Saturday, 28 January 2017

When didn't the wheels fall off? #tdsigcarnival

This post has been written as my contribution to the IATEFL TDSIG 2017 Web Carnival- if you happen to be reading this post on or before the morning of the 28th January 2017, click on the link for details of how you can watch the live sessions. If not, click anyway - you might find recordings, links to other blog posts and all the other cool work the TDSIG is invovled in.

Just another day in the classroom...
The difficulty with this particular topic is narrowing the focus down to one moment. There have been several classroom clangers in my career, some that could have been avoided with better planning and more awareness, others that even a seasoned professional would have struggled to have seen coming, prevent, or keep under control.

There was my first lesson with my first ever class, an elementary group of adults in Turkey - it had been going quite well until a student asked "How old are you, teacher?" I honestly answered '21'. There was a queue outside the office of the DoS during the break. I was 25 for the next four years.

There was the time I decided 'Being Around' by The Lemonheads would be a perfect song for an intermediate level group learning the second conditional. It makes me cringe simply to think about the lesson now. Yes, plenty of examples of second conditional but a high degree of unfamiliar vocabulary plus a room full of students not well-versed in 90s indie rock made for a painful 45 minutes.

There was my move into teaching kids and the class when, taking advice to be firm and uncompromising too literally, I spent 20 minutes repeatedly entering the room, glaring at the kids who would not stand quietly before announcing 'again' and, well, doing it again. Routines! I simply didn't have an effective start-of-the-lesson routine in place.

Oh my! There was the morning when a kid, without any warning whatsoever, puked his guts all over the desk. Chaos ensued with cries of "I'm going to be sick!" reverberating from every corner of the class. Unfortunately, one kid was not over-reacting and actually did follow through. Or up. Or both. Ugh! I hastily left the room to get the corridor manager's help and saw a girl arriving late. "Hello teacher!" she said with a smile on her face and a cute wave as she passed me. Before I could turn around and say 'stop!' I heard a wretch and a splash, and sure enough... there she stood in the class doorway, pebbledash on her shoes and her Minnie Mouse backpack still on her shoulders.

Oh, the technology! We've all had the moments when the internet is not working when we want to play a YouTube video the entire lesson plan hinges on, or we turn up to class to see a gaping hole under the desk where the computer should be. How about booking the computer lab for a lesson to test out a digitised text-reconstruction activity you have designed for your MA with deadlines looming, only to find the room locked with no sign of the ICT teacher or janitor, both of whom woud later claim they thought I had requested Thursday not Tuesday?

Moving on to a time when I was becoming more aware of the wider world of CPD, I once spend an entire introductory lesson to an IELTS course referring to the 'IATEFL exam'. I only realised when a students asked me what the difference between the IATEFL and IELTS tests were!

Forgetting about a timetable change while working in Gabon, I once walked into my classroom prepared to do a 'My perfect school' lesson with Year 5 and 6 EAL students only to find the Year 11 IGCSE English B class in there. We still went ahead and did the lesson and they came up with some serious suggestions for improving the facilities and opportunities available to high school students on our campus. I just didn't show them my illustrated model example paragraph containing a bouncy castle and an ice-cream machine on every corridor.

Almost my entire Trinity Dip TESOL face-to-face experience when I suddenly forgot how to manage time efficiently or reach outcomes within a 60-minute lesson. Years of teaching in a non-language school environment where an approach of "We'll come back to this after break/in tomorrow's lesson" had caused me to get lax in the fundamentals of planning a 'tight' lesson and I had to relearn quickly. I just about managed it.

And onto my current job in Bahrain. Teaching beginner teenage learners for the first time. Being told that as we were more then halfway through the academic year, they should be at 'a decent A1 level by now'. Failing to see the column on the register that listed 12 of 15 students as newly enrolled. True beginners, nowhere near ready enough to get into groups and brainstorm questions to ask their new teacher. A three-hour lesson plan had to be quickly scrapped and we spent the afternoon working on common vocabulary, writing letters (the alphabet kind, not the communicative kind) and basic "Nice to meet you" dialogues.

That's just a sample of the things that have gone wrong. However, there are lessons to be learned in all of them. Some moments made me reflect on how I present myself to my learners, others caused me to investigate better classroom management techniques. I also realised (the hard way admittedly) that there is a lot more to consider when selecting authentic materials than the grammar they contain.

Being prepared, not just planned, is another key point to take away from some of these experiences - check and double-check the equipment, the room booking, the timetable, and the information on the register. Make sure your pens have ink on them and your flies are done up (ah... didn't mention that one until now, did I?)

Most importantly, be prepared to adapt - in some of my early 'wheels fell off' moments, I made things worse by pushing on when it was obviously not working but in the more recent moments, I was able to recognise the situation early on and make the lesson more suitable to the students in the room.

Oh, and if a kid throws up in class, just get everybody out!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Just About Managing - IH London's Certificate in Academic Management

Image from
A nice surprise awaited on the first day at work in the New Year - my Certificate in Academic Management had arrived during the holidays. Less than a year into my ICT Coordinator role with the British Council and I already have an extra line to add to my CV under 'Qualifications'.

When I passed my Trinity Diploma, I honestly thought I was done with courses and assignments. I had the top level qualification for EFL teachers and that was backed with by my MA. I was set.

