back to the future

Image courtesy of Mooshuu

Yesterday, I saw a tweet along the lines of, “If you could go back in time to your first year as a teacher, what would you say?” Good question. At first I wasn’t entirely sure what I would say, but the more I thought about it, the more it kept coming back to one thing: it’s not about me. Well, if that was all I would say, the younger me would probably say thanks and then move on. Also, if that is all I wrote today, you would be fairly disappointed in this blog post and might never return. For the sake of the skinnier Nathan and all those who dare enter this blog, here is what I could say in more detail. [Note: this was also sort of covered by Mike Griffin, although his was primarily about conferences.] 

Don’t entertain, teach: This is probably one of the things I was most guilty of when I first started teaching. The extroverted, social me wanted my students to like me and to have a good time. Is it bad that I wanted those things? I suppose not, but only if I there are also able to learn at the same time. The purpose all of us are in that classroom is to learn something. If what I am doing is being a glorified entertainer, I should go into show biz. Yes, the first rule of my classroom is and will likely always be, have fun. The problem with mini me was that he sometimes failed to provide the proper instruction and guidance the students needed and ended up wasting their time and money.

Stop over-planning every detail: The problem here is that I used to time things down to the minute and rarely deviated from it. Some of you might think that is great and I might agree to a point, but the problem came down to a lack of understanding. I failed to take my students into account as I taught. I was the teacher and I was in charge. Oh boy, I had a lot to learn. Over time I have stated to work from short and long term goals with more flexibility in how we got there. Planning is still important, but now we focus on the bigger picture instead.

Think about why you are doing things: Yep, another big problem I had earlier on was that I thought as long as I did something in English, it was good enough. Wrong. Sure, exposure to the language in various contexts is important, but there should be some sort of reason why you doing something instead of just grabbing something and heading off to class. Scaffolding, assessment, targets, these are all things that should be considered. It might be fun to watch a movie in class in English (is that with or without English subtitles?), but are the students able to process what is happening over such an extended period of time. Now, I am more careful to limit the length of audio or video that I use in class. After about 10 minutes, I doubt there is any real growth. That is just one example of how I have started to look at the purpose behind what I do.

Let the students have a voice: Totally messed this up in my first year of teaching. Students would ask to do something and I would likely shoot it down. How could they possibly know what is best for them? I am the one with the teaching credentials! Yikes! I was so wrong. Now, I start here and work with the students to find ways that best fit them. Is it more difficult? Sure, but it gets easier the more I do it. Besides, it actually makes certain things easier and the students are more engaged. Bonus!

Stop relying on high stakes test to tell you what to do: Final exams, standardized tests, grades from previous classes. Sure, they can be helpful, but I also think they cause me to become narrow-minded in my assessment and cause me to pre judge my students before they have a chance to show me what they can do. Now, I use a lot of smaller assessments and collect that information on an ongoing basis. This allows the students and myself to see how they are progressing and identify areas of focus. The final exam? Well, let’s just say I tend to use a more application-based approach to show how they can use what they have learned instead of finding out what knowledge they have collected. My favourite approach? Open book exams.

Question everything: Just because someone said it doesn’t mean I have to believe it. That grammar lesson in the textbook? Guess what? It may be wrong! Gasp! That person who has been teaching for 20 years? Sure, there is a lot you can learn form them, but don’t just take their word for it. Dig deep and see what research and others have to say about it. You will either grow to trust that person more, or you might find that there is more to what they are saying.

Be willing to take chances, but don’t turn your students into lab rats: This was a two-fold problem for me. I was nervous about doing things that took me out of my comfort zone, often causing me to leave it out of my lessons, or I would try too many things and frustrate my students. Instead, find one thing, research it, think about all of the possible variables that may affect my classroom, and then use it if it appears that it may help my students grow. I’m looking at you technology. And you superficial study. And you flamboyant person I teach with who may or may not know what they talking about.

Stop segregating things: Guess what? Language learning is way more than the grammatical structure, the vocabulary, the skills, or anything else you would like to pull apart. You may take some time to learn those things on their own, but never, ever, ever, forget to bring them all back together as one complex, cohesive unit.

Don’t be scared to ask for help: I feel like teachers think they must do things alone. It is YOUR class, YOUR lesson plan, why would I ask someone else for help? One of the best things I did was have someone observe me, willingly. Their feedback was invaluable and set me off on a different course. Did I apply everything they told me? Nope. Nor should I have. What I did do was receive feedback on what my classroom looks like from the other side. Working together with others can be difficult, but when done well, it can be so rewarding.

Never stop learning: No explanation necessary.

So, what would you say to your younger self?

6 thoughts on “Recollecting

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a bit, what I’d say to my younger self. I’ve been teaching EFL for more than 11 years now. My younger teaching self was a lot more confident and self-assured than my current teaching self. I don’t know that this was a bad thing. But I think I would just want to ask her now and again to ask herself, “Are you sure? Why? How do you know?” I think that would be a valuable question to inspire her to start reflecting earlier. 11 years experience can look a lot like one year repeated 11 times without reflection.

    1. I would agree with that. At first I wasn’t that confident, then probably over-confident, and now more of a reflective questioner.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I like the idea for writing about those first steps (and talking to my own self!) I like what you are saying to yourself about questioning things, and asking the Why? question, and about asking for help. (I guess those are never late to start doing, so this is a reminder to me even now 🙂

    As for my own ‘time machine journey’, I would say something reassuring: I lacked confidence, was so scared to do things wrong, and to let my students down. Now, after 15 years classroom experience, I think I can encourage her and ask to speak louder, and to be a more real ‘self’ in class.

    1. Super! Great insight and something I probably should have said as well. You are completely correct. I did have encouraging people around me from the beginning, so I completely forgot about that side of things.

      Thank you for that. Made me stop and think a bit more. 🙂

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