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

Archive for the ‘Director of Studies’ Category

Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing!

In April 2019, Rob Howard edited an edition of the free online teachers’ magazine Humanising Language Teaching. He pulled together various members of the Independent Authors and Publishers group to fill an edition of the magazine with articles from across the world of EFL, including teaching, materials writing, and teacher training.

It is a with great pleasure that I introduce this edition of HLT Magazine. As the organizer of the INDEPENDENT AUTHORS & PUBLISHERS, I have the honor of working with some of the biggest names in self-publishing and this like-minded group of individuals has come together for the third year to help spread the word and give new authors and publishers a voice in the everchanging arena of ELT books, training and “socialpreneurs” that will surely make up a big part of the future of ELT.

My own article, Stopped teaching? Don’t stop developing contained a selection of ideas for trainers, managers and materials writers to continue developing their craft. Here’s the opening paragraph:

There is a lot of information out there for teachers who want to continue to develop professionally, and there are a couple of other articles in this magazine about it too. However, there is nowhere near as much information about how to keep developing if you are still involved in language teaching but not in the classroom every day, for example working in academic management, training teachers, or writing materials. Although you can continue to use many of the methods recommended for teachers, such as writing a reflective journal, it can be difficult to know where to find specific resources relevant to these career paths. This article aims to remedy that.

You can see the full contents page here – there’s plenty of good stuff to read in there!

I’m in IA&P because of my books Richer Speaking and ELT Playbook 1/Teacher TrainingClick on the links to find out more and learn how to buy them. Right now, I’m also working with Freeed to find 30 people who will win copies of ELT Playbook 1. The competition closes on September 30th 2019.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

I’m not ready

I’ve just rediscovered a list a made when trying to decide if I should take my current job as Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz. I listed the pros and cons of taking the job.

For

  • Challenge
  • Next step
  • New skills
  • I have ideas for the school
  • Good team there, communicative
  • Lots of systems in place already
  • Supportive network in the area, including previous DoS [Tim]
  • Importance of quality at the school
  • No visa needed
  • Development opportunities

Against

  • Overwhelming
  • Do I have the right experience?
  • No senior teacher experience
  • Prep time (courses) [don’t remember what this meant, but I guess I felt I couldn’t prep my own lessons fast enough?]
  • Health/stress

The thought process

I spent two days shadowing the Tim when deciding whether I wanted to take the job, and the main thought I had was ‘there’s no way I’ll be able to do that’. Various different people had to talk me into doing the job, including the previous DoS (at least twice), the senior staff at the time and somebody who would go on to be my ADoS. Ultimately, my excitement at the quality of the school and the opportunities for me overrode my feelings that I wasn’t ready.

The result

I’ve now been here for three and a half years, and am planning to stay for at least a couple more. There’s no denying it was a steep learning curve, but the help and support I got from the team here, and still get from them, made it all possible. I still occasionally have moments when I think ‘I can’t believe I’m making these decisions that affect people’s lives’, but those are generally moments of wonder now, rather than moments of imposter syndrome, if that makes sense! There’s also the occasional ‘When did I get this grown up’ moment. 😉

Yes, it can be stressful at times, and yes, it’s probably triggered my health problems at times, but I have learnt so much, worked with so many fantastic people, and really feel like we’re just getting better and better as a school all the time (not to say it wasn’t already a great school before!)

If people are telling you you’re ready, you probably are. Don’t let your inner voice stop you!

Bydgoszcz - River Brda

A long week of DoSsing

The times

Monday: 1000-1900

Tuesday: 1000-2100

Wednesday: 1000-1700

Thursday: 1000-1845 at school, 1930-2200 at home

Friday: 1000-1930

The meetings

One hour senior teacher meeting

Thirty minute general meeting for all staff

Fifteen minutes getting feedback from the staff rep

Six one-hour collaborative planning meetings with teachers

The CPD

Those collaborative planning meetings ^

Three mentoring meetings totalling about an hour

One hour of action research group

One hour workshop, jointly run with the other three senior staff at our school (one of us each with a small group of teachers)

The reports

Seven hours of reading mid-year reports to check them against our standards

Two of talking to teachers about said reports and talking them through updates to be made

The recruitment

Two hours of updating my list of trainers to contact with job offers we have available to pass on to their trainees

Two hours of dealing with other recruitment-related things, like responding to applications and arranging interviews

The timetabling

Three hours of updating the timetable based on changes for the new year

Thirty minutes of updating the consultation timetable to reflect other timetable changes (possible slots for 25-minute tutorials for students who need them)

An hour of creating a time and room timetable for tutorials with adult groups

Half an hour of organising and confirming cover for teachers who were sick (generally outside the times listed above)

The student-related stuff

An hour and a half going to a company to placement test students, doing said tests and coming back

An hour in total of talking about struggling students and what we can do to help them

The other admin

An hour of completing and checking the overtime spreadsheet so we all get paid correctly

Three hours creating two tests for different groups, adapting them from materials supplied with the coursebooks so that they suit our students (mostly written during the collaborative planning meetings, as the teachers are pretty independent now) 🙂

Half an hour of clearing emails and replying to others (yep, I know I’m lucky!)

