Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Archive for the ‘Assorted Thoughts’ Category

Surviving week one

We’ve just finished week one of our school year. As always, it was a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone involved.

Teachers are nervous because they have no idea what their classes will be like. Those who are brand new are wondering if they’ve made the right decisions: moving to Poland, joining our school, leaving what they know behind, becoming a teacher…

Second-year teachers are feeling more relaxed this time round. They know what to expect, and they can only marvel at how nervous and stressed some of the new teachers are. Then they meet their classes and realise there are still challenges there, and work yet to be done.

The students are no different. They want a good teacher, or a teacher like the one they had last year, or a teacher who’s definitely not like the one they had last. Their first day nerves are just as acute as ours, sometimes more so: they’re doing it all in a foreign language after all, which at least some of us aren’t!

After two or three days, once teachers have met most of their classes, things start to settle down. They realise where the pressure points might be, but it’s no longer a sea of unknowns. Planning is done based on known quantities, or at least more known than a few days previously.

Our Fridays aren’t as busy, with just a few 121s at this point in the year. Everyone can take a bit of time to sort themselves out, plan ahead for next week, or just get out of the building that bit earlier.

Now, on Saturday, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that they’ve survived week one. They can work out what to do with their weekends, and how much work it will or won’t involve (the answer if they want to stay sane: it won’t!)

Looking forward to the year ahead!

I hope that in this year to come you make mistakes. Becuase if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world - you're doing something.

P.S. Fiona Mauchline has recently written a set of very useful tips to help you survive your first year of teaching, or to remind you of things you may have forgotten if you’re a bit further down the road.

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Who am I writing for?

Following my post asking who my readers are, and posts by Michael Griffin and Tyson Seburn in which they discussed students reading their blogs, I thought I would continue my introspective streak and say a little about who I think I’m writing for.

Mike and Tyson both asked a set of questions which I’ll start off by answering:

  • Do you think about students potentially reading what you write?
    Yes. In fact, I assume that they will, and have written some posts specifically for them, like Useful FCE websites. I also have a whole separate blog, sadly neglected, which was designed for students, and I often refer them to the Quizlet and podcasts posts there.
    As a CELTA trainer, I actively encourage trainees to read posts that were written with them in mind, not least Useful links for CELTA. I always assume that my reading can be read by anyone, and therefore try to keep things anonymous or not include them if I think they might cause problems at some point down the line.
  • Would your writing be different if you were sure students would never read it?
    I don’t think so, because I would still assume that somebody who reads it might know my students, even if they weren’t my students themselves.
  • Have your students ever talked about your blog with you?
    One or two students have asked me about it, and I told my new group about it in a letter I wrote them today, though I just said I have a blog, not what the actual link is.
    A trainee once came up to me in getting to know you session at the beginning of CELTA, and jokingly said ‘I wanted to meet you quickly, because I wanted to know what someone who tortures people spiritually is like.’ She was referring to a post I’d written a couple of weeks before.
  • Have you ever heard of a teacher getting in hot water with a student based on what they wrote on a blog?
    No, though I’m sure those stories must be out there.
  • Do you have guidelines for yourself or from your institutions about what you can and should write about on blogs or elsewhere?
    There are no institutional guidelines (if there were, I would probably have been involved in writing them!) I have one personal guideline though: Only write things about other people that you wouldn’t mind people writing about you. It’s a variant of ‘do as you would be done by’.
  • Does it bring credibility to you as their instructor? (My additional question)
    I don’t know, though I think it does show them that I care about my profession and put extra time into it beyond work.

So who do I think I’m writing for then? The things I write about are probably aimed at the following groups of people:

  • Other teachers.
  • CELTA trainees and trainers.
  • Delta trainees.
  • Students (occasionally).
  • People wondering about living/moving abroad.
  • People with ulcerative colitis and other chronic health conditions.
  • People who are interested in my life, what I’m up to, and the thoughts in my head 🙂
  • Myself, especially for catharsis.

