A-B-C-D-E-F-no!

One of the early lessons with any group of beginners is the alphabet one. You know, the one where you teach them the song and they recite it back to you beautifully…

…but forever afterwards they have to go through the whole alphabet to work out what letter they need next, and there’s a bit of a mush in the middle because L-M-N-O-P is too fast and they can’t hear it.

That one.

I can’t remember the last time I taught that one.

Instead, I approach it as an exercise in de-confusing, not with the aim of teaching the alphabet, but of teaching the letters, so that students can spell and understand spellings. Today with my beginner teens it worked better than ever before, in part because they were teens and in part because we were on Zoom 🙂

Caveat: there are only 4 students, and I speak enough Polish to be able to justify what I’m doing with them sometimes.

I started by showing them the alphabet in the book. Cue rolling eyes and one kid saying ‘No’ loudly and repeatedly. Another kid started to immediately recite the song, so I got them to try that first. Two knew the song perfectly, one had the L-M-N-O-P problem, and the fourth one is generally pretty shy and said she didn’t know it at all.

I told them that was great because now I knew what was a problem. One of them said “No problem!”, so I asked them to write ‘A’ in the chatbox. Cue a series of E’s and I’s. “Not E, A.” I I I E E. “Not I, A.” Eventually we got there. I could then explain that for the rest of the lesson we’d be working on groups of letters and helping them to remember what the difference is. I already had the first group (A-E-I-Y) written in black on a mini whiteboard.

I pointed to each letter and elicited it, writing some prompts in green next to the letter to help them remember. For these four letters the prompts I normally use are:

  • A a (b c)
  • E eeeeeeeee [but drawn linked together, coupled with me ‘pulling’ the sound out of my mouth]
  • I like dogs [or in a classroom I’ll stand very straight and indicate my whole body, as in ‘I’, which compares to…]
  • Y Why? [or stand with my arms in a Y shape to compare to I]

We then worked out how these letters might be written in Polish ‘spelling’, and I wrote it in red on the board, something like this:

  • A /ei/
  • E /i/
  • I /ai/
  • Y /uaj/

They copied the black letters, green reminders, and red sounding out into their notebooks. I asked any student who had finished and was waiting to spell their first name, and helped them with the problem letters.

We then played a game in the chatbox where I said one of the four letters and they wrote it, then they took turns being the teaching and calling out a letter.

With revision of 1-100 and a homework check, that took the first half of the lesson. I wasn’t sure how interested they’d be when we came back after break and repeated the process with other sets of letters:

  • G-J-H
  • C-S
  • K-Q
  • U-V-W
  • X-Z
  • O
  • R

…but they absolutely loved it. This is mostly because they started racing each other to be the first person to get it right in the chat box, with no prompting from me. Then they started racing to show me what they’d written in their notebooks, to the extent that by the time we got to the final board (shown below), they wanted to copy the black letters immediately. Then when I was writing the red they were saying ‘Pani pisze’ (Miss is writing!) and were poised and ready to go as soon as I held up the board.

The whole lesson was very entertaining, and they really loved challenging each other on the particularly confusing combinations which they knew their classmates would get wrong because they were rushing. This forced them to think a little more.

I’m pretty confident that in Thursday’s lesson they’ll remember most of the letters because they know we’ll play the letter race game again, and they know I’m going to ask them to spell their names so they’ll practice that too.

The best kind of lesson: minimal planning, just enough variety to keep them engaged, lots of practice, driven by students, fun, and memorable for a long time!

Happy 10th blog-iversary!

10 years ago today I published my first post on this blog. In fact, I published five (!), all copied over from a fledgling blog I’d started somewhere else in the summer of 2010 and didn’t want to lose. I then didn’t really start blogging in earnest until just after Christmas of 2010, when I wrote my first #ELTchat summaries. As you can see, it was a bit of a slow start, but it soon took off, largely thanks to Ann Foreman at Teaching English British Council sharing various posts.

I was at the start of my third year of being a professional teacher. A few months earlier I’d discovered the amazing community of teachers on Twitter, thanks to a chance comment from Shaun Wilden. I’d noticed that a lot of those teachers had blogs and thought starting my own could be a useful way to share my ideas and create a portfolio for my teaching. There’s no way I could have imagined just how wide-ranging its effect on my career would be.

