Attention, please!

I’ve just finished working on a CELTA course in Strasbourg, and one of the things some trainees had trouble with was getting and maintaining the attention of their students. Here are some of the questions I asked them and tips I gave in feedback after the lessons.

Do they know what signal you will give them when you want them to pay attention?

If you tell the students what signal to expect before the activity, they are more likely to notice. For example, you could tell them that you will:

  • Clap your hands.
  • Say ‘stop’.
  • Press a buzzer.
  • Ring a bell.
  • Switch the light off and on again.
  • Use a call and response signal, for example: Teacher: ‘Macaroni cheese.’ Students: ‘Everybody freeze!’ (Thanks Rose!)
  • Put your hand up and wait for them to put theirs up too.
  • Countdown from 5, starting quietly, and getting louder as you reach 1. (Particularly good for speaking activities.)
  • When the background music finishes playing, the activity ends.
  • Stand in a particular place.

It’s good to get into routines with this, and always use the same signal for the same kind of activity. For example, I normally put my hand up to signal the end of a pair discussion.

Did you give everyone time to respond?

After you’ve given the signal to pay attention, make sure that you pause for a few seconds to let them stop before you start speaking. Wait for attention from everybody – don’t just start with the next instructions or feedback, as you’ll only end up repeating it!

Try praising students who are paying attention, rather than picking out those who aren’t, especially with young learners: ‘Thank you, Sandy.’ rather than ‘Sandy, stop talking please!’

Is the signal visible/audible to everyone?

If you’re giving an audio signal, make sure it is loud enough. If you’re speaking, you don’t need to shout, but do project your voice over the volume.

If you’re giving a visual signal, make sure all students can see you.

Are they deeply involved in the activity they are doing? Are they ready to finish? 

Monitor closely to find out how students are progressing with the activity. If they’ve only done half of the activity, they are unlikely to want to stop when you try to get their attention.

If you know that timing will be a problem before you start, try to change how you set up the activity. For example, tell the students to do as many questions as they can in 3 minutes, rather than making them finish the exercise. Getting them to check in pairs can help them to fill in the gaps in their answers.

Have short extension tasks available for students who finish very quickly, preferably ones that don’t require too much extra input from you! For example, ask students to:

  • Read a sentence from the exercise, remember it, turn over your paper, write it from memory, then check whether you’ve got it right.
  • Change the sentences so they’re true for you.
  • Turn over the paper and remember as many of the words from the exercise as possible, either speaking or writing them. Then look and check.
  • Start saying the sentences/words to practise pronunciation.
  • Decide what was the most interesting thing your partner said, ready to report it to the class.

Is there a valid reason for them to need to pay attention to you or the other students who are talking? (i.e. Why should they care?)

For example, some teachers interrupt speaking activities to get everybody’s attention to try to elicit a single word from the group that one student asked for. This is unnecessary, as you could just give them the word without stopping all of the other conversations.

During feedback stages, students might pay attention at the beginning, but drift off if the stage gets too long or boring. Think of how to keep feedback concise, and try to give them a real reason to listen to the other students.

How long have you required their attention for? Can they maintain focus for that long?

It’s difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time without drifting off and losing attention. Vary the activities and the interaction in the lesson, so that students aren’t just listening to you for long periods of time. Give them clear things to do and keep them active.

Do you truly believe that you have the right to their attention at this point in the lesson?

This may sound quite odd, but I’ve noticed that a lot of teachers feel like they’re being rude when they interrupt students, especially if the students are older than them, and/or if they’re inexperienced teachers. I think if you don’t believe that you need students’ attention right now, then there is less conviction in your voice, and they are less likely to listen to you.

What would you add to the list?

EU Parliament, with flags of all of the current EU nations flying in front of it
The EU Parliament in Strasbourg, which I visited during the course

