Losing a Battle, Winning the War?

There is always this one class that has an attitude. Every single semester, with no exceptions. The faces change, but the attitude stays the same.
Last semester, this was one of my Monday classes. They were a pretty high level but it seemed that our classes were some kind of a burden for them. I tried to supplement with more interesting and challenging tasks, but no matter what I did they seemed to stay indifferent. When I would offer them to choose what they wanted to do for the next task, they always said that it did not matter to them and they would be okay with anything. They were interested in communicating with each other though, so no problem here.
After some time, I simply gave up on involving them into making decisions about the learning process and left it up to myself.
We had a couple of nice classes (in my opinion), but the majority was so-so. I still would plan good-quality lessons but I stopped being emotionally invested into these students. I would just come, teach and leave. We had a silent agreement: they could keep their attitude but in return, they would not cross the line and do anything to make my job more difficult.

A month ago or so I got the comments from the students I taught last semester. All of them were nice and positive, however, there was a bunch of comments left by the students from the same class that stood out: incredibly heartwarming words that deeply touched me. I could not see the names, only the class code. I usually do not check which class the comments come from, but this time I decided to check.
All of these comments were left by that Monday class.

It made me think how often we have such kind of misunderstanding. It is a well-known fact that there are as many points of view as people.
What I saw was a class with the attitude, a class that did not express their feelings the way I wanted.
What did they see? Apparently, a totally different thing.
They enjoyed our lessons. They said I was a great teacher. They regretted they could not stay in the same class with me for one more semester.
This kind of feedback from them was totally unexpected.
I should definitely try being more attentive and sensitive, and not that quick to judge.


What Depression Taught Me

In December 2015, I was diagnosed with emotional burnout / mild depression. My existence was almost unbearable (no matter how trivial it may sound). I was crying 24/7; I felt miserable and hated myself for being weak and pathetic. Life was extremely painful. Everything was painful. Waking up, blinking, breathing. I would not eat for days – just drinking tap water. I would have to make a titanic effort just to open my eyes and get up. The only things that kept me going were my stubbornness and a thought my mom shared with me once about children leaving this world before their parents do being wrong. Every night I would go to bed thinking that maybe tomorrow it will become slightly more bearable. It would not though for quite a while.
I did manage to overcome this. I fought like my life depended on it – and it did, literally. I won that battle.
I am not going to tell about how I felt when I realised that this experience left me completely blank and I had to rediscover myself from scratch. Instead, I am going to talk about what I learnt from it and how it influenced my teaching beliefs.

Back in December 2015, I was not a teacher yet. I became a teacher almost a year after that, in November. In the beginning, I was mostly occupied with sliding into the profession that was new to me and adjusting to it. However, later, after I got into the routine I found myself going through those harsh memories over and over again. I took some time to reflect on it through the prism of ELT. Now, I am sure what I am about to write is in no way new and eye-opening, but nevertheless…

We, teachers, are probably even more vulnerable than people who work in some other professions. We are constantly under the spotlight; we are being watched and evaluated by our students. I am sure there is no teacher who, at the very beginning of their career, never felt nervous or even a little bit scared when entering the classroom. Scared of being judged. Scared of being rejected. Scared of not being liked. Whenever we are not satisfied with our lessons, we jump straight into blaming ourselves – we failed to engage students, failed to think through the lesson, failed to (insert what is applicable to you here). It is always our fault. Or is it?

What depression taught me is that we cannot be liked by everyone. It is simply impossible. There will always be some people who think we are not good enough. The reason is not that we are actually not good, no, the reason is that different people have a different understanding of what is good and what is not for them. We all have our own vision, and other people do not have to match our conceptions. For example, you do not have to match your students’ ideas of what a good teacher is. They might believe that a good teacher is someone who is cheerful and makes them laugh while your personality is calm and serious. It does not mean you are a bad teacher. It simply means that, for this particular student, you are just not what they expected, and expectations do not always meet reality.

Should you try to change your personality and your teaching style to match your students’ expectations? I would not recommend doing so. What depression taught me is that we have right to be the way we are. It does not only refer to our personalities and teaching styles but also to how and what we feel in the classroom. Teachers often tend to hide negative feelings while displaying positive feelings much more openly  (Gates, 2000; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). What I learnt from depression is that you should not be ashamed of experiencing negative feelings and emotions. You cannot always be positive, cheerful, and happy. There are definitely going to be moments when you feel sad, or irritated, or angry, or disappointed, and it is absolutely normal to feel the whole range of emotions, and maybe sometimes it is worth it to let your students know that you are unhappy with their behaviour or attitude rather than trying to call to their reason in a calm and friendly manner.

Around two thousands years ago, a Roman playwright Terentius wrote “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” However, I feel that we, teachers, are often pushed to supress our true emotions (and emotions are something very human indeed) and wear a mask in front of our students. Inability to be emotionally authentic leads to emotional intensity and a decrease in workplace well-being (Butler and Gross, 2004; Chang, 2009; Lechuga, 2012; cited in Hagenauer and Volet, 2013). As a result, we might end up emotionally burnt out and depressed.

There is only one way out I see: be yourself. Be your real self. Do not worry about how many students like true you. It is their right not to like you. It is your right to be just the way you are. No one can tell you what is right and what is wrong – there are as many rights and wrongs as people around you. Decide for yourself and be content and happy.

Hagenauer, G., Volet, S. E., (2013). “I don’t hide my feelings, even though I try to”: insight into teacher educator emotion display. The Australian Educational Researcher, 41(3), 261-281. doi:10.1007/s13384-013-0129-5

Co-Teaching: Sharing is Caring

Today I want to talk a bit about co-teaching. I have already tweeted about it, and it seems like different teachers have a different understanding of what co-teaching is, so I decided to expand on it.

Based on my personal experience and some comments from other teachers on Twitter, I came up with this basic classification based on the nature of the actual teaching process (feel free to add more):
1. Independent
Two or more teachers share the same class/course, but teach different parts of it on different days. Quite popular in universities across the world. I had some courses like that (e.g., Scandinavian Historical and Cultural Topics or Scandinavian Literature) in the UoE. I guess the planning should be done collaboratively, but teaching is more or less independent, so that is why I called it that.
2. Passive
Two or more teachers share the same class/course, one is teaching, others are observing and probably making comments if asked. Never experienced it as a learner but did do it as a teacher. Even though the other co-teachers are present in the classroom, their roles are minimised; therefore, they are passive.
3. Symbiotic
Two or more teachers are sharing the same lesson. It means they teach the same lesson together swapping or sharing the stages. Experienced it as a learner during CELTA course and did it as a teacher last August and this week. This one is my ultimate favourite, so this entry will focus on it rather than the previous two.

Teaching Context
I am teaching within a unified curriculum which means that forty teachers are teaching the same lesson at the same time but in different classrooms to different students. Therefore, it is relatively easy to implement symbiotic co-teaching. While there is no opportunity for it during the semester, the so-called Repeating Course (RC) (a special course offered during holidays for those students who failed the regular course in the previous year) often involves classes being combined (due to low attendance) so teachers end up being assigned to the same – newly combined – class. While most teachers choose to implement passive co-teaching and teach every other lesson, my co-teacher and I went for symbiotic co-teaching and enjoyed it a lot.

What We Did
We had to teach the last part of the RC, i.e., five lessons. The first lesson was a review lesson, and since we were new to the students (the previous parts were taught by different instructors), we had to include a getting-to-know-you stage. The review lesson was followed by two regular lessons, one review lesson, and one final test lesson. We decided to do symbiotic co-teaching for the first review lesson, second review lesson, and final test lesson. Two regular lessons were co-taught passively (the main reason behind that decision was that we wanted to observe each other teaching a regular lesson from beginning till the end). Here is how our lesson outlines looked:


Review in a form of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was our tech innovation. My co-teacher had a template with sound and animation, and we decided to try it out. I came up with some questions related to the skills we were teaching, and my co-teacher added some extra questions and inserted them into the template. For the activity, students were divided into two groups; each group had a small whiteboard, a marker, and a tissue. They would write the answers on the board trying to meet the time limit (5 seconds for easy questions, then 8, 10, and 15 upon achieving the threshold, i.e., the amount in white).
Fishbowl in Lesson 12 is an activity in which student observe each other and then give feedback to their peers.