I tend to write posts as they pop into my head, if I have time, though some sit in my head for a long time before they make it onto the blog. Having said that, I currently have 88 titles in my drafts, which I may or may not return to one day! It’s therefore pot luck as to which of those audiences I’m writing for when I hit publish, depending on what I’m interested in/worrying about on any given day. This particularly post was mostly written to Tyson and Mike to answer their questions, but also for myself to work out my answers are. The rest of you can take it or leave it 😉

Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself. - Terry Pratchett

A gratuitous quote from TP, just because I need a picture to go with this post 🙂

An accidental discovery

When I was looking through my diaries yesterday to write my post about starting different teaching jobs, I opened a diary at random and came across a folded handout:

Speaking games handout

What was so confusing was that it was from 16th June 2005, so two years before I started CELTA, and I had no memory of it at all. At that point I was coming to the end of my first year at Durham University, and it was just after our exam period had finished.

When I opened it up, it said:

Thank you for helping us out today! We hope that your participation will be fun and helpful to the students. This worksheet will give you some background information and ideas for activities to help the students with their speaking on Saturday.

The exam

The students are sitting the Cambridge KET exam. The oral paper lasts about twelve minutes. [The exam was then described.]

Today’s Exercise

To prepare for the test, it is important that they gain confidence in speaking to and understanding people they have never met before, perhaps with accents to which they are not accustomed. It is also important for them to have practice with the exam tasks in a ‘real’ situation outside the classroom. […]

We will start by dividing the students into groups with an even number of volunteers in each group. You can then take your group into another classroom or area where you can do a number of icebreaker games, followed by some more formal conversation practice, for about 90 minutes. Then we would like you to take your groups into Durham to give them practice in making questions and finding and relaying information as they will in section 2 of the exam.

Overleaf are a number of activity ideas for you to try. You don’t have to do them all, and you can use your own judgement about which activities will work, and if you have your own ideas please feel free to try them.

Most importantly – have fun!

On reading my diary entry, it turned out that this was for Japanese students who studied at Teikyo University’s Durham campus.

I really like this way of helping the students to meet people outside their campus, and to make exam practice more realistic for them. It’s also a great example of how you can show non-teachers what to do to help them to interact with and assist learners, without it being too much of a strain for either of them.

Sadly I didn’t write anything about how I felt about participating, but I’m assuming it wasn’t that traumatic or dramatic as it had completely disappeared from my memory. I wonder if there are any other teaching connections hidden in my diaries? 🙂

Starting out

Yesterday we finished induction week for our teachers, including nine new to school, and five who are completely new to teaching. This, and Tyson Seburn’s recent post ‘Frosh me‘, made me think back to when I was just starting out. Depending on how strictly you define it, I could select a few different points to focus on.

I’ve been keeping a diary since I was 17, and now that I have my own flat, I’ve recently been reunited with my boxes of diaries again for the first time in many years. Writing this post was the perfect excuse to have a look back through some of them.

Malaysia

My first ever lesson was working with children in the jungle in Borneo. I got incredibly homesick while working there, and filled multiple notebooks in the 8 weeks I was in the village. If I could go back and do it again, I would spend a lot more time talking to the people in the village and getting to know them better. Instead I stayed in my room, wrote in my diary and cried a lot for most of the first three weeks. This wasn’t helped by us having absolutely no contact with the outside world, not even letters unless somebody was driving out to the local town which was 3 hours away – we got letters once in that time.

We had a couple of chances to observe classes before we started teaching. One of my main memories is watching a middle-aged male teacher use his knuckle to hit a little girl behind her ear when she couldn’t answer his questions. In my diary it says:

[B]’s english lesson was dire and he was amazed that the children didn’t understand – he hadn’t ever prepared his lesson!

I don’t seem to have mentioned the corporal punishment in my diary (not sure why) – it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that, and it really shocked me. About seven weeks after that, my final two lessons with the two girls he taught and two others who joined them later made me cry because it was the first time I really knew that somebody had learnt something because I’d taught it to them. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

Paraguay

Starting out in Paraguay during my year abroad from uni, I decided to take a photo of myself before my ‘first ever lesson’. I suspected I would be doing this for a while 😉

Me before my first lesson in the Anglo

There’s some form of getting-to-know-you activity on the board behind me – no idea what. To the right of the board is something students asked me about pretty quickly. I assumed it was just another pretty picture, like the other posters in the classroom. A couple of months later I found out it was actually Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart! Unfortunately the diary I wrote about this lesson in was in a bag which was stolen a few months later. What I do remember is that the class was 6:50-7:50 in the morning, and there were only three of us teaching at that time. It was a lovely group of students, ostensibly preparing for FCE, but probably about two levels lower if I were to placement test them today!

