Friday, November 6, 2015
Looking at my latest teaching experience, I have to admit, there is plenty room for improvement. I think most teachers feel this way when they reflect on their teaching, but it's important to reflect and be honest with yourself about your teaching performance. I recently found this pod cast where two very experienced teachers talked about what happens when their lessons seem to be crumbling around them.
My Lesson Plan is Not Working, Kids Are Not Learning, I Am Freaking Out!
I think all teachers experience this type of "melt-down," doubt, and panic. It's even worse when its being exacerbated with uneven criticism -- usually from unknowing and uncaring observers. In my last teaching experience, I felt that my teaching was sub-par. I didn't understand what to change, and I wasn't finding any support either, which is why, I think we must instill a reflective and improvement practice on our own. Seriously, that's not just lip service. For example, looking back, I think I was so busy trying to create the perfect lesson plans that I ignored the expectations of my students and manager. Now, I wonder, how could I stream line my own teaching so that I'm doing less lesson planning and focusing on teaching in the class. I asked three teachers that I know who are teaching in Intensive English Programs in Japan and in the U.S. and all of them state that they don't have time to do full lesson plans. One teacher told me, "If you don't know how to make some short cuts, then you're going to fall behind. Way behind." And another teacher told me, "I have a system that is in my head, and I follow that. I don't do a lot of detailed lesson planning." I know these teachers. They went through the same program I did, and I know they both know and appreciate the value of lesson planning. But in the reality of teaching, it's not always an option. Their advice made me reconsider what I knew about my own teaching practice -- away from what I was formally taught.
John MacBeath (2015) rightly points out that a teacher must bring more to the table than just delivering a lesson. A teacher must also place themselves in the shoes of their students and reflect on what is working and what isn’t. He asks us to consider three key ideas:
1) Stop (what isn't working)
2) Start (what does work)
3) Continue (what is working)
I found a very well thought out blog post using these same questions just the other day:
Stop, Start, Continue: Conceptual Understanding Meets Applied Problem Solving
So in the spirit of thoughtful reflection, I wanted to know and understand how to make myself into a better teacher and I also wanted to think about what my students and admistators think makes a good teacher. For me, learning to become a better teacher means understanding how to identify what I needed to improve upon in my teaching. MacBeath (2015) posed these three essential evaluative questions that every teacher should ask before they begin their course: 1) What do I already know? 2) What do I not know? and 3) What would I like to know? When we do this type of reflection, we should end up with this kind of thinking framework "I used to think...but now I think..." (MacBeath, 2015).
Here is what I came up with: I’m still struggling to remember everything that I learned about language learning and teaching. It’s such an immense field and there are so many aspects to consider: 1) How are languages best learned? 2) How are languages best taught? 3) and How does language actually work? There are many approaches to language teaching (Content-Based Learning, Project-Based Learning, Task-Based Language, Game-Based Learning, etc.) and pedagogical principles to keep in mind (agency, automaticity, knowledge transfer, interlanguage, motivation, identity and investment, self-regulation, and interaction) (Brown & Lee, 2014). While I am familiar with the theory and practice of these ideas and have a working teaching philosophy and approach, it was an eye-opening experience when I stepped into the classroom and tried to apply what I thought I knew. I quickly found that I was missing some practical skills. I didn't understand how to sequence the activities, bring my ideas to life, build deeper learning experiences, or communicate to them the importance of my approach to my students. Perhaps, I tried to apply too many of these ideas at once. Perhaps, I didn’t understand how to apply them correctly. I’m still searching for my answers. However, looking the questions asked by MacBeath, I can answer disparate parts of the questions that he posed: 1) I know a lot about language theory and practice; 2) I don’t know practical ways to apply my knowledge in ways that are effective for both my time and my students’ learning; and 3) I would like to know how to build a better teaching practice that is informed by theory, practice, and practicality to perhaps build a framework that I can quickly apply.
To better understand what I wanted to improve my teaching, I considered the quality teaching, e.g., “What makes a good teacher and who decides?” I’m not currently teaching and don’t have many people to ask this question to, so I went out and looked on the Internet at sites where language learners discussed the qualities of good language teachers. In particular, I found one site (http://bit.ly/1WpYJBS ) in which a polyglot lists the qualities he appreciated in his language teachers and tutors. A teacher 1) has superb listening skills, 2) fosters language production and communication, 3) is fair and respectful to students, 3) has command of language’s grammar, 4) understands the students’ language learning journey and honors it, 5) clearly communicates goals and pushes students to achieve theirs. There are more characteristics, but I thought this was a really good list to begin with, and interestingly enough, I looked back at a paper I wrote on my own language learning experience and found that I had targeted many of the same characteristics.
