Firstly, I’d like to send out a big thanks to all those who came to and participated in my presentation at TESOL France. I’m planning another post and a few challenges to include the excellent contributions given by some of the participants.
I want to share with you something that happened to me a couple of months ago. I had just moved city and I was going through the interview process. Now, I consider myself a rookie when it comes to interviews, but this one in particular will stand out in my memory for years to come. We were about half way through when I was asked:
“What would you say is your biggest weakness?”
Now I’ll be the first to admit how much I dislike this question. I even felt quite inclined to not answer it. Let’s face it, who in their right mind would reveal potentially harmful information in front of their prospective employer? It seems like interview suicide!
You see, it’s not what the question is asking that troubles me; it’s the way the question is asked. I have never sat on the other side of the table, but If I did, I imagine the perfect candidate would respond like this:
“Well, at the moment I’m in the process of improving…”
I think you’ll all agree that this is quite different from the original question, but is that not what it’s asking? There’s something curious about this: taking a different perspective on a question I’d been asked many times before provided a very positive outcome, one which no doubt will make me more confident for the next time.
In this presentation, I’m not going to treat a weakness as a problem. Instead I’m going to propose, like in the response, that it makes up part of a proactive process towards improving. Confront the issue with a different mindset so that, in essence, the question remains the same, but the results you obtain are different. That’s how problem solving works, right?
I have not been in the EFL world for very long, two and a half years to be precise. In that short time I’ve come across many teacher trainers who are passionate about their work, who are an inspiration to their trainees which, in turn, speak very highly of them. These courses provide lots of support – regular feedback with an experienced tutor, post lesson evaluation, setting action points to improve on, help with lesson planning, a focus on language awareness and language teaching methodology – trainees are never on their own.
I remember my first job in EFL very well. After a few months working where I trained, I moved to a school in Italy. Let me tell you now, you’re left to your own devices. You complete your pre-service training, you move away and you’re more or less ‘autonomous’ – which is a nice way of putting ‘on your own’.
Now I’m sure all of you remember being a newly qualified teacher or you work enough with them to recognise some of the following thoughts:
Very soon after starting my first job I began to write a journal. I had a class of badly behaved teenagers on Friday evenings and needed a place in which to track my efforts to pacify the warzone, where I could record my actions in lessons and how students responded to these. I have a confession to make though: I didn’t manage to resolve all their behavioural problems by the end of the course. What I did manage to do however was to learn a lot about the teenage classroom. This learning experience taught me two things: firstly, classroom interaction between a teacher and teenagers differs from interaction with adults. Secondly, that writing about my thoughts after a lesson, making a connection with what I planned before crystallises the experience in your memory.
I spent the next year keeping a record of my lessons, writing what I felt happy about and what didn’t work so well and asking myself why. In my experience, it works. My classroom practices became a lot clearer to me. I pulled them out of the dark and put them on paper. If there’s a something to work on, and it’s clear, improving it is much easier. If there’s a record of what’s good, continuing it is no problem.
The best thing is that I had a record of my ritualised practices, be they positive or negative. You slowly pick up your own style; the things you do, when you do them, which can be used to get in touch with your teacher-self – the teacher you are in the classroom.
There’s an element of self-evaluation involved. It’s got a lot in common with pre-service training courses; in fact, it’s more of a continuation of what one learns during training. The structure I’m partial too is likely to be very familiar to any teacher trainer out there, it includes: What I learned from the lesson, what I think the learners got out of the lesson and how I would do the lesson differently if given the chance to.
What about our newly qualified teacher’s thoughts? First of all, bad lessons aren’t thrown in the bin. They aren’t forgotten but instead used as learning moments for the teacher. Not only this, but also, keeping such a record lets you know what your strengths are as a teacher. We all have them, but it’s easy to focus your evaluation on negatives and fixate on improving these. In actual fact, identifying your strengths is just as important.
Now the question I’m going to put to you is this: does it always go according to plan? One of those questions we all know the answer to. What interests me is the moments in which we put the lesson plan down and respond to what is happening in the classroom. One of the fears about this for newly qualified teachers is they are stepping into unknown territory; if you go down that road you might not know the way back.
But we are curious beings; we want to know what’s out there. Let’s just have a quick show of hands: how many of you have recently dropped your plan and ran with something that came up in class? I have spoken with newly qualified teachers about this and, as it turns out, we (I include myself still in this bracket) do in fact go with the flow at times. Now, this leads me to think: how do I deal with these moments, when my teaching skills are put to the test?
Let me give you an example. I have just moved to Rome, you know, Julius Cesar, The Coliseum, a big church where some important religious people live… well… naturally, the first thing I bought before leaving was a map. The first few days I clung to my map with my life, never leaving the house without it. Two months down the line and my map is gathering dust in my desk drawer. I’m walking around the city, taking in the sites, the alleys, street names and landmarks. What I’m getting on at is, every new discovery remains in my memory that much more with my head in the air, not to mention the world passing me by that would otherwise go unnoticed with my head buried in a map.