But that wasn't really the case. During my time as Language School Coordinator at ERV in Gabon, I struggled at times with the management side of things. I was used to designing courses, creating placement tests and assessments and mentoring individual teachers but having a cohesive, long-term development and training plan in place, reviewing and managing performance, and running an observation programme were all new challenges for me. I haven't even mentioned marketing the school, pitching our courses to corporate clients and managing the budget yet!

I came to Bahrain having gained valuable experience in many of those areas - my Trinity Diploma in particular had prepared me to be an observer - but I felt I had been just about managing in Gabon and more training on the management side of things was needed, especially with my new management responsibilities within the British Council's internal structure. One curiosity about ELT is that the Trinity Dip/DELTA are often seen as qualifications that lead into management positions when they are in fact teaching courses (as was highlighted in Shirley Norton and Karen Chambers' IATEFL session last year) so, despite having previously decided "that's it" when my Dip was complete, I found myself taking one more course - the IH Cerificate in Academic Management.

This is an entirely online course divided into three eight-week modules. The modules focus on:
  • an introduction to academic management and managing teacher performance
  • conducting observations and giving feedback
  • setting up and running INSETTs
After each module, there is an assignment of 2,500 words focusing on how you are applying/will apply the learning to your context.

The modules are all delivered through Moodle with new topics on a weekly basis. Each week there are set tasks to do. These generally involve forum discussions with the tutor and coursemates, 'group work' tasks conducted through private messages with summaries posted on the forum afterwards, and reflective journal tasks which are only seen by the tutor.

In my previous online experiences for my MA and Dip, the discussions and interactions were at times hampered by a lack of consistent participation with each programme eventually dwindled down to 3 or 4 regular contributors. In a refreshing change, that is avoided on this course as participation is compulsory. Each candidate must complete at least 80% of the online tasks to pass. As someone who generally participates actively, I welcomed this stipulation and it worked as during my course, everybody was online and interacting over each of the three modules.

This course also differs from my previous experiences in that there is no 'live' component - no weekly webinar or Skype chat as had been done on my MA and Dip. At first, I thought this was strange and that I would miss that element of synchronicity. However, that did not prove to be the case. Our new topics went up every Sunday and my Monday evening, almost everyone would have posted. I didn't miss the webinars at all - although that element of direct contact was not there, there was also no frustration as that week's webinar was scheduled for a time I was not free or we lost 15 minutes to connectivity issues. The content of the course (input from the tutor, articles to read, video interviews, discussion with coursemates) was all more than enough to prepare me for the assignments.

In general, this course is also more low key than the Dip or an MA. The workload is not as heavy and weekly tasks can often be completed in 3-4 hours per week. Spread out over 5-6 days (as is recommended by the course providers) it is really not that much extra work at all. As participants are likely to be Dip/DELTA qualified teachers with several years' experience, a lot of the content will be familiar. That is not to say there is nothing new but rather that the concepts and issues presented are easy to get to grips with and you never feel out of your depth when undertaking the tasks. It is pleasant to be able to enjoy a course without the constant feeling of being under pressure or being rushed.

So that is the course, but what about its impact on my work? On reflection, has it helped me improve as a coordinator?

Well, one of the strengths of the course is that it is just about managing (unlike the DELTA/Dip which only have a limited focus on this area). You can also do it 'on the job'. Being able to immediately apply and evaluate some of the ideas discussed by adapting them to your immediate context really helps enhance the learning that takes place. I was able to support a colleague on my teaching team who was applying to take the DELTA while doing the module on performance management. This experience then formed the basis of my assignment. The ideas discussed for observation went far beyond the typical 'quality control' default and explored a number of different options for conducting the observation and giving feedback - all very much focused on the teacher and not going along with the 'box ticking' that often takes place. As we enter the New Year, I find myself preparing a series of training sessions for using iPads in the classroom and the final module and assignment have proven very useful for that.

My main takeaways from the course are:

  • the importance of communication - it sounds like an obvious one but I think we have all worked in places where unclear communication has caused issues in the teachers' room. Teachers and other admin staff need to be in the loop to avoid any unwanted surprises.
  • avoiding box-ticking - there needs to be a purpose behind what we do, especially when we are asking the teaching staff to do an extra task. Both managers and teachers should always know that there is a purpose behind what they are doing other than 'because it has to be done'.
  • seeing the teacher as a customer - we shouldn't simply view teachers as people who work for the school. We need to view them as another kind of customer who has come here with expectations. We should be focused on helping them develop and feel valued, which in turn will help the school offer better lessons to the student customers.
  • not just focusing on the teaching team - this does not just apply to teaching staff of course. Our admin team and any other employees within the school need to be included and vlaued.
  • being direct especially when saying no - although meeting teachers' needs and staff needs is important, there are times when refusals are necessary. A direct 'no' will usually be more effective than a "well, I can see where you're coming from and ideally we'd like to.... but..."

If you have finished your Dip/DELTA and are about to embark on or have already begun a more senior role, I would recommend the course. It will provide you with specialist training that your previous qualifications perhaps haven't. The workload is manageable and can easily become part of your weekly routine. You potentially get Shaun Wilden as a tutor. The topics covered are likely to be relevant even at the first rung on the academic management ladder and you get the chance to immediately apply ideas and reflect on your own context. I certainly feel more comfortable in my role now than I did a few months ago.

Have you taken the Certificate in Academic Management? Or are you thinking of taking it? Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments.