My Own Two Cents

I’ve been meaning to write the meanest essay, about language learning and the panacea to helping students learn English easier, better, and more effectively. There’s a good thought; but should I talk about theories and methods and approaches like say, Communicative Language Teaching or the latest “idea” from Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill called Demand High Teaching? Should I talk about the many aspects of planning a lesson and making interactive activities instead? Well, there’s that other good thought! How about Semantics, Pragmatics or such? Hmmm… But the problem is, these are things every language teacher can learn in books. These are things ‘learned’ people have already talked to us about. These are things we attend personal development seminars for. Maybe you’ve heard or read about these topics more than I ever did. Therefore, I’ve decided that for my final professional learning project, I would rather talk about the best idea/s I have in the bag, my own. Allow me to talk about the things teachers may be afraid to talk to others about because it’s embarrassing. Allow me to provide realizations and reflections that new teachers can relate to. Allow me to attempt to theorize how my students can learn best.

Here goes my two cents…

  1. Keep calm, cool and collected

Recently, my colleagues and I underwent class observations in a private language school. Oftentimes I was asked to introduce myself and even in this simple task, I kept thinking that there are a million opportunities to sabotage myself. I would have more fillers in my speech, I would say too much, I would be a disgrace! In a similar feat, a colleague mentioned about a supply teacher who felt very intimidated by his presence in the classroom that she ended up distraught, disorganized and ineffective at her class, out of self-consciousness and fear. Horrendous mentality! Fact is, we get more nervous because of our own negative thoughts than what’s actually happening around us.

I guess we all get nervous, it’s a normal physical and psychological reaction our body has when we are under pressure. To keep calm, cool and collected is not new to anyone but new teachers like me tend to forget that we have to remember this simple mantra. The best teachers feel nervous too, it just doesn’t show in the way they speak, stand or stare. They make an effort to conceal that they’re feeling unsettled or that someone in the class scares the heck out of them. They keep the nerves tucked away in their own minds, they stay in the moment as they best could. It’s all in the mind, which is why we have to relax, take control, and not be too hard on ourselves. I mean, no one’s out to get us. No one’s contriving a plan to put us down. Why set ourselves up to fail thinking about futile things when there’s a job that has to be done?

2. Never underestimate the power of rapport building

Yes, rapport. Teachers always try to keep a certain distance away from their students to retain order and establish authority lines. This is sound and good, but what I’m personally concerned about is that many teachers feel forced and seem awkward while asking rapport-building questions at the onset of each class! I’ve seen teachers who ask, ‘how are you?’ to students and their faces say, ‘Answer it and we’re done’!  This isn’t rapport building. Our students sense that it’s a routine task we do. Like robots, they answer back, but a genuine opportunity to feel connected and interested in them have been lost. I just think the teachers who made an impression on me were the ones who made me feel wanted in their class, the ones who felt truly interested in asking how I am. There are plenty of opportunities to build rapport with students but it usually starts with a genuine hello.

3. Yes that dress is cute but your plunging neckline isn’t

It’s spring finally and many female teachers have taken their pretty summer dresses out of the closet. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade but I sure hope clothes don’t get too sheer or too short. I don’t think Canadian schools, private language schools in particular, are very conservative about teachers’ classroom clothes. I just wish how a teacher dresses up matter less than what he/she brings to the table because the mere choice of wardrobe can spell an uncomfortable class  and an uncomfortable teacher. Come on, you wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time pulling up your shirt, right?

4. Technology can only take you so far in the classroom

I get it, it’s the era of computers. Hooray for PCs/Macs, tablets, smartphones and the like! Thank goodness for Powerpoint and Prezi presentations! Technology has enriched the classroom in ways a many. Distance education has been made possible, the blended mode is being adapted in many universities, and it’s easier to find teaching materials such as videos, audio clips, quizzes and even lesson plans through the world-wide web. But, what happens if technology fails us? What if the Smart Board doesn’t work, and our Powepoint presentations miss pages, or our audio materials get corrupted? Would we still feel ready and confident to handle the class we took so much time preparing technological materials for? I’ve been in situations where I have relied on the materials I have prepared prior to class but when something else happens, I get stumped and rattled in the discussion. I think teachers are still the best teaching tool. We can come in class with less paraphernalia and still be effective. I hope teachers don’t get caught up with technology integration in the classroom that learning only happens through videos or sound files.