Then I went out and looked at some job postings and wrote down some of the top skills or requirements that employers were listing: 1) Understand various language theory and practices, 2) Has mastery knowledge of linguistics or grammar, 3) Is able to teach over a wide range of proficiency ranges and ages, 4) Can tailor instruction to meet institutional standards and objectives, and 5) Abides by program’s policies and ethical standards. Of course there are many more requirements listed on different job postings, but I thought these matched well with what MacBeath (2012) stated in his book The Future of the Teaching Profession: “theoretical knowledge and concomitant skills,” “code of professional conduct,” and “Mobility: skills, knowledge, and authority belonging to professionals as individuals…” The key idea, I believe, is that students, principals, and stakeholders all have a different idea of what a good teacher is and what a teacher should be doing. A students’ view is centric to their experience and learning opportunities. Do they feel like active agents in their own learning and are they getting the support that they require from the teacher? For principles and managers, can the teacher tailor their instruction to meet the goals and approach of the school or program? In my case, I’d say my last job didn’t have clear goals, but they did have expectation, which I should have asked them to define before stepping into the classroom. It was only after being observed that I got any kind of direction or stated expectations, and by that time, it was too late for me make a better first impression.
So with some ideas of the expectations in mind, I turned to researching how to improve my teaching. I looked for a lot of different resources on the Internet. Some, while well meaning, are incredibly un-helpful. They offer advice such as, “Make your teaching more authentic and engaging” or “use these 9 tips to integrate technology into your classroom.” And I always respond, “Yes, but why and how?” Shouldn’t we require continuity and coherence in our pedagogical approach? More helpful, was some advice that I found from Diane Larsen-Freeman (Anker & Larsen-Freeman, 2001 ), who is a recognized expert in the language learning field in both theory and teaching, proffers the following advice 1) The essence of good teaching is learning to watch your students, 2) Teaching is about what the students are doing and not about the teacher’s performance in front of the class, 3) Use your language theory as a metaphor that guides your teaching and what you’re trying to accomplish as a whole; 4) Take a step back and look at the long term view by asking what do you want them to do by the end of the course, and how can we systematically build towards that? I also found an article on Educationworld.com that gives more practical advice such as building support groups, establishing classroom expectations from the start, and “don’t try to do everything in your first year.” But most importantly, I think the best advice comes from MacBeath (2015) in using tools such as the Critical Incident Analysis, which focuses teachers’ reflection on a particular place for improvement, or the Force Field think piece, which asks teachers to consider what promotes and inhibits better teaching. I appreciate MacBeath’s (2015) acknowledgement of the uncertainty of teaching in which we must explore what is effective in each particular situation with the mantra: “If at first you fail, try again, fail better.” It’s difficult to keep evaluating yourself, but without these ideas or tools, we won’t understand what our students and managers require from us or how to meet needs on our own terms.
So returning back to MacBeath's framework, I would say that I used to think that creating an air tight lesson plan was the most important part of delivery in a lesson. Now I think there are way more factors that must be met by the teacher such as listening to students' and ask them how they want to learn and what's working and what isn't, being able to organize and communicate content and goals so they are visible to the students and administration, paying attention to students' thinking and their learning styles, being able to adjust to situational factors that emerge from the lesson, maintaining persona of a teacher, and driving interest in the overall lesson as opposed just sequencing and varying activities.
Brown, H.D. & Lee, H. (2015). Teaching by Principle: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains: Pearson Education.
MacBeath, J. (2015). Teaching for learning. [PowerPoint]. Retrieved from https://www.coursera.org/learn/teaching/supplement/CBFOd/outline-for-week-two-thinking-about-learning
MacBeath, J. (2012). Future of the teaching profession. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
Ancker, W.P. (Interviewer) & Larsen-Freeman, D. (Interviewee). (2001). The joy of watching others learn: an interview with Diane Larsen-Freeman. Retrieved from American English: https://wwww.americanenglish.state.gov