings were the worst. I’m not a morning person and I felt cruelly deprived of my customary Saturday snooze. It really was painful dragging myself off to class for 9.30 on a Saturday morning, every morning for 12 weeks. The course was very practical, and involved us observing experienced teachers, and teaching eight lessons ourselves, observed by an experienced teacher who then, along with all the students, pitched in to tell us where we went wrong.

A fresh crop of newly qualified teachers!

On top of this, there was a lot of homework. I completed four assignments, which I found relatively easy. They were only 1,000 words each, so once I’d done the research it took me no time at all to bash out the words. But the lesson planning was a different matter. I can’t imagine anyone ever actually plans a lesson in as much depth as we had to for the course, but it took me an average of 4 hours to plan for a 40 or 60 minute lesson. This seems crazy, but I think it really helped us rookie teachers to do such elaborate preparation before the classes. It’s all been a bit of a hard slog, and fairly stressful too, as you feel you stand or fall by the strength of each lesson. You really, really don’t want to spend 40 minutes or an hour each week humiliating yourself in front of a class of students, an experienced teacher, and your peers. So you’ve got to be prepared.

I found the course incredibly interesting. I’ve learnt a lot about about teaching methods but the key point for me is that you need to engage people’s attention and get them to do something active with what they’re learning. No one’s really sure what the best way to learn or teach a language is, so CELTA uses a mix and match of different techniques and ideas. But one thing is sure, standing in front of people and lecturing them for ages doesn’t teach them anything, or test what they know or don’t know, or help them remember anything. They’ve got to actually DO something, an exercise or activity that uses the language.

This is one of those things that is entirely obvious once it’s been pointed out to you, and that suddenly seems relevant to many areas of life. The idea was a revelation though, and I immediately applied it in my day job as an archivist and records manager. I redesigned our training session for new starters to begin with a competition to see who could build a flat-pack records box the fastest. Ice-breakers and competitions get people motivated. You’d be surprised how excited people got when promised a small prize for making a cardboard box. Then we did an exercise of getting the group to assess the contents of a box against a retention schedule, to decide what to keep and what to chuck out. Most people found this surprisingly difficult. This taught them something, but also taught us something too. Not only were these sessions far more effective for learning, they were also much more fun to teach.

Another surprising thing I learnt on the course was the theory of reading. We were taught to structure a reading lesson by giving students a short period of time to read a piece and answer a couple of quick general questions about it, to get the ‘gist’ of it. This is called ‘skimming’. Then they would have much longer to read and answer more specific questions, which is called ‘scanning’, in other words searching for specific information. At no point did they need to read every single word in the piece, read it out loud, or go through it with a dictionary. In other words, students learnt how to read a foreign language in a functional way, the way native speakers do when reading a newspaper or checking listings. They don’t learn to read in the way you might read a novel, because they’re not going to need to do that, at least not until they’re quite advanced. I found it very interesting to think about the different ways in which we read. It’s a much more complex activity than simply looking at one word at a time and understanding each of them. This will definitely change the way I attempt to read in a foreign language in the future. I’ll worry much less about understanding every single word, and just feel pleased if I can extract the information I really need.

So, why have I spent 120 hours of my free time, plus about 60 hours of homework (when I put it like that, I’m not surprised I’ve been tired), learning to be a teacher? Well, I’ve decided it’s time for a change. I’ve been working in archives for about 14 years now and I want to do something different for a while. My partner and I had talked about moving abroad before, but the problem always was, what would I do in another country? Teaching English was the obvious answer, and once we’d hit on the idea of moving to Lisbon for a while, it seemed like a good opportunity. Why Lisbon? Well, it’s hot, sunny, cheap, the food is good, there are nice beaches nearby, and I found the town impossibly romantic. It has a slightly Tom-Waits-esque air of decaying grandeur, melancholy beauty and cultural melting pot. What more could you want?

Lisbon – not bad, eh?

We plan to move to Lisbon in September, so I can get a job there at the start of the teaching year. In the meantime, I’ve actually quit my job, so I’m going to get a teaching job here in London as soon as I can. I’ll keep you updated on how it all goes!