CELTA

My first day of CELTA was almost 10 years ago – I started it on 17th October 2007.

And so it starts…

I walked to Elvet for our first CELTA class. There are 8 of us: me, […]. We played some introduction games, then did some admin, including receiving our files. We met the students for about half an hour in a very noisy room (!), then discussed which groups we thought they should be in.

I don’t remember any of that! This is when I’m really glad that I write my diary 🙂

My first teaching practice was a week later, and I was first up:

The students didn’t arrive until 6:30, so I started about 6:35. There were 7 Japanese girls who came together, 2 Chinese women, a Ukrainian, a Yemeni woman, a Polish woman, and 2 Polish men called Przcemek! I had the first slot, doing the ‘small difference’ – everyone’s name on the board, on person goes out of the room, 2 swap places. […] Afterwards we had feedback – no major problems – and divided up our roles within the group.

I don’t remember that activity either, and don’t think I’ve ever done it since. It seems like it could be fun with low-level groups, especially with kids. These were pre-intermediate adults. I also know that it’s Przemek, not Przcemek now 🙂

Summer school

My CELTA was part-time during my final year of university, so that I would be ready to teach full time once I left. I had my graduation ceremony in Durham on Thursday, mum and I drove down south via Wolverhampton to drop off my things on Friday, induction for summer school started on Saturday, and our first lessons were on Monday. It was quite hectic, and I was a bit scared of teaching teenagers.

This was when I discovered just how small the EFL world can be. I had applied for jobs with IH at four different schools, which I had to put in priority order. I had no idea, so just picked at random. 1st was a school in a relatively small city in Poland (not Bydgoszcz!) that ran a young learners course, which I thought might be useful. 2nd was Brno, because it was still a small-ish city. 3rd was a capital city, and 4th was Odessa, purely because it was by the sea! On arrival at summer school, I discovered that two of my colleagues had worked at the Polish school previously and didn’t really like the town, so I wasn’t that disappointed when the school said they had all the teachers they needed. Two of my other colleagues were Czech, and from Brno. Everything they said about the city made me desperate to go there, so when I had my interview a week into summer school, I was really hoping to be successful. Thankfully I was, and I still have a very soft spot in my heart for the city – everything they told me was true!

Brno

Brno Cathedral

Brno Cathedral on my first morning in the city

This is where I really feel like I started out – all of the other places feel like pre-cursors. This was a full-time, nine-month contract in a professional school. I was made to feel welcome as soon as I arrived, and still am every time I go back.

This morning I was up and ready pretty quickly. Mum and I got to Stansted at 11, had a drink, then did my check-in. They didn’t weigh my hand luggage so I added in my extra books. We had lunch at O’Neills. I went through security at 12:50, luckily very quickly as I had just realised boarding should have closed at 13:10 – not that they started letting us on until 13:15 – and after I’d run too! :s Apart from that, the flight was uneventful and we landed 5 mins early.

As we flew in, the main thing that struck me was how many trees and wooded areas there are around the city – might even get me walking more! [It didn’t much!] SV, the school director, met me at the apart [sic!] and drove me to my new home. A flat (13) in a red block in the Vinohrady area of the city – think the street is Mutenicka. She gave me a map of the city and showed me where the school and flat and how to travel between them.

[Note – I’m disappointed in the level of my English here – must have been tired!]

The next day:

I left at 8:15 to walk into Brno – it took 55 mins – a bit too long to be a regular occurence! I found the school, wandered around the city, found the cathedral & then went shopping at Tesco – very confusing as it had 4 floors & you had to pay separately on each :s I went back to school and was introduced to I and E in the office, P & Magdalena? [It wasn’t!] I went for lunch with P, & she then took me to Vodafone to buy a SIM card. I couldn’t work out where to get the tram from so got it from the first stop outside the centre, then had to get off as roadworks meant it was going an unusual route. I tried out my Czech, but had to rely on the pointing rather than the answer.

I’m so pleased I wrote about it in this much detail (though you might not be!) It brings back my feelings of disorientation, and the little things that I found so challenging. That was the first time I’d been to a country where I wasn’t already at least intermediate level in the language, so it was a huge challenge for me when I’d been used to at least being able to get my basic message across. It really motivated me to try and learn more Czech as soon as I could!

Induction started a couple of days later. This is what I wrote at the end of my diary entry for that day:

I’m now exhausted and have information overload!