Blogging has allowed me to share my reflections on teaching, training, managing, and the general minutiae of living abroad and being me. The act of framing my thoughts for others to read forces me to consider what I think. It is also often cathartic. Every conference presentation I’ve ever done is on here somewhere (I think!), along with my progress through Delta, into training, materials writing and management. Looking back on those thoughts is fascinating (to me at least!), seeing how much I’ve developed and changed over the life of the blog, and realising what has stayed the same.

The posts got a lot more frequent and a lot longer…thanks for making it to the end of some of the mammoth ones!

Through my blog I’ve made connections with people all over the world, and some of them have become friends too. It’s my own small corner of the internet, a place where I feel like I’ve been able to making some kind of useful contribution to the profession. It never fails to astonish me how many people have made use of the blog and how much of the globe it seems to have reached. I particularly enjoy finding out about the people who use my blog, and reading the comments and stories they share in response to my posts.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me and my blog over the years, to everyone who has read and shared the posts, and particularly to all those people who have written guest posts for me. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Clearer communication (ACEIA 1st virtual conference)

On Saturday 17th October I presented as part of the Asociación de Centros de Enseñanza de Idiomas de Andalucía (ACEIA) 1st virtual conference. It was a new management talk:

Communication is the keystone of management, with the quality of your communication making the difference between a team that resents every change you make and one that will follow where you lead. While I can’t promise to resolve all your communication problems, I can offer various tried and tested tips to improve the effectiveness of online and offline communication with your team, hopefully leading to a more positive, supportive environment for all of you.

This is a topic I feel very strongly about, as my experiences of bad and good managers have largely centred around the quality of their communication. In my own management experience I’ve noticed that as my ability to communicate successfully and clearly has improved, I’ve gained confidence and I feel like the people I manage trust me more. They are also very open to giving me feedback on my management in general and my communication specifically. The tips in my talk are primarily aimed at managers, but many of them would be useful for teachers and general communication in life too.

These were my slides:

Listen

Before you do any broadcasting, it’s important to listen.

Don’t interrupt. I have a tendency to finish other people’s sentences or assume I know what’s coming next and start replying. A colleague once told me this was stopping him from speaking to me properly – he suggested I use my finger to stop myself from being able to speak! This really works: when I shouldn’t interrupt, I adopt a thinking pose with my index finger on my lips and it makes it much harder to start speaking.

Pay full attention. Stop what you’re doing and really listen. Make eye contact. Listen with your brain as well as your ears – don’t just spend the time working out what you’re going to say next or how you’re going to solve the problem.

What are they not saying? Notice body language and patterns of communication (or lack of communication) which may indicate hidden messages. Perhaps the person you’re speaking to is very stressed about something but doesn’t know how to communicate this. Perhaps they’re feeling overwhelmed in general. Perhaps they really don’t like communicating with you and are avoiding it (not necessarily because they don’t like you – perhaps they don’t know how to speak to somebody they perceive as an authority, or perhaps they don’t want to interrupt you because they think you’re busy, or perhaps they don’t feel like they trust you enough to talk to you yet.) There’s a lot of ‘perhaps’ there, because we never really know, but be open to hidden messages, not just the ones which are explicitly stated.

General tips

Consider your medium carefully. What is the best way to communicate your message? Options might include:

  • Face-to-face conversation
  • Online conversation e.g. via Zoom
  • Phone call
  • WhatsApp call
  • SMS
  • WhatsApp message
  • WhatsApp voice recording
  • Facebook messenger
  • Email
  • Meeting with a group of people/all of the staff
  • (Regarding students) Speaking to/Phoning/Emailing parents

We have so many options for communication now. The method we use says something about how formal or serious particular communication is, whether a written record is required (either to track information or simply so information is easy to refer back to), how much (perceived or real) time we have available, and how we might want our interlocutor(s) to respond.

Be clear about what information doesn’t exist. If you don’t have information yet, make sure the other person knows this. Otherwise, they may assume you’re keeping it from them for some reason. For example, if you know that a one-to-one student is in a teacher’s timetable, but said student hasn’t confirmed the start date of the lessons yet, tell the teacher that you don’t know the start date.

Be realistic about when communication will happen. Following on from the previous point, ensure that people know when they are likely to get any missing information and what factors will affect this. For example, when will the school contact the student to confirm the start date? Knowing when you will get information can reduce anxiety, and mean you can more easily postpone worrying about something until later.

Remind people to help you with communication. As managers, we’re normally spinning a lot of plates, and inevitably we’ll lose some of them. Get your staff on board to help you. Ask them to prod you if you don’t reply within 3 working days for example, and be clear about what is their responsibility to follow up on and what is yours.

