An Update on Teaching

As I’m writing this on Wednesday morning, hopefully, for the first time in a month or so, this week’s blog update will be on time!
I thought this week I would write an update on teaching. The main reason I’m in Xi’an is because I’m a teacher, and becoming an English as a Foreign Language teacher is part of my longer term plan to escape the UK and see more of the world. So as you’ll appreciate, my success or failure at being a teacher is quite important to me. I think the last time I wrote about teaching was a couple of months ago, and then I was just starting to find my feet and beginning to feel confident that I might make a success of it. Since then, I’m happy to say, I think I have improved considerably as a teacher.

On the third of February, Martin, the main Director of Studies at my school and a very experienced teacher, observed one of my lessons to make sure I’m progressing adequately. Although I was reassured that it was a positive observation to help me improve, it was still pretty nerve wracking. I had to prepare an in-depth plan for the lesson. My usual lesson plans now contain just the aims and homework, procedure and timings. For this lesson I had to note down the student-teacher interaction patterns and the purpose and aims of each individual part of the lesson. It was about as detailed as my lesson plans when I was studying for the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) in September.

Martin observed my Friday evening class to 11 year olds, which is a class that’s always a bit more difficult than the others and never seems to get going properly. There are only eight students in the class – two boys and six girls – so it’s difficult to get a lively atmosphere. The boys and girls steadfastly refuse to work with each other, yet the boys are weaker students and would benefit from working with two of the stronger girls for a bit of L1 learning peer support. Fortunately the lesson itself went more or less according to plan and I thought it was perfectly acceptable if a little bit dull. I commented to Martin afterwards that it was probably a good lesson to watch as I felt it was quite typical of all the lessons I’ve taught. Overall the feedback was positive and the areas to work on were really helpful. My main point to work on was bringing more energy to the classroom to engage and motivate the students more. This point is something that would continue to be an issue going forward.

The past five or six weeks of teaching have been a bit of a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. I realised at the end of January that my teaching ability had somewhat plateaued. I’d learnt enough through day-to-day teaching to plan and conduct perfectly adequate although uninspiring lessons, but I hadn’t learnt or used any new activities or teaching methods in a while, and my lessons were becoming a bit stale. While I wasn’t content with myself to let my teaching ability stagnate, a couple of things happened that kicked me into putting in the effort to improve.

Kitty, the teaching assistant for my class to five year olds, commented that she needed to teach me some more activities to do in the classroom. I replied with an enthusiastic ‘yes please!’ But also, in a more concerning turn of events, I started a new class that parents complained about.

The first lesson of a new class is always hard work. The first ten minutes is a parents introduction where I stand up and thank the parents for choosing our school, explain the course outline, when tests are, how we grade students, what the students should bring to class, the online learning resources, etc. I show them the text book, talk a little bit about the language the students will be learning, and explain that if they ever have any questions, they’re more than welcome to talk to me or the TA before or after class. I then invite them back in five weeks for the demonstration class where they watch half an hour of a lesson. It is, by it’s very nature, a bit dull. The rest of the lesson is also hard work. I have to try to learn the students’ names, work out their personalities so I can try to create a rapport, show enough discipline that they respect me and do what I tell them yet not too much that they don’t want to come back for the second lesson, all the while trying to actually teach them some English.

My new class is to a group of 12 seven year olds. They’re starting at the very lowest level. The aims for the first lesson are to teach “What’s your name?” and “My name is…”. One of the selling points of the school, and something that parents expect, is that the lessons we provide, especially to younger students, will be fun and lively. But the parents for my new class left my introduction very unimpressed. At the mid-lesson break I saw some of the parents in the centre director, Sophia’s, office, and wondered if everything was alright. Later on I happened to catch Martin and asked what it was about. “Everything’s fine” he said, “the parents just had some more questions”. A week later, after my second lesson with the students, Sophia called me into her office and very nicely explained that she ‘has full confidence in my teaching abilities’ and that she ‘understands that I’m a new teacher inexperienced at teaching children’ and ‘don’t worry, we’ll deal with the complaints from the parents.’

So everything wasn’t ok with that class, and I didn’t need the parents to complain to know that. I knew that the lessons for that class could be so much better, they were bitty and didn’t have much flow, and they were too teacher centred and not enough fun either for the students learning or me teaching. So I talked and Martin and we decided to co-plan my next lesson, which turned out to be a huge help, but I also asked to observe some more lower level classes to get more fun teaching ideas.