The lessons

An hour and a half last-minute cover lesson (on Tuesday night)

An hour teaching Polish

Three hours teaching general English and English for work

Three hours of associated planning for said classes (mostly on Thursday night)

The breaks

Twenty to thirty minutes for lunch

Loo breaks 🙂

The rest of it

Catching up with teachers after their two-week winter break holiday, often during lunch

Dealing with all the little things I’ve forgotten about that popped up during the week

Hampton Court Palace clock (24 hours on one face)

The caveats

This is one example of what a long working week involves for me, but luckily I only have five or six of them spaced out across the year. They tend to occur when a whole load of deadlines coincide. In this case reports needed to be ready before parents’ meetings and tutorials, tutorial times needed to be ready, consultation slots are needed so we can offer them to students, and the timetable normally changes a lot at this point in the year. Inevitably, they’re also usually the first week after a holiday, even if I try and do a day or two during the holiday to mitigate the effects – we’ve just had a two-week Winter Break, and this was the first week back. I also know that other people have it worse (often teachers!) – 49 hours or so could be far more. I just wanted to show what a working week for a DoS in a medium-sized language school might look like.

In contrast, next week doesn’t have any deadlines (I don’t think!) and I already have my lessons planned as the students didn’t get through as much as I expected last week 🙂 Just the ever-present recruitment, so I’ll be doing an interview tomorrow (Sunday)…

And yes, I made sure to relax when I could – some cross stitch most mornings, a bath on Wednesday evening after physio (why I left so early!), and cinema trips on Monday and Friday evenings. I’m trying very hard to keep everything in balance, but sometimes this ^^^ happens 😉

IH Academic Managers and Trainers (AMT) conference 2019

One of my two favourite conferences each year (along with IATEFL!) happened at Devonport House in Greenwich from 10th-12th January 2019. I was surprised to realise that this year’s AMT was my 6th – time flies! I’ve blogged about some of them: 2014, 2015, 2016. If you want to see photos from this year’s conference, take a look at the IH World page. You can also watch the video here:

I decided not to live tweet this time as we were given a beautiful notebook and my iPad is getting quite old and tired! Instead here’s a summary of the things from my notes which I think were most useful and/or thought-provoking.

In the classroom

Although the conference is aimed at teachers and trainers, there are always some sessions which are directly related to what happens in the classroom.

Engagement

Sarah Mercer spoke to us about the differences between motivation and engagement, and how to keep learners’ (and teachers’!) attention in a world full of distractions. She suggested looking at how video games do it, and taking some of those principles into our classrooms. We should make sure lessons are CLARA:

  • Challenging
  • Learner-centred
  • Active (what is the learner doing?)
  • Relevant/Valuable
  • Autonomy-rich

and that we incorporate GOSCH:

  • Goals (including interim goals)
  • Options
  • Surprise (through variety, promoting curiosity)
  • Challenge
  • Hooks (emotional, through storylines, and ensuring personal relevance)

Both of these acronyms incorporate the idea that in video games you can make the choices – you are the agent, not the audience – and there are easy wins at the start, with challenge building and immediate feedback throughout. Storylines in games create curiosity and there is a clear sense of progress.

I also agree with Sarah’s observation that teachers who’ve built good relationships with students have dramatically lower levels of discipline problems.

Sarah is continuing her research in the area of engagement, and I look forward to seeing more of her findings – there are certainly lots of ideas to explore here.

Assessment

Gordon Stobart has a UK state school background. He spoke to us about assessment for learning within the UK school system, and how it could be applied to language schools. A key ingredient is clear success criteria, answering the question:

What will it look like when I’ve done it?

If students don’t know that, it’s hard for them to even start working (definitely something I remember from Delta days!) Having clear success criteria means we can help students to work out which work best meets the criteria, give them guided practice to work towards achieving it, and give them clear feedback on how many of the criteria they have met and what to do to meet the others. These criteria can, of course, be negotiated with students – they don’t have to come from the teacher.

He mentioned Geoff Petty’s ideas of giving medals and missions which I like as a way of really boiling down feedback. To push higher level students, Gordon suggested missions like ‘What would you do if you only had half of this material?’ or ‘Argue the other side.’ The goal of all of this is self-regulating learners who can think for themselves.