The costs of ongoing health problems

A few weeks ago, a friend who was staying with me saw me after I’d come back from the pharmacy with a stock of tablets for my colitis. I pulled around 15 boxes and packets out of my bag, and she asked me how much I’d spent on them. Looking at the receipt, I realised that Polish pharmacies helpfully tell me not just how much I spent, but the full price of the tablets. For 75 Polish zloty, I got around 1200 PLN worth of medicine – full price would be about 1/2 of a first year teacher’s monthly salary at our school.The year after I was diagnosed with the colitis, I made the mistake of working out how much money I’d spent on my health that year, and realised it was upwards of £1000. Is it any wonder I don’t have any long-term savings?! Right now, I’m on steroids for a recent flare-up, but I shouldn’t really be – I’ve had too many courses in too short a time, but being away this summer means I can’t start the alternative treatment yet. That alternative is a one-year course of medicine that would cost around $5400 in total if I had to pay for it in full (at least, that’s the figure I found) and there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to take it, or that it’ll work. I’m incredibly lucky to live in a country with a good national health service which subsidises my medicine, and to be able to afford all of these drugs. I’ll be on them for life, unless somebody magically comes up with a cure for ulcerative colitis at some point.

I’ve also written previously about the problems I have with my leg following an accident in 2006. Since September last year, I’ve been seeing a private physio pretty much every week. Over the course of a year, that works out at around a full month’s salary for me. Again, I’m lucky to be able to factor in a cost like that into my life. It’s a cost that won’t be going away any time soon, but slowly, very slowly, I’m seeing the benefits.

A third long-term health problem I have is connected to my sinuses. For as long as I can remember I’ve had problems breathing through my nose, especially the right side. I’ve been variously diagnosed with cough asthma and nasal sinusitis, had tablets, nasal sprays, inhalers…I’ve lost track! And all of them cost me at least a little money. Now that I’m more settled in Poland, I’ve been following up on this over the last academic year, and have now had allergy tests (dust, grass and wheat – nothing that would explain it), an X-ray, a CAT scan, and an endoscopy. The upshot is that one of my sinuses on the left is very small, and the right is overworked and inflamed (I think!). I can have a simple operation called ‘FESS’ which should hopefully sort it out. That’ll have to be completely private though. As the doctor said: ‘If anyone asked if you’re sick, I’d say no. But it’s clearly causing you discomfort and we can try to treat it.’ So that’s 6000PLN (around £1200) I need to save to get that sorted…theoretically. Maybe this problem will go away one day.

It’s not just the money though. None of these low-level health problems stop me from being able to get on with my life, but they do eat into my time. Here are some examples:

  • 30-45 minutes every morning doing physio for my leg and hand (too much computer use!), plus 2 hours every Wednesday when I’m in Bydgoszcz to get to and from the physio and have my appointment
  • Working out food so that I can eat 6 times a day – thankfully not as carefully as when I was on my strictest diet, but it still takes time and mental effort, especially if I want to not be lazy and just buy stuff, but actually eat some form of balanced diet.
  • An average of one visit to a medical professional every couple of weeks, dealing with one or another of these problems (not counting physio). That’s up to an hour for the visit plus the waiting, plus an hour or so to get there and back.
  • Time to get to the pharmacy, pick up the tablets, and (often!) go back a second time when they haven’t got what I need in stock. That’s a good 30 minutes per trip, sometimes more if there’s a queue.
  • Planning time to organise said visits to the doctors/pharmacy and/or to work out what I’m supposed to do next in my quest to improve my health at least a bit. Thankfully I have some amazing colleagues and friends who help me out with those bits.
  • I don’t know how much time each day being frustrated because I can’t breathe properly…

So I reckon that comes to about 12-15 hours a week on average, or at least one day a week! That’s 52 days in a year, or about 1.5 months, give or take.

Mostly I don’t think about all of this too much, because if I obsessed about it, it’d just be depressing. But sometimes it does get me down, especially when I’m already tired, or ill, or stressed, or all three. It’s not the end of the world at all though: I’m organised, I have coping strategies, and I’ve learnt more and more about what I need to do to keep going. They are all a normal part of my life. I distract myself by filling my time with other things. And I focus on the positives as much as possible: these are all investments of my money and time, fending off to some extent what could be much worse if I didn’t make these investments. At least I can afford the money and the time to deal with these problems, and live in a place where it is possible, and have the good fortune that these are low-level health problems. Those things aren’t true for so many people.

If you have your health, enjoy it to the full. Appreciate it. You may not realise just how free you really are until it starts failing you.

Further reading

Kirsty D Major’s fabulous post, ‘I’m tired – the disability reality that people don’t talk about‘ prompted me to finally write this today, a few weeks after the initial conversation with my friend. There are whole paragraphs in there I wish I’d written, but she did it first and better. Here’s one:

On some days, all this extra work builds up. If I’m tired anyway – because life happened that way, it can make me feel exhausted. Most of the time I just take it in my stride, but each of these things saps a little bit of energy, and when you add them all together, it accumulates.