Our Brno induction was just three days, and in Bydgoszcz our teachers have a week. I feel for them 🙂 On Thursday (two days ago as I write this) I gave the teachers their timetables, having run around like crazy for most of the day to get them finished. The session immediately before they get their timetables is an activity swapshop which everyone contributes to, which was inspired by my first week at IH Brno. Most of the teachers new to the school seemed pretty nervous when they came to see me, whereas the returners were very calm. Here’s what happened when I got my timetable in Brno:

The afternoon started with the other half of the swapshop, then a meeting with other teachers doing the same intensive courses. [Students had 3 hours a day, Monday to Friday, with a different teacher each day] I”ll be doing KET on Monday afternoon, which means they’ll be absolute beginners (!), followed by FCE on Tuesday morning. We then had to wait for ages to get our timetables. I replied to stuff on facebook, hung around for a bit, went to get a holepunch [all the important things!], then ended up having a manic hour between 5 & 6 when I got my timetable, went to the copy shop to get copies of my passport photo, went to the transport shop with D to get my travel pass and got my books from the office. It sounds simple, but in reality involved climbing 2 flights of stairs about 10 times, coupled with a lot of manic stress. I got it all in the end through, as well as my local health insurance card.

I find it odd that I wrote far more about the manic hour than about my timetable. I guess I had no real idea what any of the classes meant for me, apart from the absolute beginners, which I was clearly a bit worried about. I had remembered the waiting, but not the ensuing crazy hour or two. Hopefully it wasn’t quite the same for our teachers – maybe they’ll tell me if they read this 😉 I also had no idea that the swapshop I remember so well from Brno had also been almost immediately before we got our timetables – there’s a funny kind of symmetry.

The second weekend involved another learning curve:

After lunch I put some washing on, which took ages as we [my flatmate and I] couldn’t work the machine. I planned FCE, interspersed with monitoring the washing. It eventually turned out that the machine wouldn’t spin, so my clothes are stuck in it. There was a burning rubber smell, and I have a nasty feeling the fan belt might have broken. I phoned S, not expected her to be able to do anything, and she hasn’t replied yet.

Neither of us had ever encountered a top-loading washing machine before, and we had no idea you were supposed to lock the drum before switching on the machine. The result: it did half a spin, tipped all my clothes out, got stuck, and tried to continue. That was a valuable life lesson as I’ve lived with many similar machines since! 🙂

My first class was with a 121 student. I was driven out to the car showroom he owned, about 20 minutes from the centre. For the whole journey, I remember wondering why this 50-something successful businessmen should listen to me, 23, fresh out of uni, and just embarking on this career. I didn’t mention any of those feelings in my diary though, only that:

He needs a lot of work on accuracy when speaking, but is generally a pretty good communicator.

He ended up being one of my favourite students, and I taught him for three years. 🙂

In sum

It’s been fascinating looking back at my old diaries and seeing what I did and didn’t choose to write about. There are lots of little life lessons scattered in just these few incidents, some of which I’d remembered when and where I learnt them, others that I’d completely forgotten.

What do you remember about your first day(s)?

Who are you people?!

Joanna Malefaki’s blog My ELT Rambles is one I enjoy reading, because her voice is so strong – I always feel like she’s chatting to me, even though we’ve never actually met.

Today she wrote a post about meeting the readers of her blog, and how strange it can be to realise that all those things you probably mostly wrote for yourself, and possibly a few people you know, have actually been read by other people who you’ve never met. In it, she said:

Well, I guess I feel strange and happy at the same time. Happy that I can help someone, strange cause, boy oh boy, do I ramble!! I guess bigger bloggers are used to it, but I am not. That’s why I am writing about it today. Does meeting someone who has read what I say, change the way I blog? Nope!! Still gonna ramble!!!

This completely echoes my own feelings. I’m lucky to have met quite a few of the readers of this blog face-to-face, and it never fails to make me squirm in embarrassment inside, while at the same time making me feel satisfied that my writing has been able to interest and help other people. When I started the blog I never dreamed that it would go as far as it has – I just imagined it as a kind of professional portfolio to help me when I was applying for jobs. Having ‘the’ put in front of my name feels very weird when somebody says ‘Oh, you’re THE Sandy Millin’, which has now happened a few times. But I can’t deny I enjoy my little corner of fame 😉

One of the things that feels particularly strange is that I think I can probably only identify maybe 100-200 (at a push!) of the people who subscribe to and read this blog, so I’d really like to know a bit more about the rest of you. It can seem a little unbalanced at times 😉 If you’re feeling brave, why not say hello in the comments and tell me a bit about you. I’m not sure if or how it will influence my writing, but it’d be nice to know more about who’s reading it!