For symbiotically co-taught lessons, we literally shared the stages and were giving instructions together. While students were doing the tasks, we were monitoring and then giving feedback adding to each other’s words. Together, we were able to give more accurate and detailed feedback.
Although our approaches to teaching skills were somewhat different, we did not have any conflicts or misunderstandings; instead, we managed to combine our strengths and techniques and deliver more effective lessons.
An important thing for co-teaching is for teachers to get along with each other both on a personal and professional level. It does not mean they have to share the same teaching beliefs and teaching principles, but they have to be ready to try new things and learn from each other. Only in this case, I believe, co-teaching will be beneficial for both teachers and students.

New Endings

It has been a while since I have posted anything on this blog. Blogging involves a great deal of self-discipline, which I lack. Those bits of self-discipline I do have are all invested in lesson planning. Choices, you know.

Anyway, my third semester of teaching English discussion finished several days ago. Last lessons are always hard to plan: I find it tricky to stuff something meaningful, something memorable and something exciting into one lesson altogether.

I believe that the end of something is always a good chance for a reflection. That is why this time, I decided to begin the last lesson with a reflection.
At the end of almost every lesson, my students would write answers to two questions: the first question would ask them about what they liked or found interesting, and the second question would make them focus on something they thought was difficult. I wrote about this activity a while ago.
I thought that students would benefit from getting some tangible result from this activity. Even though I would write them a reply and hand it out at the beginning of the next lesson, I was not sure how many of them would actually read it 😀 Since most of my students admit that speaking English is stressful, I wanted them to see that these 3 months were enough to make some progress. Therefore, I prepared a simple reflective task.
First, I looked through their answers to the second question and made a list of top-10 difficulties/issues/problems they faced at the beginning of the course (first 5 lessons). Students were asked to have a look at these problems and circle yes or no when answering two questions:
1. Did you have this problem in the beginning?
2. Do you still feel like you have this problem?
After that, students would discuss their answers with each other and share their impressions. They would also answer some other questions, e.g., “Do you feel you made some progress?”, “Are English Discussion classes similar to your high school English classes?”, etc.

It was heartwarming to see how many yes became no! I heard some of my students saying that in the beginning, they were nervous and had some kind of negative attitude towards the whole idea of having discussions in English (something we can call demotivation, according to Kikuchi). However, after some time, they started feeling like it was getting easier and realised they actually could have long discussions in English. The thing is that in Japan, in most high schools, the grammar-translation approach is still used so when students get into universities that use CLT, they feel anxious and stressed out because they have to communicate in English – something they were not taught to do.
There is nothing more empowering than watching these students develop their English communication ability, watching how they rely on L1 less and less and learn to use communicative strategies effectively.

Another reflective activity I did in this lesson was a Semester Reflection. Students would draw a mind map for the following topic: My first semester at university. They would put whatever they think was important enough to be on paper. They would share their mind maps with each other and ask some questions if needed. They would also discuss some questions, e.g., “If you could go back in April 2018 and start your semester again, would you change anything?” and “What is your goal for next semester?”.

So far, I am happy with how the weekly dialogical feedback activity ended up being wrapped into an end-of-semester reflection. I would say the piloting was successful. Getting ready to try out the refined version next semester and write a paper on it! And for now, holidays.
There is one exciting thing I am planning for August (hint: it has something to do with Dogme), so stay tuned!

Equal Opportunities and Emotional Investment

I teach 12 groups of students per week. It means teaching and interacting with 94 individuals. I can describe each of my students and give detailed comments on their personality, typical behaviour, difficulties they experience in the classroom, and their attitude to our lessons.

Emotional authenticity and investment, as well as teacher-student relationship, are wide-researched topics in the field of ELT. We all know that our relationship is developing differently with different groups/students, and we are all guilty of having our favourites (I am no exception).

My favourites are groups that consist of smart and fast-thinking students. They love brainstorming; their ideas are more or less broad and interesting to listen to. They love English and enjoy the CLT environment. Finally, they are always eager to learn something new; they accept everything new that comes from me with enthusiasm and start using it immediately. Their level does not matter – their attitude does. No wonder that I, as a teacher, want to give as much as possible to the students in these groups.

Now, one of the things I often repeat to my students is that discussion is always teamwork and that it is up to them to ensure that everyone gets equal opportunities.
What I have realised is that while I am teaching my students about being considerate and mindful of each other, I myself might have broken these principles. I have come to an understanding that I am less emotionally invested in those groups that do not meet the criteria written above. I still care about them, but since they are less receptive and do not seem to be that into what we are doing, I start feeling the same. I do my job as well as I can, but I do not share my knowledge with them as easily and happily as I do with my favourites. I am just not sure if they need or want it.