There’s something important to be learned from these experiences, and doing a sort of retrospective plan of the lesson accesses and unpacks these. I like retrospectively planning, it gives me feedback on the decisions I made during the lesson and the learning opportunities that presented themselves. I feel more confident after reflecting on them and that, the next time they arise, I will be better prepared to exploit them to the students’ benefit.
A retrospective lesson plan might resemble a normal pre-lesson plan. You write down, say, each individual stage as it unfolded, with timings, aims and interaction patterns. Place yourself back into the lesson and reassess what difficulties learners were having at each point during the lesson.
Another question: But but but, I hear you say, doesn’t this lead to more planning time? It depends on the mindset towards planning. Well, actually I hope it’s quite the opposite. Since I started using a journal and including retrospective planning the amount of time I spend planning has reduced. It’s question of efficiency. Take the idea of a new city and a map. I’m a cyclist too, and it’s not always possible to look down at the map, there are a million and one things to concentrate on, especially when trying to negotiate a safe passage through the frantic Roman traffic. I check the map after my ride, trace my route through the city and compare it to what I had planned out, and then I’m ready for the next time I use that route. The same can be said for retrospective planning.
Why spend so much time investing time into a lesson if there’s no review of the investment? Tracing your route through the lesson, the corners and one-way systems encountered along the way bridges the gap between one lesson and the next. By reflecting on the last lesson in this way you’re immediately in the mindset to tackle to the next lesson; I can’t tell how many times I’ve found the stimulus or language focus for my next lesson in the leftovers of the previous.
So here’s another question: what to do with all the information in the journal? Personally I found at first that there was more than I knew what to do with, so many thoughts about my classes. It was a case of prioritising what seemed most immediate at the time and synthesising it into an action research project.
If then we see that what’s most needed comes up in the journal, it can be followed up on with action research. I saw that the most common areas for improvement had to do with language awareness and ideas for engaging students in lessons. I kept my focus narrow and my goals reachable. This is important too. There’s so much out there to know that a well-thought out goal for action research is necessary.
I want to give another example of how I did this. I remember a lesson in which I ‘did a reading’ and faced the blank confused stares of ten students. I had gone through the necessary stages and checked comprehension, all regular, all how I was trained to do. Something didn’t seem right though and in my ‘how would you do things differently’ section I found myself brainstorming ideas to tackle reading texts without comprehension questions, to engage students in reading.
There’s an interesting pattern here. This kind of teacher-centred research, involving what’s immediate is what I’d outline as important for newly qualified teachers in facing low language awareness and a lack of ideas in the classroom. Base it on what you do. We teach our students on a what-they-need-to-know basis, so why not centre our teacher development on the same sort of things?
Indeed, this sort of way of approaching lesson-planning, from reverse, puts the teacher at the centre of development. Imagine an environment lacking in external support for a newly qualified teacher; you might feel pretty lost, right? For many of us, this is the reality. Nonetheless, remedying the situation doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Assuming that teachers want to develop, they can place themselves at the centre, in charge of their own pathway.
So why not try it for a month. Keep a journal of your lessons and at the end of the month review it. Make a list of the most common areas of your journal and write an action plan. Include points of reference for reading up on the topic, brainstorm ideas to include in lesson planning and try them out in the same classes. Include retrospective planning to get the bigger picture of how things happened. After two weeks, do an intermediate review to see how things are going. Then at the end of the month, have a look at what has changed.
Obtaining subjective feedback
It’s fair to say that in the last two years, a lot of changes have happened as a result of my keeping a journal and the action research projects it gave birth to. Yet comparatively, an equal amount has been also as a result of student feedback. Now I might hear you say: there’s nothing new about that, is there?
Allow me to now give another example, this time of when I was learning Italian in language school. One of my teachers came to class most days and told us a story, which used to be the highlight of the lesson. You see, Italians are great story-tellers, it’s got something to do with the fact that they rarely get to the point, which makes their stories full of imagery and rich in detail. Anyway, at the end of the of course we were given feedback forms to complete, by then it had been two months since I had last had this teacher and it didn’t cross my mind to write about how much I liked them.
Now, the question I want to ask all of you now is: how do we make feedback more useful for the newly qualified teacher? I know for sure in my case that I didn’t give truthful feedback at the right time. It’s a shame, it really is, and I could have changed my class for the better. But there’s a reason for this; feedback wasn’t subjective and it didn’t come at the right time.