Be open about mistakes in communication. Apologise when needed. We’re humans. We make mistakes. This is just as true in our communication as it is in any other area. Sometimes the things we do or say (or don’t do or say!) can be stressful for somebody else, or make their jobs harder. If you realise that your actions have made this happen, apologise for it. This is far more likely to build relationships of trust than brushing such mistakes under the carpet or pretending they didn’t happen.

Timing

Consider the timing of your communication carefully. What messages are you sending out about…

  • response times?
  • working hours?
  • availability?

By instantly replying to every message you receive, you are putting unnecessary pressure on yourself and probably interrupting your life outside work. You are also implicitly indicating that you expect instant responses from the people you work with, and are therefore adding unnecessary stress to them.

By replying to messages at unusual times, such as very early in the morning or late at night, you’re also implying that your employees should do this too.

By being available all the time, you’re losing the chance to have a life outside work, or at least drastically reducing that chance.

To help yourself to communicate more healthily, set working hours and consider what notifications you have, and pass this information on to your team. For example, our senior team have clear working hours which all the teachers know, WhatsApp notifications, but no email notifications. We have told teachers that we will respond to phone calls or WhatsApp messages as soon as possible within working hours (or I’ll respond to early morning phone calls too to arrange cover for sickness), but emails will be responded to when we get to them.

You can also make use of the scheduling function which most email providers have to ensure that your messages are sent at reasonable working hours or at the point of need, rather than when you wrote them at 6am, or 5 days before a teacher needs to see it.

GMail schedule send function

Meetings

Is it really an email? We’ve all sat in a completely pointless meeting which should have been an email. Only have meetings for things which require some form of discussion or Q&A.

What is the meeting for? Who is it (really) for? Know why you are requiring people to be in the same place at the same time. Make sure it’s not just for you, but that they are benefitting from the meeting too. Our school meetings happen every Friday for 30 minutes. They have two purposes. The first is to pass on information which is important for that point in the year and to ensure teachers know how to fulfil their responsibilities concerning things like writing reports or marking written work. The second is a social reason: it’s the only time in the week when we are a single school and a single team, all in the same place. This is why it was so important for us to continue these weekly meetings when we were all working from home too, to reduce the sense of isolation.

Do you need to say it all? At some points in a meeting, you may not need to read all of the information. Let people process information for themselves if it’ll be faster. For example, in our (deliberately fuzzy) agenda below you can see bullet points at the top. There are two sections: Please can you… for things they don’t need to hear me say, and Reminders for things like dates for their diary which I’ve already spoken about before. There is also colour coding, as suggested by our teachers at the end of last year. Orange indicates I’m telling you for the second time, red would be for the third time. [The document is titled ‘agenda’, but also acts as minutes – it’s edited during the meeting, printed out and put on the wall, and also available on Google Drive for teachers to refer back to as needed.]

Break up the info dump. As you can see, we share a lot of information during our meetings. They normally take the full 30 minutes allocated to them, sometimes a little longer. It’s impossible for somebody to focus on one person talking for all of that time and actually process the information. At one or two points in the meeting I normally have some kind of discussion, for example ‘What do you need to remember to do from the meeting so far?’ or ‘Have you picked up anything while teaching on Zoom this week which would be useful for everyone else?’ This gives me a little break, changes the pace, and allows teachers to process the information a little. It also creates a couple of extra beginnings and endings during the meeting, meaning information is a tiny bit more likely to be retained and acted on.

Are the next steps clear? At the end of the meeting, make sure everybody knows what they’re expected to do next and what the deadlines are.

Include positives/thank you. In a general meeting, include positive things too. I found that I used to feel like I just spent 30 minutes every week telling the staff off or nagging them. I still do sometimes, but ending on a positive note has reduced that feeling.

Emails

Clear subject line. Make your subject line as clear as possible to avoid guessing games and make it easier to find emails again later. If it’s new topic, start a new thread with a new subject line. Be selective about your use of the word ‘urgent’ in subject lines.

One big email? Lots of little emails? If you have lots of information to convey to the same people in a single day, it’s better to send out a single longer email than lots of short emails. This is less overwhelming in inboxes and easier to refer back to.

Signpost big emails. Use headings and highlight key points to help readers navigate the block of text. Put new topics into new paragraphs, and use bullet points to break down topics as needed.

