Another year, another set of students passed on to the next year group, another round of reflections… Overall, despite numerous challenges and obstacles along the way (as ever, mainly encountered outside of the classroom), I feel that this year went well for me. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s been one of the best years I’ve had in my teaching career to date. Of course, there were things I could/should have done differently as well so, in contrast to last year’s ‘Year in Reflection’ post, I thought this time I would not only take a look at what went well but also reflect on what didn’t.
- Better Classroom Management
Last year (the 2010-11 academic year) was a struggle for me with some ‘difficult ‘students and classes. This year therefore, I was determined to establish ground rules and lay solid classroom management foundations from the very beginning. A little twist came early in the year as 5 of the 6 classes I was assigned to were classes I had taught before. With some classes, that made things easier of course but with the class I had struggled with, I was concerned that it would be even more of a challenge as they might expect lessons to continue much as they had before.
However, I persevered with my plan to set a few simple rules and then invite the students to add their own and it paid off. We also explicitly discussed what constituted acceptable behaviour for students and teachers and why such things were important in a classroom setting - of course, it helped that these students were a year older (5th Grade, aged 11) and able to think about these issues more rationally than at the start of the previous year but I also think they appreciated just being asked for their opinions.
In general, I also took a more relaxed approach. I showed the students I was willing to bend the school rules to create a better atmosphere in class. The decisions to allow eating of snacks and to play music while students were writing or doing other ‘silent work’ were especially well received and helped foster an environment in which students were relaxed and willing to learn.
- Less Focus on Materials, More Focus on Students
I’ve always tried to personalise lessons as much as possible, adapting the topic to what my students are interested in or finding a way to make a ‘real world connection’ but, in the past, the lessons themselves were still tied very much to what particular unit of the coursebook we were in. This year, I found myself using my students’ interests and seeking their input as the starting point for lessons rather than an afterthought. This led to some interesting and lively discussions about serious issues such as students’ rights and football-related violence, something I’ve often tried to do with young learners but struggled with, and some wonderfully creative and imaginative descriptions and stories. As my brief at the start of the year was to improve the kids’ speaking and writing skills, moving away from set tasks definitely helped.
I also started to adapt my students’ work, especially their artistic efforts and stories, for use as in-class material. This really helped them see that there was a lot they could learn from each other and gave them a sense of empowerment as they directly contributed to the direction(s) the lessons went in. Of course, we still had to use the books from time-to-time but then, I encouraged them to not take that material so seriously - great for critical thinking skills!
- More Engagement and Enthusiasm
As a direct result of the two factors mentioned above, there was a marked improvement in the enthusiasm displayed by most of the students and the level of active participation in each lesson. It’s great for any teacher to see kids excited and full of anticipation before the lessons and I experienced that on several occasions this year. I got a real sense that the kids enjoyed their lessons this year but also felt that they were learning something at the same time. Needless to say, I can’t claim that this was true for every single student and there were still discipline issues and demotivated students to deal with but there was definitely a big change compared to last year.
- Better Building of Relationships
I also felt that I had a very good connection with most of my students this year. They were comfortable about approaching me to ask questions, ask for help, make suggestions or just talk. I always made sure I had time for them both in class and out of it. As I said in my last post, our online activities also helped in this regard as we often ended up extending conversations outside of school hours as well. The relaxed atmosphere in class and the level of personalisation in the lessons (not that we were making any lessons out of truly personal matters of course!) were also big factors in this. I hope I can make similar connections with my future students.
This has always been a problem in my teaching and it remains one I have yet to fully resolve. This year, I often found myself in the middle of something when the bell rang and, as I had a different class to rush off to, many activities and lessons were left unfinished or undone. Of course, this is a downside of trying an unplugged-style approach when you only have a 40 minute time slot - the initial discussion, sharing of ideas, brainstorming etc. often takes up half of that time or if the students are really getting into a particular activity and I let it run a bit, we ran the danger of not being able to move on to the next phase in which we would put new language to use or consolidate it. One thing to bear in mind for next year is to set time limits and stick to them (unless something particularly interesting comes up!) and to make sure that whatever we are doing, I use the last 5 minutes to wrap things up properly.
- Board work
This is another long-standing issue for me. I lack an organised approach to using the board! If you were to see my board at the end of a lesson, you would usually see something that would be very difficult to understand had you not been in the class or it would be blank… That also resulted in my students’ notebooks being a little thin. They did plenty of stories and other writing tasks but they didn’t end up with much in the way of notes to remember the lesson by. There is a clear connection to the timekeeping point here I think - leaving some time to wrap the lessons up in future will also give me time to put useful language and example sentences on the board in a more organised manner for the students to copy down.
- Feedback and Monitoring
This is always a challenge with classes of 30 students! It’s very easy to get drawn into an extended chat with one student or group while the rest of the class work on individually, wait for your help or just sit idly. Giving on the spot feedback is always problematic with large classes too as there is never enough time to help everyone. These issues really come to the fore when doing extended writing work with large groups. That’s why I am pushing for an extended blogging programme for next year in which we encourage the students to do more written work online. That will help with giving individualised feedback and help and leave more time in class for error correction and awareness-raising activities.
- Managing the Workload
In the second semester, this started to become a big problem for me as I juggled my teaching schedule, marking, website duties and MA studies. This inevitably led to a slight slip in my own personal standards when it came to my work and also contributed to the loss of momentum I experienced in the spring. I could have made things a lot easier for myself by not leaving tasks to the last minute and saying ‘no’ to the odd extra task or two. At least next year, I won’t have an MA to worry about so that should make things a lot easier.
The end of the year was tougher than normal this time. Even though I was the ‘conversation teacher’ only in class for a few lessons a week, these kids had been my students for two years and the fact that they will move to another building in the campus to start 6th Grade next year made saying goodbye hard. As we approached the final week, I realised that it was a sad moment for the kids too as I was increasingly swamped with hugs, goodbye messages, invitations to class end of year parties and presents.
Among those presents came perhaps the most surprising and sweetest one I have ever received - a big teddy bear holding onto a huge heart! The class who gave it to me said “You are a great teacher with a big heart and we love you a lot - that’s why we got this for you”. That made me experience a strange stinging sensation in my eyes coupled with a strange kind of swelling in my throat that I’ve never experienced before in 12 years of teaching… That definitely made for a year of teaching and a great group of kids that I will never forget.
…and the Cuddly!
What about you? Please share your reflections, good and bad, on your academic year.