Thank you.

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I've ended up where I needed to be. Douglas Adams

Staying healthy

I’ve written at length (when don’t I?!) about the fact that I have ulcerative colitis, and how it affects my life.

Having a stress-induced illness means that it’s particularly important that I find ways to manage how stressed I feel to avoid a flare-up of my colitis. September and the beginning of October are by far the busiest times of our school year, and can be very stressful for me at times. For the last two years, I was quite bad for most of this six-week period. Since Christmas last year, I’ve been on immuno-suppresants, which have stopped me from having any flare-ups (yay!) and seem to be keeping me mostly healthy right now (double yay!) I can still feel some of the symptoms though, and I need to look after myself to avoid the other pitfalls of a weak immune system, like catching every cold that passes through the school (!)

Here are some of the things I’ve been trying to do:

  • Making sure I stick to my morning routine as much as possible, doing physio exercises and spending 20 minutes or so doing cross stitch, both relaxing activities in and of themselves. I listen to podcasts at the same time to give me something to think about other than work.
  • Keeping active by aiming for 10,000 steps a day, which equates to about 100 minutes of exercise a day. When you’re sitting a desk doing timetables and setting up electronic registers all day, that’s not always easy!
  • Eating healthy food. I bought a slow cooker a couple of weeks ago, which has helped me to cook in bulk and not have to worry about exactly when the food will be ready. So far I’ve made soup and lasagne, and am happy to get any other suggestions (though I can’t eat anything spicy because of the colitis, so no curries!)
Soup in my new slow cooker

It might not look very appealing, but it tasted delicious!

  • Switching off the computer and blue screens by 9:30, before going to bed at 11pm. Having always been lucky to sleep fairly well, I didn’t think this would make much difference, but I feel much more refreshed by my sleep if I haven’t been using screens late at night.
  • Noticing when I’m stressed, particularly if I’m moving faster than I need to be, taking a deep breath, and consciously slowing down. For example, I realised I was rushing when I was washing my hands this afternoon because my brain was very active and I felt like I needed to get things done. I realised that taking an extra 30 seconds would calm me down a bit and make my work more effective in the end.
  • Blogging 🙂

I’m also really looking forward to my first flamenco class of this year – our lessons restart tomorrow night.

What do you do to stay healthy and to de-stress?

What are you thinking about?

When I was a full-time teacher, my thoughts went something like this:

  • Why do I have to get up this early?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • I hope my students are enjoying their lessons.
  • I really hope I’m actually teaching them something!
  • Hmm…that didn’t really work.
  • Oh my god, how could that lesson possibly have gone that badly?
  • This blogging malarkey is fun. I’m learning so much from everyone.
  • I don’t want this year to end because I’ll really miss my students.
  • …and so on.

Now, I’m a Director of Studies, CELTA trainer and materials writer, and my thoughts have (mostly!) moved on.

  • Why can’t I get back to sleep?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • Where am I going to find the last teacher I need?
  • What teacher development should we offer this year? Is it giving everyone what they need?
  • Will this timetable ever be finished?
  • How can we make sure everyone feels comfortable at school?
  • That was really snappy/short/sharp/angry – apologise now and don’t let it get worse.
  • I wish I had more time in the classroom and to work on my own teaching.
  • I wish I had more time.
  • I really want to work on that CELTA course, but the dates don’t fit.
  • Where will my next CELTA course be? When will I know?
  • How can I encourage people to buy my book?

Richer Speaking cover

  • I’m really excited about this project – I can’t wait to be able to share it!
  • Don’t forget to put in your IATEFL proposal.
  • I need to make sure I still find time to get thoughts out of my head onto my blog.
  • I have too many ideas for my blog and not enough time!
  • Switch your computer off at 9:30. You know you’ll sleep better if you do.
  • Stop it. Look after yourself.
  • …and so on.

What are you thinking?