Make it easy to use your emails. Don’t expect recipients to read between the lines. Be explicit about what kind of reply is needed and when. Include links to anything external so the recipient doesn’t have to hunt for them.

It may seem like it will take longer to write emails like this, but it will probably save you time in the long run as you’ll have to do less chasing, and won’t need to resolve issues like people filling in the wrong document because you didn’t include the link to the right one.

Here are two examples of emails I’ve sent recently:

Documents to check + creating Zoom IDs

Morning all,

Here are all of the documents you need to check your timetable against:

– Room timetable
– Level meeting timetable
– Cover timetable
– Register links (these will appear in your Google Docs later in the day – please don’t ask for them – I’ll put up a note on the door when they’re ready)

Your register links document takes you to various general links for teachers, including the Zoom IDs list. Please create meetings for all of your Zoom classes on Friday 18th. Make sure they recur until 30th June 2021 so you never have to change them through the year. Add the ID and password to the Zoom ID document so it’s available for cover and if the office need to tell a student.

When you have added all Zoom IDs to the list and checked all of your documents, reply to this email. Say ‘Fine’ if it’s all complete. List any problems if not – be as clear as possible. Please do not send the email separately – I want to keep it all in one thread so I can keep track of who’s replied.

In this email you can see:

  • a clear subject line;
  • clear instructions on how to complete the task;
  • information about how exactly they should reply and what information I need;
  • why I’m asking them to do things in this way.

Welcome to the 2020-2021 academic year (please reply by Monday 7th Sept 18:00)

[This email image is deliberately blurred.]

In this email you can see:

  • a clear subject line, including exactly when I need a reply by;
  • headings;
  • topics highlighted in blue;
  • all documents needed are attached;
  • all links to be followed are included in the email.

Keeping track

We’re managing a lot of communication, and potentially there are a lot of versions of documents flying around.

Date any documents you send out, rather than having the same file name or calling them 1, 2, 3, etc. Reverse order sorts them nicely: 2020.10.17. I normally keep all previous versions in a folder called ‘Archive’ and only the active version in the top folder to help me navigate. Here’s an example from the presentations on my personal computer:

Note any deadlines you set for replies in your diary or calendar. Follow up only with those who didn’t meet deadline, rather than sending out a blanket email to everyone. Don’t start following up until the deadline arrives – otherwise you are creating extra implicit deadlines, and causing yourself and your colleagues unnecessary extra stress.

Giving feedback

This can be one of the most challenging parts of our jobs, whether as teachers, managers or trainers, and can often be the cause of a lot of stress.

Use a feedback model (this one is from Manager Tools). This structure can help you to keep feedback neutral and ensure that the person on the receiving end is receptive to it (whether positive or negative). There are four steps:

  • Ask Can I give you some feedback?
  • Describe the behaviour: When you…
  • Describe the impact: …it makes me feel / …students find it difficult to… / …students are really engaged.
  • Discuss next steps: Keep it up! / What can you do about this? How can I help you?

It’s important to get the person you’re speaking to to say what the next steps are themselves, and preferably the ideas will come from them. They’re much more likely to act on the feedback if they say it rather than if you say it.

Focus on behaviour and actions, not personality. This keeps things more neutral and means feedback feels more constructive and less like a personal attack. It takes practice! If you’re not sure if your feedback does this successfully, run it by somebody else you trust and ask for help with rephrasing it as needed before you give it to the person concerned.

What expectations are teachers holding themselves / you holding teachers to? Teachers can often be their own worse critics, and beginner teachers in particular may not allow themselves to be beginners. Ensure that any expectations are realistic for the level of experience of the teacher, and that they know what you expect of them is fair.

Boost confidence and spot strengths too. Aim to give at least as much positive, confidence-boosting feedback as you do feedback on areas to improve.

Compassionate communication

Ask, don’t assume. Ask questions, rather than thinking you know why something happened or what somebody is feeling or experiencing at a given point.

Be patient and supportive. Aim for communication which helps rather than hinders or stresses out your colleagues. Keep this in the back of your mind, and don’t let your own stress or frustration at the fact this is the 18th time you’ve asked come through (easier said than done, but vital to remember!)

Provide training on your bug bears. To reduce your own stress levels, teach people how to do things which frustrate you when they do it ‘wrong’. For me this is the use of ‘Reply all’ rather than ‘Reply’ to group emails – you can also avoid this by BCCing all of the receiving emails, because then people can only reply to the sender rather than everyone!