I know what is happening here is logical and can be easily explained by some theories and backed up with some research, I do. My question is not why, but what should I do to change it and should I even change it or not.
I do not have the answers to these questions, and I am not sure I ever will.

Accepting Doesn’t Mean Giving Up

Marc’s recent post on the vague border between motivation and manipulation made me think a lot. I would probably end up with thinking and re-thinking, and overthinking it in my head without making it public if it wasn’t for this after-lunch class I had last Monday. It took some time to accumulate the ideas, and I ended up spending Tuesday morning trying to type down whatever was streaming in my consciousness while I was on my way to work. These are merely my thoughts based on my observations. You might find them controversial. In fact, I’m inclined to think that the majority of teachers reading (hopefully) this post will disagree with me. Nevertheless…

According to various research on motivation, we can expect to face four types of learners: (1) highly motivated, (2) lowly motivated, (3) demotivated, and (4) amotivated. Kikuchi (2012) explained the difference between demotivation and amotivation pointing out that “amotivation concerns a lack of motivation” while “demotivation concerns the negative process that pulls motivation down” (p. 5). In other words, amotivated learners mostly end up dropping out of classes; however, demotivated students would still keep coming to classes and might even engage in some activities if they want. Therefore, we can have an influence on demotivated learners and, by using various motivational tweaks, transform their demotivation into high motivation. As for amotivated learners, there is not that much we can do as they simply do not care.
Dörnyei (2001) offered 20 motivational strategies divided into four stages (i.e., creating the basic motivational conditions, generating initial motivation, maintaining and protecting motivation, and encouraging positive retrospective self-evaluation). There are many other strategies offered by researchers, and I am pretty sure we all tried using them to motivate our learners.

However, to me, it seems like the primary aim of research on motivation is not only to equip us, teachers, with certain techniques, but also to make us think that we must motivate our students. This means that if despite how hard we are trying, some learners stay lowly motivated, it’s kind of our fault. We weren’t trying hard enough. We didn’t read enough books and articles on motivation. We don’t have enough knowledge or persistence, otherwise, we would be able to achieve a desirable result. Now, your feelings do not have to be the same, but that’s how I see it. How I feel it. And yes, it is kind of our fault, but in a different way.

As teachers, we have to acknowledge students’ individualities. As individuals, we have a right to make our choices. Students can choose if they want to be motivated or not. The only thing we, as teachers, can do is to provide them with this choice. There is nothing wrong with trying hard to motivate your students, but the most important is to accept their choice not to respond to your tries. It’s not only about you but them as well, and their choice does not have to please you. In fact, sometimes their choice to stay indifferent can drive you crazy (as it happened to me last Monday when my high-level class declined my honest offer to tailor the course to their needs and simply let me understand that they don’t really care), but it’s their choice. You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but, in my opinion, you should respect it and accept it. And act on it.

Teaching is about respecting your students. Respecting your students is about accepting their choices. And accepting their choices (even when they contradict your teaching beliefs) doesn’t mean giving up. At least, that’s how I see it.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Kikuchi, K. (2015). Demotivation in Second Language Acquisition. Insights from Japan. Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters.

Dialogical Feedback: The Beginnings

It’s been 2.5 weeks since the new semester has begun, and I must say all my students are really nice and hard-working. Some of them are a bit less hard-working than others, of course, but still, they all try to do the tasks as well as they can and act on my feedback. They are very talkative, are able to keep discussions going for a long time and hardly ever rely on L1. I sometimes feel like there’s not much for me to teach (apart from some useful phrases and expressions)! Though I should not complain 🙂

For this semester, I decided on some things I want to try. First of them was an entirely new Introductory Lesson that would tune my students into reflecting on the features of effective communication and some useful communication skills. I spent rather long time planning this lesson, and it turned out to be a really good one. Here’s what I did:

I. What Is Communication?
This step was different for lower and higher levels.
Lower levels had to do two brainstorming tasks which were somewhat related to each other: first, they had to brainstorm the word ‘communication’, and then they had to brainstorm what they could do to have effective communication.
Higher levels would start with discussing four quotes about communication (if they agreed/disagreed with them and why) and then brainstorm the same question as lower levels, i.e., the question about the features of effective communication.
Students of both levels came up with similar lists, which included eye contact, careful listening, use of body language, and positive attitude (smiling). Only some of them mentioned mutual understanding, though, mostly higher level students.
This stage was kind of a guided discovery task and, in my opinion, showed good results.