In an aside, Gordon mentioned that he had one group who he used to jokingly start lessons with by saying ‘Previously in this course, we’ve looked at…’ in the style of a TV series. The learners said it really helped as they had often forgotten!

Autonomy

Katie Harris blogs about language learning at joy of languages. Her talk described what learning languages has taught her about teaching. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about attending this, as I kind of felt like I’ve written about that a lot myself, but I’m glad I did. In the first half of her talk Katie covered what independent language learners like herself (and me!) do to learn, and in the second half she talked about a different way of approaching lessons that she has come up with as a result, which I definitely want to experiment with. Her suggestion is that for some or all of every class (depending on what else you have to do) you let students work on things which they are passionate about, for example TV programmes, books, or whatever else it might be. Here’s how a typical lesson might look:

  • Students share what they did and show each other the new words/grammar they found. Teacher circulates, answers questions and gives feedback.
  • Flexible productive tasks, such as mind maps, creative tasks (change the story, add a character etc), writing a diary entry from the perspective of a character, changing the language to a different register, I’m an expert on (for other learners to ask questions), etc.
  • Deal with emergent language.
  • Learner training.

The learner training is a key component, as you have to show students how to do things like access learner dictionaries and record new language. If you want to give them more structured homework, beyond just watching/reading more, you can give them questions like ‘Can you find examples of the structure XXX we studied last lesson?’ or ‘Can you find examples of new grammar which you think you’ve never seen before?’

The whole idea is that learners can follow what they are interested in, but that a qualified, professional teacher can help them get there faster than they would be able to alone. By doing this in a group with other people, they can share their interests and learn from each other.

Katie has done a webinar for Macmillan on the same topic if you want to see her talk about these ideas for yourself – I’d recommend it. I really want to experiment with this structure with one of my groups this year who I think would really benefit from it. I’ll speak to them about it in our next lesson, and will report back if I try it out!

Determination

Chloe Pakeman-Schiavone talked about the importance of helping learners to understand the reality of learning a language, while noticing the small achievements along the way. Building determination will help them to stick at it. You can do this by:

  • setting smaller, interim goals (as Sarah Mercer mentioned above)
  • making changes in support explicit – learners don’t always notice when you reduce support, for example by them doing something alone which they needed your help with before
  • helping learners spot determination in other people
  • creating a Positivitree – Chloe’s school has one in every classroom where students can add any achievements they want to, no matter how small they may seem to other.

In the training room

Intervening

Amy Blanchard investigated the role of the trainer during teaching practice (TP) on CELTA courses. She advocated interrupting TPs early on in the course if it could be beneficial to trainees, as long as both TP students and trainees know what is happening. The areas she particularly focussed on are the ones where we often find ourselves asking questions like ‘Should I be doing this right now?’ Examples might be:

  • Positioning
  • Instructions
  • Speed of speech
  • Boardwork
  • Concept checking

The benefits are that these interventions are often far more memorable than delayed feedback, which is generally at least a couple of hours and sometimes a couple of days after the lesson (if there’s a weekend in between), that trainees get immediate answers to internal questions, that you are training not just testing, and that information is given at the point of need. Caveats are that trainee and student expectations must be very clear, it requires you to read the situation carefully (it’s not suitable for every trainee), you should only intervene in ‘little’ things not big things that could change the course of the whole lesson, and that support should be withdrawn as the course progresses, so you definitely shouldn’t be intervening in this way in the final TP, and preferably not the last few. It’s also important that all interventions are followed up on in feedback, with action points reflecting the pre-intervention situation, as trainees still need to prove that they can do these things effectively without trainer intervention. Amy got very positive feedback from trainees who she used this technique with, and even months after the course they remembered it in a positive way. This was an interesting idea, and one I’d like to explore with trainees and fellow trainers on the next course I do.

Integrating training

Chris Farrell‘s talk was fast and full on – so many ideas that I couldn’t possibly get them all down, and I will be coming back to them again and again. He was talking about the work they have done at Embassy schools to support bottom-up teacher development. Some of the areas he covered were:

  • making sure that teacher development is an ethos throughout the organisation, not a separate activity (these talks from IATEFL 2018 are related to the kind of culture change that may be required) and that everyone is clear about what this ethos means and how it is communicated
  • evaluating teacher development (see below)
  • using nudges to drive cultural change, and knowing when a nudge is not enough
  • mentoring, particularly for teachers when they join the organisation, and the training needed for mentors to be effective. Senior teachers should not be forgotten here! (Please ask Chris if you want to find out more)
  • lesson aims, success criteria and assessment: making sure we know what the teachers are teaching and they do too, and that they know how to measure whether a learner and/or a lesson has been successful or not, as well as making it as easy and convenient as possible to see the links between these things (an area that bears a LOT more exploration!)