5. Planning isn’t everything; there is experience to save you

Teachers have so many things going on for them in every class. One has to instruct, coach, facilitate, listen, suggest, question and more! And sometimes, we also fail to plan our lessons as carefully as we would on our better days. In circumstances when we feel like we didn’t plan enough, I think it’s important to rely on strategies that we are most comfortable in. Cook up something extemporaneous, something students always like, something you have liked as a student yourself. Don’t be too hard pressed on how little preparation you had, you are the teacher and you can transform any lesson with the help of creativity. Take debates for example; they’re always fun, educational and engaging. Make it work!

6. You don’t have to be Ms. Know It All

I used to think that teachers have the obligation to carry all the knowledge in the world and that it’s their responsibility to transfer every information to students. Let’s face it though, even as teaching scholars and researchers, we’ll never know everything about the world or language teaching no matter how many books, journals or researches we read. We can be very knowledgable about subjects but memory can, at times, still fail us. Moreover, there will always be a student who challenges every word we say. There will always be students who live and breathe to prove themselves the smartest in class. These are ordinary but pesky situations that will always haunt us in the classroom. We might even get persuaded into thinking that we are not good enough to be standing there in front of the class. But, truth is, no one knows everything. Let it go, don’t be uptight about such situations. We can always resort to, ‘I’ll get back to you on that’ , ‘Any ideas?’, ‘I think… but let me make sure’. Posting questions to students is a good start to involve them in class discussion but providing the “correct” answers to the questions yourself isn’t exactly the right response. We can engage other students, seek everybody’s opinions, cast votes, in the answering of the questions we are uncomfortable or unprepared for. We may even be surprised with the answers our students come up with; they may even dish out better answers than what we have for ourselves. We also have the option to delay answering questions for the next meeting and allow students to research on it and figure it out. We can even question the question being asked. Dissect it until it’s even more educational, more interesting, more relatable to students. When all else fails and we are caught off guard, we can always be honest and say we don’t have an inkling on the matter but would get back to them on it as soon as we can. There are plenty of ways to deal with a similar situation. We just have to learn to react properly when they come.

7. You Know Better Than Books

As a new teacher, the transition between teacher training and the actual classroom is not easy. It’s that point when rookies in the field desire to adhere to policies and theories yet explore the teacher they actually are. This is something I have struggled with personally. As newbies, we may still feel insecure about our methods and our ways, still question our every decision in class, still feel like we aren’t doing a fantastic job despite putting our best foot forward. We feel these things and they can be overwhelming but I think it’s important to remember that we are always in charge. We have better tools in the classroom than what any education Bible or book says. Not everything books preach to us will translate into the learning environment. We should not be limited by Communicative Language Teaching or Task-Based Learning. We always have more and know more because we are in the actual classroom. We have our students to observe and gain input from. We have authentic interaction and learning happening for us. We don’t have to struggle to apply the theories in the classroom; instead, we have to figure out if the theories work for us and our students! We must always be provoked to question, to assess how learners respond to what we do and to surpass the theories laid out before us. It’s not about what the books say, it’s about what our students have to say and what we have to say. We, as teachers, are our own mould, in moulding minds.

To conclude, let me quote William Glasser who says, “When you study great teachers… you will learn much more from their caring and hard work than from their style”. I couldn’t agree more. There are way too many strokes for too many folks. There will always be a million do’s and don’ts but it’s up to us, teachers, to figure out which ones are worth adhering to. In the end, what our students remember aren’t the vocabulary words or terms we have laid out for them; it’s how much invested we have been in helping them learn.

So teachers, keep calm and carry on teaching!

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