Be on the receiving end of your own communication. Copy yourself into your group emails using your personal address, so you realise just how many emails you’re sending out. Record a meeting and sit through the whole thing without fast-forwarding it. You’ll soon send fewer emails and run shorter meetings!

Be a learning communicator

Reflect on particularly successful / unsuccessful communication. Why did that observation feedback run so smoothly? Why did that interview feel horrible throughout?

Seek out feedback. Ask for feedback on your communication. This includes when communication went wrong – wait until the emotion has gone out of the situation, then ask for advice on how you could have made the situation run more smoothly. If your staff trust you, they’ll be very willing to give you this feedback.

Choose an area to focus on. For me, this is currently all of the points in ‘listen’ at the start of this post!

Be kind to yourself 🙂 Your communication won’t always be perfect, but don’t dwell on it when things don’t work out. Model learning from problems and mistakes, seeking feedback, and moving forward rather than dwelling on the past.

What tips would you add to improve communication as a teacher, manager or trainer? Have you had any experiences of particularly good or bad communication which have helped you to become a better communicator?

Almost like a real teacher!

I’ve ended up teaching far more than usual this week due to various teachers being off sick. None of them had the dreaded lurgy fortunately – just the standard fresher’s flu that tends to hit at this point in the year!

Without cover I would have had two lessons with my beginner teen group this week, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday, and a Polish lesson on Friday. The rest of the my time would have been spent on my responsibilities as a Director of Studies: drop-in observations, level meetings (collaborative planning meetings), and ad hoc teacher support are the main things at this point in the year.

Instead I taught 7 lessons, covering a whole range of lesson types and group sizes:

  • Monday: cover A2.2 teens on Zoom (8 or 9 students – can’t remember!)
  • Tuesday: my beginner teens on Zoom (4 students), cover A2.1 young learners in the classroom (6 students)
  • Wednesday: cover A2.1 young learners in the classroom (11), cover FCE adults on Zoom (8 or 9)
  • Thursday: my beginner teens in the classroom, cover A2.1 young learners on Zoom (the same group as Tuesday)
  • Friday: no Polish because I had some DoSsing to do to catch up on the rest of the week!

I can’t remember the last time I did this much teaching in one week, and it was so good to spend so much time with students.

I don’t normally teach exam students because I wouldn’t have time to do the marking: I love how motivated they are. I found working with them on key word transformations on Zoom to be just as effective as in the classroom, if not more so as I could see all of their answers simultaneously in the chat and refer back to them as needed (there were 8 students I think).

I’ve never really considered myself to be a natural young learner teacher, but I’ve really enjoyed the lessons this week, and the enthusiasm of the kids both online and off. We worked on the seasons in the first lessons of the week and they wrote a little profile of themselves. One child got a bit worried that he didn’t know what month his birthday was in even in Polish – a lot of teaching English is reassuring students and building their confidence, especially with young learners. It was teacher’s day, and the kids who’d brought chocolates and flowers for their normal teacher didn’t quite know what to do with them, but handed them over at break so I made sure they got to where they needed to be 🙂 In the second lesson we worked on 8 verb phrases for free time activities and the structure Do you like VERBing? They so want to communicate and end up telling you all kinds of random information: I learnt about all their pets and the ages of their mums completely spontaneously from one group.

The teens were a little more of a struggle at the start, especially as they didn’t really want their cameras on. However, the creative nature of the project lesson we did on making your own invention to solve a problem was lots of fun. They came up with shoes that could fly, a magic pen that only writes the correct answers, and FriendlyCat 1, a robot who will keep your cat company if you have to go out.

My own group was also fun to teach this week. We worked on the numbers 1-20 and phone numbers on Zoom – the whole oh/zero thing blew their minds a little bit! In the classroom we did 21-100, and I started to introduce a little bit of spelling.

Overall, it was a nice mix of classroom and online lessons, and a really enjoyable range of lesson topics.

I do like being in the classroom.

And now that Bydgoszcz will be a red zone from tomorrow, from next week all of our adult and teen classes will be fully online. Only the younger learner classes will continue to have one of their two lessons a week in the classroom.

And I couldn’t have done it without the support of my colleagues – thank you so much to Paul and Emma, the level heads for these groups, who supplied me with lesson plans which I just needed to process, rather than having to come up with something from scratch. This is one of the fantastic things about working at IH Bydgoszcz: our level meetings/collaborative planning meetings mean that our group lessons are planned together, creating something that is more solid than what any one of us could do alone. In turn, I supplied other teachers with lesson plans for the cover lessons they were doing. And our teachers who were off sick were able to take the time they needed to recover and not pass on their germs to the rest of us, thanks to the cover system.