If you don’t know what the students are supposed to be doing, how can you know what you should be doing as a teacher or an organisation?

  • reflective enquiry, with different levels depending on how serious teachers are – these vary from notes and peer observation up to full-blown action research projects, and include professional development groups

Chris also mentioned that students can self-assess their ability to use particular language using a three-point scale:

  • I know.
  • I can use.
  • I do use.

Simple, but effective!

I suspect this is the talk I will come back to most from the whole conference!

Evaluating training

Silvana Richardson talked about an idea so simple that it’s never even occurred to me before: the importance of evaluating the impact of the continuous professional development you offer, both on the teacher and on student learner. I’ve never even asked for trainees to complete a ‘happy sheet’ as Silvana called them – an immediate post-session evaluation. That’ll be changing!

She talked about five levels of evaluation based on Guskey (2000):

1. Participants' reactions, 2. Participants' learning, 3. Institution's capacity to support change, 4. Participants' use of the new knowledge, 5. Students' learning outcomes

She covered a huge range of data collection techniques. Here are just a few.

Level 1 tends to just reveal the entertainment value, but is the easiest one to collect data on, including through using ‘happy sheets’. One way to make it richer is to ask ‘How are you going to apply what you’ve learnt today?’ or ‘What are you going to do with what you’ve learnt today?’

Level 2 could be done through exit tickets for example:

  • What I didn’t know before this session.
  • What I might need support with.
  • How I feel I have progressed as a result of this session.

Level 3 needs to be done at the level of the organisation, and may require institutional change. Silvana gave the example of an altered mobile phone usage policy following a session on mobile learning when they realised that phones were banned in the classroom.

Level 4 requires time to elapse: you can’t measure impact on practice instantly, and you may need to do it at several time intervals, though sometimes we forget! Silvana’s suggestion for this was learning walks, adapted from a system used in state schools. At Bell, they choose one area to focus on (student tutorials in the example Silvana gave), do some CPD based on that area, then drop in to lots of lessons to see how that CPD is being put into action. With the student tutorials, every teacher audio recorded tutorials with student permission, chose one to focus on, completed a feedback form they’d created as a team in a CPD session, had an ‘observer’ listen to the same recording and add comments, then all of the written feedback was anonymised and compiled into a single report. The organisation (it was done across multiple schools) learnt about what was and wasn’t working from their CPD sessions, and uncovered examples of best practice that had previously gone under the radar.

Level 5 is the hardest to assess, as so many factors could contribute to students’ learning outcomes. You can look at assessment scores, retention, changes in study habits, etc, or interview students, parents, teachers or managers to see this. However, it can be hard to assess cause and effect.

Evaluating your CPD programme in a range of different ways covering as many of these levels as possible is the only real way to ensure that it’s actually doing what you want it to do.

In the manager’s office

Curiosity

Monica Green encouraged us to nurture curiosity in ourselves as managers and in our teachers, inspired by this fascinating article from the Harvard Business Review. I really like this quote she finished on:

Albert Einstein on a bike: 'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

Developing everybody

Olga Connolly reminded us of the importance of making sure that senior staff get professional development relevant to their role, not just teachers. For new senior staff at BKC IH Moscow, they have a shadowing programme and five training sessions based on core responsibilities like observations and how to give training sessions. For more experienced senior staff, they meet regularly to have discussions based around a table, the headings of which are:

  • skill/are to develop
  • why is it important
  • how (action points)
  • support needed
  • feedback collection
  • time frame

Senior staff complete what they can by themselves, then Olga helps them with the parts they can’t complete, and works out with them what support and guidance she/the school needs to give them. Examples of areas to work on which her senior staff have looked at include:

  • setting priorities to give more focussed feedback
  • improving body language in promotional videos made by the school
  • improving computer skills to be able to watch webinars
  • noticing strengths and weaknesses when observing lessons in languages you don’t speak
  • increasing the number and variety of warmers in teacher training courses.

This system came about because previously Olga noticed that there was no clear system, no goal and no focus for the development of her senior staff. That’s definitely something I’ve been guilty of, both in my own development and that of the senior team I work with – we’ve just kind of muddled along, though some things have become a bit more systematic as I have built up my own experience. Clearer goals would definitely be useful, though for myself endless curiosity (see above) tends to deal with a lot of things!

Change

Ania Kolbuszewska talked to us about why change does and doesn’t work. The know-feel-do model was new to me:

  • What is the one thing you want me to know?
  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • How do you want me to act as a result?

