Another new year, a new decade no less, and another reflective blog post. However, this one will be different to my 2018 post sharing reflective activities you can engage in to make effective learning goals and my 2019 post which focused on whether or not I had achieved my professional aims. from the previous year. This year represents a milestone for me personally as it is 20 years since I began what would eventually become my career as a teacher. Indeed, it was January 2000 when I was in the midst of a whirlwind four weeks of Trinity Cert TESOL training.
The 20 years since have included many memorable moments, from unforgettable interactions with students and colleagues to ‘aha’ moments that have caused me to reassess my approach to teaching and my thoughts on education in general. And, as we are starting 2020, and I can reflect on 20 years in the classroom, this month’s post focuses on 20 things I’ve realised in my career to date:
1. There is no best method
I started my teaching career thinking there was a technique to master, like driving a car or working on a golf swing. I later believed there were language teaching methods to choose from like a pic ‘n’ mix. I eventually came to realise, however, that there was no best method to master nor a combination of methods to concoct like a magic elixir. There are only the students, the teacher, and the dynamic that exists to generate learning.
2. No two classes are the same
While this may seem obvious, I dare suggest we have all been guilty at some point of picking out a solid activity that always works and is always loved by students. We have then no doubt been left scratching our heads wondering why it flopped this time. I’m not saying each and every course should be bespoke, but we should always strive to know our students and adapt/tailor our lessons accordingly.
3. No two teachers are the same
Likewise, that great activity my colleague created? It’s not necessarily going to work for my class. Those set lesson plans we’ve been told to follow? Not without adapting to our classes’ needs. That observation follow-up? Tell me what I can do better, not what you would do. We all have our preferences about teaching and learning and we must respect that everyone has different ideas.
Once you’ve built up some experience in the classroom, start trying out new ideas and approaches. Try a lesson without the coursebook. Use some authentic material. Try different feedback techniques. Change the layout of your room. Keep trying new ideas and adapting them to your context. Think about how this has impacted on the teaching and learning in your classes.
5. Get out of your comfort zone
But don’t play it safe with tried and tested ideas you know are highly likely to work. Take some risks. Request a course you’ve never taught before. Try out different age groups, ability levels, exam classes, and whatever other opportunities are available in your school. Challenge yourself.
6. Seek out feedback
You will have your own observations on new ideas you have tried in class, but always make space for the feedback of others. Ask your students what they thought, invite a colleague to observe you, request a developmental observation from your manager – take their comments on board as you develop your teaching style.
7. Always do your ‘pre-flight checks’
Speaking of observations, we’ve likely all been in that situation where our manager is in our classroom but the audio file isn’t playing, the projector doesn’t work, the internet is too slow to play that YouTube clip, or the board pens are out of ink. A few minutes ahead of the lesson doing a few checks (along with a contingency plan where appropriate) can save a lot of time and blushes.
8. Embrace the silence
As a new teacher, I dreaded silence. I would panic thinking my students hadn’t got it and would either fill the time with or my own voice, or rephrase the question multiple times. I soon learned to recognise the value of thinking time to the extent that I will on occasion now insist on it. Give the students time to process and organise their thoughts and they will have more meaningful learning moments as a result.
9. Engage in discussion …
Make your class an open forum for discussion and debate. Don’t shy away from current affairs or controversial or taboo topics – just ensure your classroom is a safe place for non-judgmental discourse.
10. … but don’t always try to have the final word
This always irritates me as an observer – after an engaging discussion, the teacher jumps in with their opinion. Summarise by all means and feel free to share your own thoughts but avoid taking the role of the final authority.
11. ‘You can train me, you can educate me, but you can’t develop me. I develop.’(Edge, 2002)
Julian Edge – look him up! Alternatively look up Reflective Practice on the Modern English Teacher website.
12. Challenge ideas you disagree with
Whether it’s part of the course, an expectation imposed by powers that be, a suggestion from an expert trainer, or a widely held belief about teaching, always be prepared to explore alternatives and speak up when you feel something is not beneficial. Question everything!
13. Materials don’t always need language
Sometimes, the best materials to generate vocabulary, prompt discussion, and elicit language are the ones without any words. Images, videos without dialogue, and other visual stimuli create a space for learners to fill with language and should be used regularly.
14. You can’t do without data …
For many years, I was against grades and percentages taking a central role in tracking student progress to the extent that I was against using them at all. However, I now see regular assessed activities as a vital part of the picture. Combined with self-evaluation and my own observations, data can help provide a complete picture of student progress.
15. … or testing!
Similarly, I have softened my stance on tests over the years. While they should never be the only focus, they do generate valuable standardised data as well as evidence of progress and achievement.
16. Become an examiner
This was what changed my perspective on exams. Once I had trained to be an examiner (first for Cambridge YLE tests, then IELTS, IB, and IGCSE), I gained a better understanding of how the task and question types were designed and what they were looking for, which in turn informed my teaching and made it more focused on language development and less on the test. It’s a great way to earn some extra cash too!
17. Read & write
Take charge of your own development. Read blogs, magazine articles, open access journals, and methodology books. Select the ideas you want to bring into your teaching. Experiment with others. Record your learning in MyCPD. Write about it. Make notes, keep a journal, start your own blog, submit an article to Modern English Teacher. Engage with the wider profession.
18. Collaborate & connect
Work closely with your colleagues to share and adapt best practice. Engage in action research projects together. Attend conferences. Be active on social media and connect with teachers globally. Get in touch with people whose ideas resonate with you (as new Pavilion ELT blogger Gerhard Erasmus suggests). There is no better way to seek advice, find inspiration and share on what you have experimented with.
19. Make time to reflect
It might be five minutes on a quiet space at the end of the day with a notepad to hand. It could be over a drink with a colleague. It might be at greater length in a teaching journal or publicly on a blog but do make sure you reflect on your experiences to fuel your development.
20. Make sure you gain ‘20 years of experience, not 1 year’s experience 20 times over’
Seek out new opportunities, see each class as a new challenge, be flexible while also being yourself, adapt, reflect, and renew. You and your learners will have a much better experience as a result.