I don’t want to whine about it. I don’t want others to feel sorry for me. I don’t necessarily need people to come up with solutions because chances are I already have one.

And another:

It doesn’t last long. A good night’s sleep, a good distraction – and the next day I’m ready to face the world again with new energy. But on a particularly tough day a couple of weeks ago, I did ask the question as to why we never talk about this.

‘Why do we never talk about this?’ is the reason I keep sharing things like this post on my blog. So many of us think that what’s happening to us is our problem, but if we hear other people’s stories, it starts to normalise experiences, and people can talk about them more freely if they want to.

Please read the whole post, and others on her blog. Kirsty has done more than any other person I know to show me the everyday realities and normalities of being blind. She has shown me what is and isn’t possible for her, and made me try to make sure that my blog is as accessible as I can make it, to try and remove those little stumbling blocks where I can. One example is providing text alternatives for non-text content (those alt-text things in images). I don’t always manage it, but I try!

Another person who has written about the problems with her vision is Joanna Malefaki. I’ve learnt a lot from her about colour blindness, how it affects her life, and what other people can do to help. Her recent post on achromatopsia was particularly important.

Three teaspoons lying side by side, each with a raspberry hat, a face painted on, and a little silver bow

Finally, for those of you who have never heard of spoons and how they relate to energy, please read this article by Christine Miserandino. I’m lucky to have a lot of spoons, but sometimes they start to disappear faster than they might for other people.

Starting a CELTA? Brand new teacher? Lacking confidence? Read this…

This is a message I wrote a few months ago for a friend of a friend. She had just started a CELTA course with no prior experience whatsoever and was lacking confidence. Here’s what I said:

  1. Stop aiming for perfection. Perfect teachers are robots, not humans. Do what you can, then stop. A well-rested teacher with a 50% lesson is better for students than a teacher who is exhausted with a ‘perfect’ lesson. You’re teaching the students, not the presentation. And everything we do should be for our students. There’s no point killing yourself.
  2. Remember that everyone is assessed individually and the course is designed for people with no experience. The people with experience might be OK at the start of the course, but they sometimes struggle to accept feedback. You’re a blank slate so will probably develop more as long as you listen to the tutors’ feedback. Also, learn from their experience – ‘steal’ techniques and ideas from them. You’re also expected to make mistakes and need feedback. Otherwise your tutors have no job! Be open to all of the learning opportunities you have on the course, and know that it will take time for you to absorb them all, and you’re not expected to get everything in 4 weeks. Just do what you can and keep improving bit by bit.
  3. Ask for help from the tutors and coursemates. That’s what they’re there for. You will not be penalised for it. Teachers in good staffrooms ask for help all the time.
  4. Confidence takes time to build up, and will improve with experience. Know that you are doing your best at any given time.
  5. Try sitting down at appropriate points in the lesson – that can anchor you and make you feel less exposed. For example, when giving instructions and getting feedback.
  6. Remember that learning to teach is a skill, just like any other: playing the piano, playing tennis, learning to drive, learning English… You don’t sit down at a piano and expect to play Chopin instantly. You learn little bits, practise them, and gradually build up bit by bit, getting closer to your final goal. I’m 10 years in, a CELTA trainer, and a manager, and I’m not sure I’m at the Chopin stage yet. I’d be impressed if you are after 3 days! That’s one of the reasons I love this job: you never stop learning, both from those more and less experienced than you. Reduce the pressure on yourself and you’ll teach better.
  7. Have a minimum of 30 minutes every day when you do something that isn’t CELTA. It may feel like you don’t have time, but believe me, that 30 minutes will be your lifeline and your sanity, especially once you hit week three.
  8. They wouldn’t have accepted you on the course if they didn’t think you had the potential to pass it. That’s why there is an interview process.

These things weren’t in my original message, but might help too:

  • Useful links for CELTA is a list of resources to help you out throughout the course.
  • Here’s 5 minutes of pure, unadulterated enjoyment:
  • And here’s a picture of some kittens to calm you down 🙂
Stock photo from Pixabay (via Pexels)

Good luck! (and when you’re done with the course, look here…)