I like how this boils down change communication to the absolute essentials. She also reminded us that communication is NOT the message sent, but the message received, and that perceptions are an image or idea based on insufficient information – the more information we give to people about a change, the fuller their picture will be. This can help to reduce the amount of fear associated with changes, including fear of:

  • loss of money
  • loss of social or network traditions
  • loss of power
  • loss of control
  • loss of status
  • loss of jobs
  • not having the competences to unlearn old habits or learn new things
  • (not) being involved in the change.

My favourite quote from her talk was by C.S. Lewis:

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

By the way, if you’re interested in change management, I’d highly recommend reading Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson [Amazon affiliate link]. I read it when I was in my teens, and it’s always shaped how I think about change and how to respond to it. It’ll take you all of about an hour to read and will give you a whole new vocabulary 🙂

Evaluation

Giovanni Licata and Lucie Cotterill reminded us that when evaluating courses, we shouldn’t rely on immediate post-course evaluation by students, as this often focuses on the entertainment/ performance value of the course, but try to investigate the longer-term effects on learning. We should also move away from star ratings – as they said, some of the ‘best’ restaurants in the world, and McDonalds, have very similar star ratings, and yet they’re doing very different things! One model you could use is KISS:

  • Keep (what are you doing to keep doing?)
  • Improve (what do you need to improve?)
  • Start (what are you going to start doing?)
  • Stop (what are you going to stop doing?)

In general

Communicating more effectively

Loraine Kennedy did a three-hour workshop entitled ‘The Craft of Conversations’ to kick the conference off. Among other things, she talked about developing emotional intelligence, coaching v. mentoring, and giving and receiving feedback, both positive and negative.

Here are five questions she asked us at one point which you might like to answer:

  • Why is emotional intelligence important in dealing with difficult people and situations?
  • Think about someone you think has high emotional intelligence. Why do you think this is?
  • “Know thyself.” Why is this important before judging others?
  • What can you do deepen you own self awareness?
  • What can you and your team at work do together to increase emotional intelligence?

She reminded us of our own role in any communication:

Your behaviour will influence the way the situation develops.

If you have a problem, you are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

The latter can be particularly hard to remember!

1. Description (what happened?), 2. Feelings (What were you thinking and feeling?), 3. Evaluation (What was good and bad about the experience?), 4. Analysis (What sense can you make of the situation?), 5. Conclusion (What else could you have done?), 6. Action plan (If it arose again, what would you do?)

Shared by http://www.researchgate.net under a CC 4.0 license

We practised using the Gibbs reflective cycle (shown above), as well as focusing on listening and asking questions, and not giving advice. I found this process particularly useful, as it made me realise that an unsuccessful and very negative interaction I had in my first year as a DoS probably came about because I was making statements and telling the teacher about a problem situation, rather than asking questions and helping them to describe the situation themselves.

At every AMT conference, there’s at least one idea which I’ve been struggling with in my own head for a while, and then somebody gives you the answer. In this case, it was Loraine’s guidelines for a complaint conversation:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Get as much information as possible, including more feedback from the complainant. Write a list of relevant questions.
  2. Explain the reason for the meeting, e.g. student feedback.
  3. Meet in the right place, and make it as comfortable as possible. Do not rush the meeting.
  4. State your position ‘on side with the teacher’, and remind them about confidentiality (yours and theirs). Remind them of the need to agree a way forward together.
  5. Ask the teacher to talk about the class and the students. Any issues?
  6. Outline the feedback received.
  7. Invite comment and discussion. Expect anger, embarrassment, denial.
  8. Listen and use exploratory questions.
  9. Support the teacher. Empathise.
  10. Reaffirm that a way forward needs to be found. Stay focused on this.
  11. It is better if the teacher finds the way forward, but be prepared to offer suggestions. (‘Way forward’ suggests that it is negotiable, it may have various steps, and the person the complaint is about is involved in working it out. ‘Solution’ suggests that there is one answer, and you may go into the conversation thinking that you know what it is.)
  12. Agree on action, and a time to follow-up.

The most important thing to remember is that a complaint must always be responded to, including if the response is that you do not believe that the complaint requires anything to be changed. Loraine also reminded us that if we have more teacher to student feedback, we may avoid complaints in the first place! If you want Loraine to help you out with management training, coaching, and teacher development, you can find out more information on her consultancy work on her website.

In a related talk, Lisa Phillips also talked about the importance of emotional and social intelligence, and making sure we:

  • Pay attention
  • Anticipate situations (both positive and negative)
  • Explain, don’t blame
  • Accept criticism
  • Remember about how contagious emotions are
  • Are human!

Questions I want to keep asking myself

What does success look like in this situation? How will I know when I’ve achieved it? How will my learners/teachers know when they’ve achieved it?

Are we doing enough teacher-student feedback? Are we doing it in the right way?

How can we promote curiosity, not just in learners, but in teachers, trainers and managers too?

How much am I taking what I know about what works as a language learner into the classroom? Do I really give them what I know works for me and a lot of other people?

How can we make our mentoring scheme as effective as possible?

What questions am I asking? Am I asking enough of them or jumping in with advice instead? Are they clear enough?

Am I really listening?

What am I doing to make sure I reduce how much of the problem I am in any given situation?

How can we evaluate what we’re doing more effectively?

Setting up video observations

Over the last 18 months, we have accidentally made video observations a ‘thing’ at our school. There was no grand plan – it just kind of happened, and I’m very glad it did!

As far as I remember, it started with the senior staff recording some of their lessons and making them available to the teachers to watch in a video bank on the school server. If we think particular teachers need help with something specific, we might recommend they watch a specific video or clip.

Then we had some teachers in satellite schools who needed to be observed, but we were not able to send an observer out for the 45 minutes they needed. Video was logistically much easier to set up, and had the added bonus that the teacher could see themselves too. Some teachers have also chosen to record themselves to look for specific things in their lessons, without having it formally observed.

Another technique is when a senior teacher and an inexperienced teacher would film themselves teaching the same lesson plan (we plan collaboratively) with their respective groups, then watch both videos and compare how the lesson plan manifested itself with two different groups. This is particularly useful for demonstrating differences in pace and in running feedback.

The final way in which we use videos is to back up in-person observations, with the observer recording clips of the lesson to show the teacher during feedback.

Logistics

Although it is now possible to easily record lessons on a smartphone, most of the teachers use my Canon IXUS camera and GorillaPod tripod.

Blue Canon IXUS camera

Mine looks a bit more beaten up than this one!

Gorillapod tripod

It’s magic! You can attach it to all kinds of things 🙂

They can set it up anywhere in the room and it will record non-stop for 60 minutes (if I’ve remembered to charge the battery and empty the memory card!) I then put the video into their individual space on the server for them to watch when they are ready.

If it’s for a more formal observation, we do it in two different ways. Sometimes the observer watches the video first, then does the post-observation feedback in the same way as they would for a standard observation, but showing any relevant clips from the observation. Alternatively, the observer and teacher watch it together at the same time, having already decided what they’re looking for. They pause and discuss the video at relevant points, and decide together what the action points are coming out of the observation, and what positive things were spotted.

Permissions

On joining the school, all students sign a list of terms and conditions. One of the items is that they are happy to be filmed or audio recorded. Teachers also sign permission slips in our induction week professional development sessions. Videos are for internal use only, and they are entirely within the control of the teacher. It is up to the teacher who sees them and whether they choose to put it into the school video bank for other teachers to see.

Results

Video observations are a shortcut in a lot of ways. They enable teachers to see and hear:

  • the reactions of students to what they are doing, including who is not paying attention (and why?)
  • their activity set-up and how effective it is
  • how well students work with each other
  • pacing
  • which activities do and don’t work with a particular group
  • how other teachers do things, particularly managing young learner and teen groups (it’s not always possible for us to organise peer observations)
  • and much, much more.

Overall, video observations have enabled us to provide richer professional development to our teachers, enabling them to see into a variety of classrooms, including their own. If you haven’t tried it with your own teaching yet, I would highly recommend it. If you want to introduce it at your school, start with your own teaching – if you lead by example, it’s easier for other teachers to want to join in as it can feel less threatening. Good luck!

Learner-centred observations of teachers (Guest Post)

Christian Tiplady asked me if he could share his ideas for shifting the focus of official observations with the readers of this blog. I think you’ll agree that they are minor tweaks that could make a big difference.

Why do we focus on the behaviour of teachers during ‘official’ classroom observations? Is there an alternative way that is more in line with current thinking on learner-centred approaches?

So many institutions, including ones where I have worked, still cling to the idea that teachers need to be evaluated for quality assurance and that the best way to do this is with a formal observation, often compartmentalised and homogenised, taking the form of an hour-long observation by a senior member of staff. The observer uses a standardised feedback form with variables by which the teacher’s lesson is graded, and then leads feedback analysing what went well or badly. Oftentimes this observation takes place only infrequently, perhaps once a year, and there is often no follow-up to assess observation outcomes.

This style of evaluative observation is not only outdated but also ill-conceived. It assumes that the activity of ‘teaching’ can be rated, and that this can be done with the kind of standardised grading to which we have grown accustomed. In order to have much value at all any assessment of teaching needs to be thought through carefully. It needs to be done over a longer period with more frequent observations to avoid a ‘snapshot’ view and therefore the danger of misguided evaluation. Feedback needs to be cyclical and iterative in nature and co-constructed with the teacher as part of a reflective process to ensure that the teacher is on board with continuing development.

