Reflection is an integral part of evolving as a teacher so here’s Chiara Bruzzano reflecting on the mistakes she used to make as a novice teacher, the ones she makes now as a teacher and a teacher trainer, and how she has gone about improving on them.
My PhD study was an empirical piece of research of teachers’ and students’ practices and beliefs. As I discussed in Why we should explore and evaluate teachers’ beliefs, teachers’ beliefs are often deeply ingrained but not necessarily a reflection of the practices you might see if you observed their lessons. In other words, teachers may say they do or believe in something and then act differently.
This is normal and to be expected but it led me to wonder: do we know what we actually do in the classroom, including where we go wrong? Reflection on this sort of thing is crucial to teacher development: like my PhD supervisor said, experience in itself doesn’t mean anything – you could have forty years of experience that is one year repeated forty times.
Since I strive not to be that teacher who has one year of experience repeated forty times but rather one with an evolution in her teaching, I have been pondering on the mistakes I used to make when I started out as a teacher and, why not, the mistakes I make now as a teacher and teacher trainer.
The mistakes I used to make
Just for some context, I started out as a teacher about ten years ago and have since taught in language schools, universities and companies in Spain, Italy and the UK. So here are the top five mistakes I used to make and (hopefully!) don’t make anymore:
Who hasn’t heard that you always need to overplan for a lesson to cover your bases? I used to do this all the time and then try to stick to the lesson plan. Guess what? Useful as it was to calm my nerves at the start of my career, I almost never ended up doing everything I set out to do. This left me feeling like I had not accomplished the lesson goals, while the reality was that I was simply being overly ambitious.
- Failing to recycle materials
I still wonder about this one: why on earth would I, as an often severely underpaid and overworked teacher, not be willing to recycle the same materials for different groups? Thinking of it now, materials you have already used are great because you are already familiar with them! This also definitely helps you forecast the emergent language that might arise and prepare for how you might deal with it.
- Overlooking emergent language
Speaking of emergent language, this is probably a common one for newly qualified teachers: I used to be scared of working with emergent language. After all, you do a whole training course about the benefits of lesson planning, so you want to use your lesson plan, right? As it turns out, learning to work with emergent language, even when I feared it would derail my lesson, has been one of the best skills I have acquired in my teaching.
- Failing to schedule thinking time
I know I am not alone in this one. When I started out, I had a lot more energy on account of my – let’s face it – young age and childless status, so I was drawn to the idea of being a bit of a performer in the classroom. This also meant that I tried to fill in every single moment of the class with activities and talk. I now know this is not beneficial for students, who need thinking time and individual activities. This does not make the lesson dull; on the contrary, it can make it much more effective.
- Believing in learning styles
I don’t know if I can be faulted for this one, seeing as learning styles were still in the DELTA syllabus when I took the Module 1 exam… but I still remember going into the classroom with learning styles questionnaires. A little cringeworthy to remember now, in light of all the evidence that learning styles are a neuromyth and catering to them does not result in better learning.
Mistakes I make now
Part of any real reflection is reckoning with the mistakes one still makes. I am now a language teacher and teacher trainer and am still working on improving the following:
- Overplanning (hello my old friend!)
You’d think I would have stopped with this but instead, I have just started doing it differently. I now do a lot of teacher training sessions and I can never know experienced my trainees will be or how familiar they will be with the topics at hand. So, what I do is plan for long introductions with all the theory (and, having learned from my mistakes, lots of thinking time to absorb it) and this inevitably leaves me short for time towards the end of my sessions. I clearly need to balance these aspects.
- Struggling to categorise emergent language
Although I love working with emergent language and am now okay with it “derailing” some lessons, I still struggle to categorise it in a truly useful way for my students so that they can re-use it. This gives me the feeling that I am trying to tackle a mountain but in a very chaotic way. I have tried making online flashcards, asking students to select the most meaningful language they discovered at the end of each lesson and recording it, keeping records myself, but I am yet to find a method that satisfies my need for order.
- Still doing icebreakers
This is one I have struggled to move away from for some reason, which is weird because when I am in an audience, icebreakers fill me with dread: the idea of doing some game and simultaneously having to introduce myself and get to know a bunch of strangers is not exactly my cup of tea as an introvert. I know many students and trainee teachers feel the same (because they’ve told me, in case you were wondering) and am now trying to transition towards more honest, simple and realistic icebreakers. My favourite so far is asking trainee teachers to discuss (i.e. rant) about their work in the past however many weeks since I last saw them: a surprisingly effective and productive activity.
- Misinterpreting lack of interest
We have all had those students who never seem to speak a word in class or interact much. I am fully aware that this does not mean they are not engaging with the content: it could instead mean they are introverts, they suffer from anxiety, they prefer to engage with the language that way… the list goes on. And yet I still sometimes associate that quiet behaviour with a lack of interest. But do you want to know what is fun about this? I am exactly that kind of student myself and always have been! The most interesting lessons I have been in as a student are probably the ones in which I would sit quietly and listen intently to take it all in. I have thus been trying to remind myself of this every time I have had one of those students.
- Failing to monitor breakout rooms
Another one that we hate as students but love as teachers? Breakout rooms. I still teach and train online and feel an urge to use them to replicate those nice pair and group work dynamics I get in the face-to-face classroom. Guess what, though? That is a different space and you simply cannot get the same feeling. Not only that, but I think you should maybe not aim to get the same feeling because they are two different environments. I am now trying to work on using breakout rooms more conscientiously (i.e. less often) and more strategically, setting out clearer aims and timings. I have also tried to get over my fear of interrupting and visited breakout rooms regularly as I noticed that when I didn’t, students tended to feel a bit lost.
Can you relate to any of these? Which mistakes did you make before and which ones do you make now? I would love to hear from you, so let me know in the comments section!