I do like working in a supportive school.

We’ll get through this together, and we’ll be stronger as a result.

I hope that you’re getting the support you need, wherever you are.

The importance of preparing ambidextrous teachers – developing skills for face-to-face and online contexts (guest post)

When I attended the Cambridge English Teaching Awards (CETA) symposium on 12th September 2020, I found Kate French’s talk to be particularly useful. There is a recording here. Kate kindly agreed to write a guest post summarising what she shared.

The CETA Symposium was held online and brought together teacher trainers from over 49 different countries. It was an excellent opportunity to share knowledge and experience, particularly regarding teaching and learning during the pandemic.

As with all areas of life during COVID-19, teacher trainers and training courses in 2020 have had to adapt and react to the ever-changing circumstances and follow the sometimes contradictory guidelines emerging on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis in order to save jobs and businesses and satisfy our ‘clients’ i.e. those wishing to complete and/or gain a teaching training qualification this year.

My own session at the conference was about the 100% online CELTA qualification and the aim was to synthesise the aforementioned guidelines and conclusions. The aim was not only to raise awareness for Centres that have yet to take advantage of this exceptional opportunity, but also to offer a review and possibly standardise delivery and ‘best practice’, which is what has always characterized the face-to-face and blended CELTA award, and which has led to its undoubted reputation as the ‘gold standard’ pre-service teaching training course. Therefore, I was very flattered to receive Sandy’s invitation to write a post for her blog to summarise the findings and offer them to an even wider public.  It was also very timely, as I have just started tutoring on our second full-time, 100% CELTA course and wanted to make adjustments and improvements to our own course in response to:

  • recent recommendations from Cambridge Assessment English
  • CELTA assessor suggestions
  • previous candidates’ feedback
  • results of a brief, facebook survey I sent to teacher trainers (60 responses)

but most importantly for the following reasons:

  • The certificate awarded at the end of the course is exactly the same as for the face to face and the blended formats – there is no mention of the delivery format on the certificate.
  • The same criteria have to be met by candidates in order to pass the course.
  • The candidates, although studying and teaching 100% online, need to be prepared to teach in both online and face to face contexts post-course.
  • Employers will expect candidates to have the essential skills to teach in both online and face to face classrooms.

You can find our conclusions and ideas for achieving these in this table I have compiled:

Note from Sandy: the table is incredibly comprehensive and is an excellent starting point for anybody planning a CELTA course from this point forward, covering as it does all of the Cambridge recommendations for online courses so far, and lots of tips and ideas from Kate’s own experience and research.

Kate French started her TEFL career in Poland, at IH Bydgoszcz, before moving to Argentina two years later. [Note from Sandy – I didn’t know about that connection before!]
She has worked at International House Belgrano in Buenos Aires since 1995 where she has been ADoS, DoS, In-company Coordinator, and Head of Teacher Training. She is currently DoS and Teacher Trainer, overseeing the online classes during the pandemic and tutoring on the institute’s full and part-time 100% online CELTA courses. Kate is also a Cambridge ESOL and IELTS examiner, and a CELTA assessor.

CELTA trainers, do you have anything you’d add? Change? Questions you have about the online format? It’d be great to get a discussion going!

Teaching in the new world

This week I had my first lessons with students for this academic year.

On Monday and Wednesday I was the cover teacher the first two lessons of a fully online course. There were 5 students, all A2.1 teens, one of whom I taught in the level below last year.

They were very quiet in the first lesson, but came out of their shells more in the second. I think it might take longer for a fully online group to bond than one which has previously met in a classroom.

One activity which worked nicely was an email with some words displayed only as first letters e.g. I’ve g a b. I like g t t forest. Students worked together to figure out what the full email said. They then wrote a similar email to me for homework, introducing themselves. I sent them the text and the homework instructions after the lesson. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever had 100% success with teen writing homework!

Break time during an online lesson

On Thursday I met my own group for the first time. I have four beginner teens, two of whom I met last year when covering the group before their teacher arrived. They found things challenging and the move online didn’t help, so they’re repeating the year with the same book. Part of my challenge this year will be to keep them engaged with material they’ve seen before but didn’t fully understand, and balance that for the two students who are new to the level, one of whom was very shy and needed a lot of encouragement to participate.