But there is a much more important point to be made here, which is that to focus on what the teacher is or isn’t doing in a classroom (and to rate that) is surely at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous if this is without explicit reference to the world of the learner. My contention is that we still do this way out of pure habit, and that at least in part, this undoubtedly comes from vestiges of ingrained beliefs that still linger, even if as teachers we know these things to be untrue.

Firstly, the status quo derives from the mistaken belief that teaching equals learning. However in reality we know that the teaching is only part of the equation and that learners will learn in their own way and at their own rate. As Freeman reminds us “teachers are influential in classroom learning but that does not mean they cause it to happen.” (Freeman, 2006; 254). Indeed we can teach what we might consider to be the best lesson, only to note that in terms of the learning it did not have the impact that was desired. Or conversely we can teach a lesson which at first sight did not go to plan or very ‘well’ in practice, but where there was nonetheless significant learning.

Secondly it comes from the implicit assumption that teaching behaviours can be classified and evaluated and that ‘more’ or ‘less’ of that thing is better. For example, typically ‘student talking time’ is inevitably valued within today’s language teaching, where a premium is placed on communication, and ‘teacher talking time’ should be reduced at all costs. In reality, purposeful teacher talk can be very useful as part of the learning process and in some lessons it may be vital.

Another example is the use of the English in the classroom versus the use of the student’s L1. The former has conventionally been highly valued (probably to encourage an element of immersion), whilst the latter i.e. the use of L1, has been relegated to the fringes with infrequent activities such as ‘translate these sentences into your own language’ given for homework, but with little real acknowledgement that use of L1 in the learning process can be extremely useful.

Although such thinking has increasingly been challenged over recent years, it still tends to be pervasive in the realm of teacher observations. We continue to focus on what the teacher should and should not do in the classroom (theories on this will likely come and go), and judge things by our own semi-conscious ideas of what is right and wrong. More importantly, by taking our eyes off the ball, we often miss the real action i.e. we neglect the impact (or lack of it) of the lesson on the learner. A typical example might be the types of praise given for a communicative speaking activity, which a teacher organised well and the learners dutifully performed with high levels of talking time, but which had little intrinsic value in terms of developing the learners or engaging them in meaningful expression.

By focusing on the behaviours of teachers in the classroom, we are also reinforcing a model that is teacher-centred and are thus potentially affecting teachers’ beliefs and behaviour. If we (learners, teachers, teacher trainers, managers etc.) desire lessons to be learner-centred then surely we need to promote that in everything we do, including the observations of teachers. Evidently, the main thing that is useful to focus on is learning and the learning process for the learner. In short, we need to rethink our observations of teachers to refocus on how teachers may best facilitate this learning.

So how do we do this? Assuming we still have to follow an institutionalised system of official observations, (which I still think can be reclaimed for the good), these can be redesigned with an onus on the learners with surprisingly minor structural adjustments, but with a fairly radical shift in our philosophy.

First of all, the usual observation template can be changed to make all criteria more learner-centred. Criteria such as ‘relevant learner outcomes established in conjunction with the learners’ and ‘lesson managed in a way that promoted achievement of lesson outcomes’ can be included to promote learner-centredness. The emphasis of wording is all-important; thus a criterion such as ‘use of English in the classroom’ can be amended to ‘English/L1 used appropriately for learner needs’ and ‘teacher talking time’ can be amended to ‘learner talking time suitable for learner needs’. These changes may seem somewhat pedantic, but in my experience such small adjustments can promote a major shift in the thinking of both the observer and the observed teacher alike. For instance, the phrasing of the latter criterion on learner talking time intrinsically leads both parties to ask themselves questions such as: ‘What was witnessed in terms of learner talking time?’ ‘Was the learner talking time appropriate in amount, form and quality at various stages of the lesson, as well as overall in the lesson? If not, why not?’ ‘Did the amount, form and quality of learner talking time mean the aims of the lesson were achieved for the learner? If not, why not?Clearly this change of emphasis might necessitate some ongoing training for both teachers and observers of lessons, but is nonetheless quite possible.

Secondly, the observer needs to truly focus on the learner – on their reactions, behaviour and likely learning – during the observed lesson. Often the observer sits at the back of the classroom to watch the teacher but cannot see the students’ faces or reactions. What the teacher does in terms of facilitation is important, but how the learner responds and whether they demonstrate that they are learning is of ultimate importance. Therefore the observer should try to ‘climb into the learners’ skin’ and see it from their perspective. The simplest act of the observer positioning their chair to the side of the classroom, to see the learners’ faces, how they react, and what they are doing, can make a huge difference to the observer’s understanding of the effects of the lesson on the learners and their learning.