II. Communication Skills
This level was built on the features of effective communication my students came up with in stage I.
Careful listening (or just listening to others’ ideas) became Active Listening (use of reactions and gestures), the first skill we practised.
Then I talked about how important for effective and successful communication it is to understand each other and introduced Checking Understanding skill (combined with Paraphrasing and Asking for Explanation). We practised it with the help of a very controlled activity called ‘This is blah-blah-blah’.
Finally, I reminded my students that it is always okay to ask others to repeat something if they feel a need for it.

III. Discussion
The last stage was a long 16-minute discussion about The Ideal Classmate. Students had a chance to reflect on the things that can make their English lessons better and happier for everyone, for example, being active, helping each other, knowing everyone’s name, not giving up, etc. They were welcomed to come up with their own ideas, but the initial list was rather comprehensive, so only a couple of students added something extra (unfortunately, I cannot remember what it was).

IV. Feedback
The last but not the least!
I tried to make discussion feedback both student-centred and level appropriate. Lower levels did self-reflective feedback followed by peer-feedback (they could use their answers in the ‘Check Yourself’ part to answer some of the peer-feedback questions). Higher levels did less scaffolded group feedback that invited them to reflect critically on their discussion both as a group and as individuals.
And here it comes, the so-called Dialogical feedback, my spring innovation. I asked students to write answers to two questions (anonymously, of course):
1. What did you like about today’s lesson? Why?
2. What did you not like? Why? (e.g., something about Lina’s teaching or something about your performance)

A Little Bit about the Results

Students could choose the language they wanted to use for writing their answers.
Lower levels went for Japanese while higher levels prefered English. Some lower level students chose English as well (those who were more active during the lesson and seemed more self-confident than their classmates).
Among higher levels, those students who seemed shy and less confident chose Japanese. Nothing unexpected.

Almost all students wrote about their performance or their worries/concerns/etc. I am not sure if the reason for this was the unwillingness to criticise the teacher or the tendency of Japanese people to focus on their weaknesses and faults. Nevertheless, both reasons are socio-psychological and have deep roots in Japanese people’s mentality and culture.
I mentioned, of course, that if they did not like something about activities or my teaching they could feel free to tell me about it so that I could change it, but as you already know, I hardly got any comments on it. To be precise, I only got two comments:
– One student said I spoke too fast and she did not understand some bits;
– One student said he wanted more copies of the poster because it was difficult for him to share it with other three people.

As for comments on their performance, most students said they had difficulties with expressing their ideas due to the lack of relevant vocabulary. Some other concerns included:
– unbalanced participation;
– lack of ideas;
– communication problems caused by insufficient knowledge of relevant communication strategies (i.e., struggled to keep the discussion going and did not know what to do when there was silence);
– discussing in a 3-people group was difficult;
– low level of motivation;
– low English proficiency and insufficient knowledge of English grammar.
It is possible to conclude that most of the students experience some kind of anxiety caused by various factors, mostly intrapersonal.

This week, I am replying to my students with some advice on how they can overcome this anxiety and provide them with some learning strategies.
I do not push them though since I always recognise the fact that not all of my students have to love English as much as I do. Most of them are being torn apart circle activities, part-time jobs, studying, and necessity to have some free time, and it’s a big question which of the things above are their priority. Actually, I know for sure that for many of first-year students circle activities and free time are more important than studying; we had a discussion about it.
As I said, I do not push my students to follow my advice. However, some of them got the message between the line, and when they had to answer the Dialogical feedback questions, many of them wrote not only about their difficulties, but also what they think they need to do to handle it. Cool!

I am not sure yet which principles this Dialogical feedback activity focuses on. Learning strategies? Maybe, but I am not exploring this aspect deeply enough, and I am not intended to do so. Motivation? Again, maybe some of them will feel more motivated by understanding that their problems do matter.
I will conduct a survey at the end of the course to get some feedback from students on this activity.
Therefore, …

… Stay tuned for updates!