A timetable metaphor

Last week I started trying to put together the timetable for the new school year. This is the third time I’ve done the timetable for my school, not counting changes that happen through the year. I’ve worked out a few systems for myself now, and as I’ve got to know teachers, students (especially 121s) and what does and doesn’t work, things have got a bit easier, but it’s still an all-consuming task. I have no idea how those who do timetables at schools with continuous enrolment manage it!

What my head feels like right now! (Image from Pixabay)

It’s like you’re trying to do a jigsaw, with people adding random extra pieces all the time, and occasionally taking them away.

There is a deadline, but you know that the picture will still have to change for at least a couple of weeks after the deadline has passed – it’s never truly finished.

The end result has to be a picture that is as pleasing as possible to various different groups of people: students, staff (approximately a third of whom you’ve only had a couple of hours of conversation with during interviews and have never met in person), admin staff, businesses etc. You’ve never seen this picture and have no idea what it’s supposed to look like.

Said people are also looking over your shoulder, offering advice, asking questions, and sometimes telling you that the picture just doesn’t look right that way or that they’re not happy with that particular part of the image.

You go home, sleep on it (or not, as the case may be!), and occasionally wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘Duh! How could I possibly have forgotten that?’ or ‘Oh yeah – that would be a much better picture.’

You’ve been on the other side of the process as a teacher, and you have a pretty good idea of what is manageable in terms of a timetable. You try as hard as you can to make things as easy as possible for your teachers, a lot of whom have never taught before, while at the same time matching up students and groups to those who you believe will be most likely to teach them successfully. You also try to balance timetables, so that they seem ‘fair’ when the inevitable comparing begins. You also know it could be a lot worse for them.

Three or four weeks later, after many hours of work and countless to-ing and fro-ing, you hand out the timetables to everyone. And then the complaints roll in.

But at the same time, there is a sense of satisfaction. This giant, ever-changing logic puzzle has coalesced into something that looks like it just might work. Now you just have to wait and see…

Professionalism v. the ELT industy

[This started out as a comment in reply to To the senior English language teachers of Ireland…  on the ELT Advocacy Ireland blog. However, it got so long that I decided it was more suited to a blog post.All quotes are taken from that post. All views expressed in this post are entirely my own, and I am willing to be talked around if you believe I’m wrong and have the evidence to back it up.]

I do sympathise with posts like this on conditions in the ELT industry, and know how lucky I am in my job, my career path, the opportunities I’ve had, and the wonderful schools I’ve been lucky enough to work at. However, I have to take issue with sentences like “How can you conscionably earn millions every year and treat your staff so despicably?” which don’t have any evidence to back them up. Running a language school is an expensive business, and although I know there are obviously people who deliberately exploit the teachers and the staff, I don’t feel that it is always done on purpose.

For example, I used to work in a school (outside Europe) which really was running hand-to-mouth. We ran a CELTA course in the summer: if we got 6 trainees we could afford to pay rent for the school that month and pay the tutors, one of whom was the director of the school. If we didn’t, she would go without pay that month. If we got 8 trainees, that was rent for the following month too. 10, and we had two months rent. The magic 12 meant we were fine until the end of November, but neither of the two courses I did even hit 10. The rest of the year, we struggled to get enough students to cover the pay of myself (the DoS) and the Director, plus wages for 3-5 freelance teachers who did a few hours a week each. There was no question of sick pay or holiday pay for the freelancers: if there were no lessons, there was no money. In an ideal world, yes, all of those things would have been covered, but if you wanted to run a quality language school with trained teachers working legally with visas if they needed them, you had to charge more for classes to cover your costs than the ‘cowboy’ schools did, but the students wouldn’t pay our prices if there was a cheaper school down the road, a school which to them seemed exactly the same.

I’m not saying this is a typical situation at all, and I strongly believe that professionalism is essential, but ranting about these ‘rich’ language school owners without having the facts and figures to back up the rant is, I believe, not going to get us anywhere.

There’s enough room in the boat for everyone, but only a select few are kept in the boat at all times. The owners choose which ones to keep in semi-permanently and which ones they’ll haul aboard when they need to power through the summer months, before flinging them back overboard again when costs are at an optimum level. It suits them to have us grasping, it’s amusing to them.