When I arrived here in late November I observed several lessons by other teachers, but I’d always been looking at particular aspects of teaching rather than simply different activities to use. I’d looked at classroom discipline, teacher-student interaction, language grading when giving instructions, that type of thing. So I observed two other teachers’ classes to students of the same age and ability as my new seven year olds and my five year olds, and picked up lots of new activities so my lessons will have more variety, and also new teaching techniques so the students have more fun in lessons.

I’m happy to say that the next lessons for the new class have been much better, and after the parents demo on the fifth week apparently the parents commented that they no longer have any concerns.

My lessons with Kitty to the five year olds have also been a lot better. The students seem to really like me and when they see me before class they shout “teacher!” and run up to me and hug my legs. It’s weird and cool at the same time!

Going back to my observation and a little bit of teaching theory, adding energy to a lesson will usually add fun as well. But anyone who knows me will also know that being enthusiastic and energetic are hardly my strong character points, and so this is particularly difficult for me. The technique I’ve discovered is not to bring the energy myself, but to entice the students into providing their own energy. Usually this is through slapstick comedy. Once the students are laughing and having fun then they start to exude their own energy, and if they’re having fun then they’re also engaging with me as a teacher and so with the aims of the lesson. Additionally, as the students are by now enjoying learning, any discipline issues completely disappear, and the only time I need to exert greater control is when it gets a bit lively. From then it’s a virtuous cycle and it takes less and less conscious effort to conduct a fun, lively and effective lesson.

Indeed, last night I had to cover a class for a colleague who is ill. The class is to four year olds and she’s said that they’re a very difficult group of students. I had a great time though. From the moment I walked into the class and made a funny face and made fun of one of the students who was walking slowly like a zombie to his seat I had them on side, and for the rest of class I had them all laughing along with me while we played games to teach them English.

The main ‘down’ over the past week was an unfortunate incident during break time involving some of my students, a ball and my boss. In almost all of my lessons now I have a ball. For younger students it’s such an effective learning tool. I use it mainly during whole class activities to indicate who should be talking at the time. Pass it around in a circle asking and answering a question, or pass it back and forth across the class so the students decide who has to speak next. It’s so obvious who has the ball that there’s no confusion about who’s turn it is. Additionally, invariably the students all want to play with the ball so are more eager to have a go, but to do so they have to actually say something in English. I also find that holding the ball and passing it between my hands or bouncing it on the floor even when it’s not in use for the lesson itself makes me a bit more active and helps with the energy level. So a very useful tool and one that I’m never without in a class now.

But one time in my Friday evening class I left it in the classroom during the break. That was a big mistake. As I went back to the staffroom, the students decided it would be a great idea to play ball games in the corridor. The first I knew about it was hearing my boss, who had just walked out of his classroom, shouting at them. As he passed me in the staffroom he suggested that I don’t leave a ball in my classroom during the break.

After the break I went back to class and asked what happened. I started a bit annoyed and became angrier as the full story emerged. It turns out that they’d managed to throw the ball and hit my boss in the face. The rest of the lesson was conducted with me scowling a lot and the students sitting in sheepish silence. They all got extra homework that night.

I could write more – I’ve written a few bullet points to remind of more things to write about- but as this post is approaching 2,000 words I think I’ll end it soon.

More generally though, about six weeks ago we got a new teacher at the school. Since then I’ve no longer felt like the new person and I’ve also felt a lot more settled. It’s always difficult changing jobs, and changing career is even harder. With a new job you just have to learn how things are done differently in a new workplace, but with a new career you have to learn the new career while learning a new environment. It doesn’t help that I’ve come to a new job in a new career in a new country! Having said that, I’ve also just realised that in a week I’ll have been here for four months, which means I’m a third of the way through my contract. There have been times over the past four months that I didn’t think I’d make it this far, but the time has gone surprisingly quickly and I’m a little bit proud of myself for sticking it out this long.

While I just wrote that I’ve ‘stuck it out’ this long, that reflects my predominant thoughts on the past four months and I’m a lot more positive now. I’m actually quite looking forward to the next eight months. To use an old maxim, for the last four months I survived, but over the next eight months I expect to thrive!

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