Thirdly, the information gathered by the observer should ideally be backed up with further evidence to reduce subjectivity, preferably in the form of a video recording. Silvana Richardson (2014) has done some interesting work in this area, which she calls ‘evidence-based observation’. Software is also available which allows the observer to annotate the recorded video with questions and comments for the teacher, thereby facilitating a feedback process focusing on the learner, though it’s not always particularly easy to access.

Finally, however much the observer and the observed teacher try to adopt the mindset of the learner, and back it up with evidence, they can never claim to know the thoughts of the learner. The learners’ voice therefore needs to be included within observation feedback for any lesson or series of lessons. Thus the observation process should seek to include feedback from the learners, for example, their assessment of how engaging the lesson has been and how successful they think the lesson has been in terms of their learning. This can be factored into evaluative feedback as long as the process is handled sensitively.

Any additional comments learners have on the lesson(s) are also vitally important to inform the feedback process and can change the evaluation of a lesson significantly if they happen to disagree with what the observer and/or the teacher believe. When experimenting with this approach, I observed a lesson where I thought the learner might have been overloaded with the amount of topics that she was asked to speak about. However, in her feedback the learner maintained that that the amount of topics was at about the optimum level for her. This first-hand vantage point significantly changed my perception of the lesson.

In most institutions, how often does the observer of a lesson really solicit the opinions of the learners as part of the observation process? I would suggest very seldom. By contrast, including the learners’ voice in the observation feedback implicitly encourages the teacher to engage with learner feedback in the same way. Reframing the observation in terms of the learners not only allows a more relevant learner-centred perspective but also models good practice for the teacher as part of wider classroom culture.

Can this focus on the learner be equally beneficial as a basis for peer observations? Absolutely, yes! In fact gathering information on the learners provides an excellent focus and helps to avoid any evaluative critique of teaching, which many teachers may have come to habitually expect as the ‘default model’. So whilst evaluative observations look set to stay, let’s at least focus on what matters, namely the learners.

References

Freeman, D. Teaching and Learning in Gieve S. and Miller, I. (2006) ‘The Age of Reformin Understanding the Language Classroom. Basingstoke: Pelgrave-Macmillan.

Richardson, S. (2014). Evidence-based observation – tips and tools. British Council webinar: http://britishcouncil.adobeconnect.com/p8slnclkd8e/

About the author

Christian Tiplady

Christian Tiplady
BSc (Hons), Trinity Cert. TESOL, PGDip TESOL, MA TESOL

Christian is a freelance teacher trainer based in the UK. He has worked in both EFL and Modern Foreign Languages (MFLs) sectors for over 25 years, teaching, teacher training and managing in private language schools, NGOs and government organisations. Most recently he served as Pedagogy Manager at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office organising CPD for tutors who teach MFLs to diplomatic staff. He has set up TrinityTESOL and Cambridge CELTA courses and is currently a CELTA tutor and assessor. He specialises in the creation of CPD programmes, developmental observations and feedback. Christian currently produces the teachers’ podcast Developod for the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group (TDSIG).

Contact Christian at: christian.tiplady@outlook.com

Working with new teachers (three things for IH)

Regular followers of this blog may have noticed I’ve been writing and talking a lot about working with new teachers, particularly over the last year. In the last month, International House have shared three of the things I have produced on this theme.

The first is ‘From survival to thriving: how to help new teachers‘, a 30-minute talk as part of the 10th International House Teachers Online Conference on 18th May 2018:

In the talk I suggested a range of different ways that managers and trainers can support teachers as they take their first steps in their careers. I based it roughly around an extended version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I’m not going to share the slides separately, as I don’t think they’ll tell you much by themselves, so you’ll just have to watch the presentation! 🙂 You can watch all of the other sessions from the day here and there was also a parallel Modern Language Conference, with sessions on teaching Arabic, Italian, Russian, French and Spanish.

The second is part of my series for the IH Journal, published in Issue 44, entitled ‘Working with new teachers: the things they say’. It’s the first of two parts (the next one will be in the autumn edition) where I list some of the typical comments I hear from new teachers at our school, and the things that I normally say in response. It’s written for both new teachers themselves and the people who work with them. Again, I’d recommend reading the whole journal, as it really showcases the diversity of knowledge within International House.

The final thing is another video, recording at the IH Academic Managers and Trainers Conference in January this year, and published this week.

This one is aimed directly at new teachers, and gives 3 minutes’ worth of tips to help them out.

If you’re a new teacher, I hope you enjoy your time in this amazing career. If you’re working with new teachers, I hope there are some useful reminders here for you. 🙂

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