This, I believe, is an unhelpful black and white picture which uses an over-dramatic metaphor without taking the reality of the situation into account. At schools in English-speaking countries, numbers in the summer can be vastly different to numbers in the winter. What to do when you have all of those extra teachers? Where do you find them? How do you pay for them all in the winter when you only have 100 students, compared to 300 in the summer? Recruitment procedures should be more transparent, and we should be able to question decisions that are made and speak about them honestly. Recruiters should be able to back up why they have chosen to (re-)employ teacher A over teacher B. That way, teacher B will have a better idea what they need to do next time to try and get the job, in an ideal world of course. I do not believe these decisions are always made easily, though I do feel they’re sometimes based around favouritism and drinking buddies, rather than experience, which is very wrong and should certainly be challenged. If you need a regular, year-round job, and have chosen the ELT profession in an English-speaking country, perhaps you are in the wrong place – we need to be making this abundantly clear to those entering our profession so that they know exactly what it is they’re getting themselves into.

I also know that in schools I have worked at where I have had discussions about money, at least half of what comes into the school normally goes on teacher wages, even without funding CPD or paying for administration time worked. In reputable schools (which I’ve been lucky to spend most of my career at), this includes taxes, national insurance, etc. Then you factor in administration staff, rent, utilities, building upkeep, materials, and it’s hard to see where all of this magical extra money to pay for these things is going to come from, if the students won’t pay higher fees. Perhaps the first campaign should be to encourage schools to publicise their account books, so we can see exactly where the money is going and question them in a mature and adult manner about what happens to any excess cash there might be.

To be considered for a position at an ACELS accredited language school, you need a minimum of a Level 7 degree and the investment of a four week training course which costs a minimum of €1,000. This level of investment is not reflected in an ELTs take-home pay, nor in the respect shown to them by the industry. Perhaps the most galling thing is that we are not even considered to be teachers by the government or The Teaching Council because the CELT/A is not a recognised teaching qualification. Students are sold courses taught by ‘world class’, ‘qualified’, ‘experienced’ teachers.

I strongly believe that we need to support teachers to improve working conditions, but we cannot do this with our heads in the clouds, imagining that the money is going to come from nowhere. Education is our business, and it’s not just the school owners who need to learn. We also need to train students that cheaper doesn’t mean better, and in fact they should be paying for this higher quality of teacher/trainer/school. Who, after all, outside the private language school/ELT bubble, really knows what CELTA and Delta are, how much they cost teachers (generally out of their own pocket), and what they mean in terms of professionalism? And that’s without taking into account the qualms of those people within ELT who knock those qualifications. How do we expect students to be able to make a reasoned decision about which school to choose if all they have to go on is potentially spurious claims of ‘highly-qualified teachers’ when they don’t know what they means and when all they really have to go on is price? Sometimes word-of-mouth can help us out, but that takes time to build up, and time without students is time without money, that magical money we can use to pay the teachers with. Inside our bubble, we know that native speakers are not automatically better teachers than non-natives; we know that a professional teacher has to work hard and invest a lot of time and money to create their professional identity. But where is that awareness outside the bubble? Where are the ELT teachers in popular culture? Where is the discussion of professionalism in a multi-billion dollar industry in the wider media? And it is our job to train up our students to be able to communicate across cultures, surely an essential act in our globalised world. I, for one, had no idea English-language teaching even existed in this form until I was an adult, having grown up in the UK, where it is nowhere near as obvious as in non-English-speaking countries, where you can’t turn around without seeing an advert for English lessons.

Why should school directors make an effort to share information with us if we attack them and put them on the defensive? If our bosses are distant, we need to bring them in and call them to account. It is our responsibility to build relationships too. If we cannot feel loyalty to our schools, and do not help to build a feeling of community there, why should our employers care about us? If they do not see us day to day, how should they know what we need from them? Intuition? Telepathy? I know this is an idealistic view, but we work with people, and those people are not just our students. We need to be in contact with our managers too, right up the food chain, and they need to be trained in communication skills so they know how to work with us, another thing that seems to be sadly lacking in a lot of ELT schools.

Finally, as long as the discussion remains inside the bubble, things will never change.  Why should they try to change things if the pressure is only coming from below, and not from the governing bodies of the profession?

There are a lot of questions here. I certainly don’t have the answers. Maybe you do?

Giving feedback on writing (TeachingEnglish blog associates)

This was a post I’d been meaning to write for a long time! Since doing the Delta exam a few years ago, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to mark writing. To find out what the current results of this experiment are, take a look at my latest post for TeachingEnglish British Council, describing how I give feedback on short pieces of writing of up to 300 words. How do you approach marking?

Marking writing

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