We’ll have odd-numbered classes in the socially distanced classroom for as long as possible, and even-numbered classes online.

With only four students it was a bit of a challenge to vary interaction patterns, especially in a typical first beginner lesson where you focus on greetings and asking for memes. One dialogue which worked in a really fun way was:

Hello Fred.

No, no, no, my name isn’t Fred. It’s Bob.

Oh, sorry!

This also already introduced isn’t ready for later lessons.

We also worked on What’s his/ her name? including students sharing pictures from their phones.

The other group I taught was our Polish beginners class for teachers. We’d decided to run it online to demonstrate various techniques and give the teachers a student perspective on online lessons. Normally in the first lesson I’d focus on names and How are you?, but this time I worked on greetings, ways of saying goodbye, and a couple of other useful bits of functional language. I also highlighted various spelling/pronunciation features.

A chain drill that worked well was gradually introducing two-line dialogues through the lesson, then asking one person to say the first line of any dialogue and choose who should respond, e.g.

Bob, dzień dobry.

Dzień dobry. / Przepraszam, Fred.

Nic nie szkodzi. / Do widzenia, Jim.

Do widzenia.

(Yes, it was an all-male group – my first I think. No, these aren’t their names!) I did intensive correction, and I suspect that the group won’t forget those phrases for a while! There’s a Quizlet set for homework if they need it.

Overall it was great to be back in a physical classroom with real people in front of me, but I enjoyed the online lessons just as much.

Group dynamics (IH Kyiv online/IH Torun TTD)

On 3rd October 2020, I took part in the IH Kyiv online conference. [Update: I presented the same talk at the IH Torun Teaching Training Day on 7th November 2020.]

I presented on the topic of group dynamics, something I’ve become increasingly interested in since doing my MA module in Trainer Development last year. Although Jane Harding da Rosa introduced me to Barry Tuckman’s work a few years ago, I don’t think I was ready to take in the ideas. I wish I had been! There are definitely at least two groups I can think of which would have been a much pleasanter experience for both me and the students had I understood some of the concepts I mention in this presentation. Oh well – we live and learn!

Here are three quotes from Chapter 3 of Trainer Development by Tony Wright and Rod Bolitho which set the scene:

The quality of the eventual outcome of the course will to a considerable extent be forged in the interactions between the members of the learning group.

It always takes some time, and considerable care on the part of the [teachers] to enable groups […] to ‘form’ and reach a stage where they are personally secure, and trusting of each other and the [teacher] enough to start learning.

Even if the group is already well formed, each new meeting requires attention to re-forming: re-entering the public world of the group from the more private world of family or workplace.

Although the quotes are about teacher training, I think they’re equally applicable to the ELT classroom.

My presentation was mostly about raising awareness of issues connected to group dynamics, rather than activities to help you deal with them. Those activities can be found in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book Classroom Dynamics, which I recently finished and will review on my blog shortly. Short review: every staffroom should have a copy! About 50% of the ideas in my presentation came from her book – thanks Jill! [Amazon affiliate link]

Here are my slides:

Thinking about groups

We started with an activity adapted from p39 of Classroom Dynamics.

EITHER:

Think about groups you have taught. Which groups were easy to teach? Which were difficult? Which were mixed?

OR:

In your life up to now, what groups have you been a member of? For example, family, sports team, colleagues at work, church… Did you have a good, bad or mixed experience as a member of these groups?

Think about the good groups.

  • Did they have anything in common?
  • What do you think these groups gave their members?
  • What did the group members give back?
  • What did the group members have to give up?

Think about a group you’re in now.

  • What do you think they will be able to give you?
  • What can you offer to them?
  • What might you have to give up?

We pooled the ideas into this mentimeter.

You can use this activity with classes to help them consider what makes a good group and what they can contribute to and get from a group.

Stages of group life

I talked through the 5 stages described in Barry Tuckman’s stages of group development:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing
  • Adjourning

You can see a full-sized version of the diagram I talked through here: http://bit.ly/tuckmangroups. It shows a lot more information about what each of the five stages involve. There are lots of sources describing these 5 stages (the final one is sometimes missing, or called ‘Mourning’).

These are typical stages, but some groups get stuck at a particular stage and never move forwards, others regress or move backwards and forwards, especially if new people join the group.

As a teacher, it’s useful to know about the stages to understand what you can do as a teacher to help a group to form successfully, and understand why some groups won’t work well together.

Causes of group problems

On p149 of Classroom Dynamics, Jill Hadfield has this summary of possible causes of group problems:

Three layer diagram:
1. Group problems
2. Teacher-group conflict, subdivided into:
3. conflict of expectations about progress
3. resistance to communicative methods
3. resistance to leadership style
3. rebellion against 'authority'
2. intra-group conflict, subdivided into:
3. different aims, levels of ability or motivation
3. an inharmonious mix of ages, personalities, sexes or nationalities
2. the indigestible group member, subdivided into:
3. misfits
3. the insecure
3. rebels
3. frustrated leader

I asked two questions, which you could think about now:

  • Have you experienced any of these as a teacher or a student?
  • What can you do about them?

We then looked at a bit of theory to pre-empt these problems, aiming to reduce the likelihood of them starting in the first place, or deal with the problems when you notice they start to manifest themselves. Some of them may seem like common sense, but it’s worth being reminded!

Teacher-group conflict

Three ideas from Jill Hadfield:

  • the teacher makes it clear why they’re doing particular activities/using particular techniques – displaying clear aims can help.
  • the teacher compromises on approach/tasks in lessons, doing some of what the teacher wants and some of what the group wants.
  • the teacher listens carefully to students.

And a quote from Trainer Development by Tony Wright and Rod Bolitho:

To win […] trust, we have to be open about our objectives, and be ready to participate in activities on an equal basis whenever it is possible or makes sense for us to do so.

Students need to feel like you’re a participant in the group too, not just a dictator. If you expect them to share, it’s important for you to do so too. The same is true of being receptive to feedback, and giving constructive feedback.

Intra-group conflict

Three ideas from Jill Hadfield:

  • with a very problematic group: introduce less group work, use more individual/pair work, regroup students so it’s less explosive.
  • with a relatively low-level problem: use gap-bridging activities.
  • with a well-balanced group: confront the problem and discuss it.

And a quote from Trainer Development by Tony Wright and Rod Bolitho:

Mutual trust cannot be taken for granted.

It takes time and effort for humans to trust each other, and sometimes a small action or a single word can be enough to break that trust. We need to help students feel comfortable with each other, building trust consistently, rather than just doing one getting-to-know-you activity at the start of the course and thinking we’re done with that (this is a reminder to myself too!)

The indigestible group member

Three ideas from Jill Hadfield:

  • with rebels: get to know them and make sure they know you; providing clear limits/boundaries can help in some cases, but may make it worse.
  • with frustrated leaders: do individual interviews with all students; encourage everybody to say ‘I think’ not ‘we think’.
  • with insecure students: give them warmth and attention and help them integrate.

And a quote from Trainer Development by Tony Wright and Rod Bolitho:

Participants frequently arrive with preoccupations relating to their work, their families etc. [which] prevent them from being fully ‘present’. [They often] gain least from […] courses and […] are most critical in end-of-course evaluations.

Helping students mentally transition into the classroom space, learn to put their preoccupations aside, and feel comfortable in the room are all important. Again, this takes time and effort to build up.

Chapters in Classroom Dynamics

These are most of the chapters in Jill Hadfield’s book:

  • Thinking about language: individual learning styles and group strategies
  • Thinking about groups: group strengths, individual contributions
  • Bridging gaps: opinion- and value-bridging activities
  • Maintaining fluidity: reseating and melee games
  • Getting to know each other: humanizing activities and personalised grammar
  • I did it your way: empathy activities
  • A sense of belonging: whole group identity activities
  • Establishing trust: trust- and confidence-building activities
  • Staying positive: encouraging positive feelings
  • Group achievements: product-oriented activities
  • Bringing it together: pyramid discussions, feedback techniques and summaries
  • That patriotic class feeling: inter-class activities and competitions
  • Ensuring participation // Learning to listen
  • A sense of direction: setting, assessing and resetting goals
  • Coexistence and compromise: individual wants and frustrations, group solutions
  • Ending with positive feelings // Evaluating the group experience

In the chat I asked:

  • Can you think of any activities which would serve these purposes?
  • How could they help your groups?
  • How could they pre-empt some of the problems we’ve discussed?

As Jill points out, a lot of the activities we already use can be tweaked to help work on classroom dynamics as well as the language or skills aim we want to use them for. Obviously reseating is a potential problem in a socially-distanced classroom, but could be adapted for activities online.

Final reflection

Having thought about the ideas I’ve introduced here, when working with groups from now on what will you:

  • continue to do?
  • stop doing?
  • start doing?