So the question poses itself: how can we make it so? One idea I have had success with is keeping a teacher-student journal, in which students write to you and you respond to the content. I started this idea as a way of giving students practice writing informally about what interested them. Over time the conversation turned to class. What I found striking was that students felt freer to write what they think about class in this space, what’s more there’s more trust involved; it’s a dialogue between you and your teacher.
To repeat: feedback is most helpful when it’s subjective and at the right time. A teacher called Adam Beale is currently using student diaries to gather subjective feedback on an unplugged course in Spain. If you haven’t had a look at his blog, I really urge you to. Students write about their lessons in a diary, using either L1 or L2, which ever they feel most comfortable with. Now I think that’s a fantastic idea, how much feedback, especially at low levels, gets lost in translation?
Another idea is to dedicate 5-10 minutes of classroom time to gathering feedback based on the following aspects: What have you liked about class? What would you change about class, how much do you think you have learned? The important thing here is to collect it regularly; weekly for an intensive course or monthly in a course lasting the academic year. If you’re short on class time, setting feedback as homework via email can remedy this problem.
In addition to this, I have also tried a class suggestion box. Place a pile of cards next to the box and learners are free to post a suggestion at the start, in the break, or at the end of class. Take them in at the end of the week/month and include them in a review of your journal.
Now I’ve had the same thoughts as I outlined at the start many times: “I feel like I’ve run out of ideas”, “I think my lessons are boring”, “I’m really not sure how my teaching went”. But you know, how much of it can be resolved by obtaining the opinions of your learners? In fact, taking action on constructive feedback from your students – a collaborative effort – indicates to learners that their teacher listens. What’s more is the feedback can be included in your diary and matched against your own evaluation of your teaching.
It’s fair to say that one size doesn’t fit all; everyone out there has their own way of doing things, one of the important parts of reflective practice is that you find what works best for you. So, in light of this, can you now work in groups of two or three to come up with a scheme with which to evaluate a lesson in a journal
Can I just have a quick show of hands from those of you have been mentors or have been mentored? It’s great, isn’t it? I remember my mentor, Chia Suan a person who helped define the teacher I am today, whose ideas and enthusiasm still remain a constant inspiration to me. I also remember being a mentor for the first time, last summer, to two newly qualified teachers. In both cases what I found most benefiting was the exchange of ideas – someone to offer a second opinion.
So I started thinking and my question is this: how can mentors play a role in the reflective practice of a newly qualified teacher? Imagine writing a journal in your first year of teaching – it’s fair to say that many of your questions will remain unanswered. Which is not much of a consolation. Now imagine that your mentor has the opportunity to read your journal – a mentor that can nudge you in the right direction when you come to a dead end – a mentor that can offer some direction and support. What I am proposing is that alongside the content of the journal there’s also a dialogue between teacher and mentor.
Here’s a thought: it’s nice to get a second opinion on your strengths and weaknesses and official observations can be a bit daunting. What I am going to suggest is that colleagues review their journals and observe their teaching. Take a review section including the strengths and areas to work on and have a colleague watch you teach to see if they agree. Like I said, it can be a bit disheartening when there are no answers to your questions, likewise if you focus too much on areas to improve. To this end, I had a fellow teacher read my diary and observe me when I was trying to make my classroom environment with those rowdy teens more conducive to learning. From there we discussed what was in my diary in relation to my lesson and set some action points.
So where are we now? We have a significant number of newly qualified teachers working autonomously on action research, using the situations that arise in their classrooms. Now there’s definitely a huge benefit to the institution regarding the sharing of this information. It’s grassroots teacher development. I don’t know how many institutions out there involve their newly qualified teachers in running development sessions, but here’s a thought, why not?
I want to take you back to the start, when I asked, “What would you say is your biggest weakness?” I said it was not what the question is asking which bothers me; it’s how the question is asked. In the same way it’s not the problems for a newly qualified teacher that should bother them; it’s how they deal with the question. In contrast with our teacher we saw at the beginning, I’m going to show you another:
It can work on three levels: the teacher, the teacher and students and the teacher and institution. Depending on the situation you find yourself in, any of the three levels is possible to achieve.
Could these ideas be incorporated more into teacher training? Certainly they are transferable skills that would be useful to a teacher embarking on their career. Are they worth squeezing into an already packed schedule of input sessions in a pres-service training course? There are already some incredible trainers out there taking steps to include more reflection in their timetable.
Secondly, as in institution, could there be the possibility of including some of these ideas in teacher development? Handling the demands of a busy timetable is time consuming to say the least. Could there be benefits of adopting this sort of mindset?
If you’ve recently started teaching, or even if you are a seasoned professional, would you consider making space for reflective practice? If so, I’d be very interested to hear about the results.
Whether you’re part of a teacher-training team, in charge of hiring new teachers, in some way involved with teacher development or training, or you are a newly qualified teacher, I am going to leave you with this thought: the end is not the really the end, it’s just the beginning.