Attitude – Directness

This is the second post in a series looking at the following essential attitudes for reflection:

Wholeheartedness, directness, open-mindedness, responsibility, curiosity, the desire for growth

(The first four were identified by John Dewey. The latter two were added to the list by Carol Rodgers.)

Directness

noun. straightness (trueness of course toward a goal) (http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=directness)

Directness is explained by Carol Rodgers as “… not self-consciousness, distractedness, or constant preoccupation with how others perceive one’s performance. [But rather] an attitude of trust in the validity of one’s own experience without spending a lot of time worrying about the judgment of others…”

The attitude of directness reveals a key difference between reflection and self-absorption.

Self-conscious teachers are focused on themselves. What am I going to do in this lesson? Will I be able to get through this lesson? What do the students think of me?

Distracted teachers are very often thinking of the lesson plan. What are we going to do next? Do I have what I need for this activity? Do we have enough time for this? What will we do if there’s too much time?

Preoccupied teachers are worried about how they are perceived by their colleagues. What will the other teachers think of me when I tell them my ideas? What will they think of me if I tell them that I’m not sure how to teach these students? How can I tell them that I’m having a problem in this class?

Just think of all the “white noise” that these questions create when they’re rolling around in our minds! No wonder teachers can find it difficult to see what’s actually happening in the classroom.

The best way that I’ve found to cut through the noise of those questions and combat the self-doubt that creeps in with them is to simply pay attention to your students. What are they able to do or communicate? What are they having problems with? What are they learning?

These are not easy questions to answer. But questions like these are really the only important ones to be thinking about in the classroom. If what is important to you is student learning.

What did the students learn and how do I know they learned it?

I didn’t know how to answer this question when I first started reflecting on my teaching. I hadn’t yet developed the ability to really see the students and what they were working on. I didn’t have the “…attitude of trust in the validity of [my] own experience…” But I stuck with it and gradually learned how to turn my attention away from my self-absorption and my lesson plan and worrying about my colleagues. I became curious about my students and what was going on with them.

“What did the students learn and how do I know they learned it?” even became the basis for the action research project that I did for my master’s thesis. (Which doesn’t mean I’m an expert now, just that I learned a lot about how to recognize learning when it’s happening in front of me.)

Directness, noun. straightness “trueness of course towards a goal”

The reflective teacher’s true goal is the learning of their students. It’s the reason we’re in the classroom. Anything else is just white noise.

 

 

 

What’s your teaching philosophy?

What’s your teaching philosophy? Do you have one? Have you ever written it out? When was the last time you did so?

Being aware of your philosophy of teaching and learning can be quite helpful (should I say essential?) when reflecting on your teaching practice. A useful (and free!) tool to help you get started is the online Teaching Perspectives Inventory

Teaching Perspectives Inventory

The first time I took the Teaching Perspectives Inventory was in 2005 when I was teaching as a part-time instructor at several universities in Sapporo, Japan. I had finished my MA in TESOL and had given several presentations at language teaching conferences, but hadn’t yet gotten into formal teacher training. The TPI helped me to understand myself as a teacher more clearly and I’ve recommended it to other teachers since then.

I took the TPI for a second time two months ago as part of an assignment for a course I was taking. Since I’m not teaching right now I used language teacher training as my context this time. This probably made a difference in the answers that I gave. And, of course, the eight years of classroom experience since first taking the TPI could also mean that the results might be somewhat different.

Basically the TPI consists of 45 questions that assess your “orientation to teaching.” After you’ve answered the questions you receive a profile based on your scores. The results are divided into three sub-scores of beliefs, intentions, and actions which can give an indication of how consistent you are in your teaching practice.

My results in the Teaching Perspectives Inventory

TPI Categories

2005 results

2013 results

Transmission

31

28

Apprenticeship

35

34

Developmental

30

38

Nurturing

41

38

Social Reform

26

29

When examining these results it’s useful to keep in mind that results under a score of 29 are considered recessive and scores over 38 are considered dominant.

The first time I took the test my highest score was a 41 in Nurturing. According to the explanation on the TPI website, teachers who score high in this category believe that: “Effective teaching assumes that long-term, hard, persistent effort to achieve comes from the heart, not the head.” At that time I thought this was true for me and I still think so. It is not surprising that my score eight years later is still quite high at 38.

What’s more interesting to me is that my score in the Developmental category rose by eight points and is now a tie for the top place at 38. The description for the Developmental perspective on the TPI website states that: “Effective teaching must be planned and conducted “from the learner’s point of view.”” This makes sense to me since much of the teacher training that I’ve been doing recently is more like mentoring than transmitting the knowledge and skills involved in language teaching.

The TPI profile that you’ll receive includes the scores of the three sub-categories (beliefs, intentions, and actions) that make up the final total in each perspective. (E.g. my scores in Nurturing were quite consistent with Beliefs: 14, Intentions: 12, Actions: 12 for a total of 38 points.)

The scores in each perspective are said to be internally consistent when the three sub-scores have a gap of two or fewer points between them. The only inconsistent score in my results was that of the Transmission perspective with a six-point gap between the lowest and highest sub-score. (The results being B:13, I:7, A:8.) This is quite similar to my results in 2005 when there was a five-point gap in my scores in that perspective (B:13, I:10, A:8).

Teachers who score high in the Transmission perspective believe that: “Effective teaching requires a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter.” I would generally agree with that statement, but apparently there’s a disconnect between my beliefs and my intentions and actions.

I’ve been wondering what the reason is for this inconsistency. Is it connected to the context I’ve been working in? Is it because much of my experience as a student has been in a “transmission” type of classroom? Have I internalized the assumption that this is the preferred way of studying and learning, even though I don’t necessarily follow that in my own practice? These questions will definitely require some more thinking to puzzle out.

As teachers we might not always be clear on what our beliefs actually are. Our intentions show what we want to do and our actions are what we actually do do, but our beliefs are often less apparent.

Taking the Teaching Perspectives Inventory is a useful way to start clarifying our teaching beliefs and developing a teaching philosophy that can sustain us.

 

How practical is reflective practice?

One of the challenges of writing about reflective practice and attempting to clarify terms, like I did in yesterday’s post, is that it can make reflective practice seem to be all about ideas and terms and thinking and more thinking. (In fact while writing this post I came across a paper (see link below) that described reflective practice as having a “fundamentally contemplative focus.”) Actually though, for me, reflective practice is extremely practical – it’s not simply thinking for the sake of thinking. It’s a method of mindfully making changes in the classroom.

What’s more practical than keeping a teaching journal? Notebooks and journals and new pens all make me happy. One of my favourite places is a well-stocked stationery store. So I would love to recommend that everyone buy a nice notebook and keep a detailed teaching journal. But, not everyone likes the smell of new paper or is inspired by the sight of a blank page. I don’t quite understand it, but I suppose that it’s fine. Actually some of the most reflective teachers I’ve known do not keep a regular teaching journal.

I still remember a conversation I had with a colleague who was getting ready to hop on his bicycle and leave quite soon after his classes were finished. My judgmental assumption that he couldn’t wait to leave school was blown away when he started talking about a teaching puzzle that he was thinking about from that morning’s lesson. He said that he would be thinking about it on the trip to his next lessons and my definition of “reflective teacher” expanded. Just as each student’s journey to language proficiency is unique, so each teacher has a different method of working on her teaching practice.

Practical reflection ideas

These activities can be completed in a number of different ways

  • Simply think through the questions & make changes in your next lesson.
  • Jot quick notes on a 3 x 5 index card or in a similarly sized notebook.
  • Write short notes in the margins of your lesson plans.
  • Make copious notes in your carefully selected journal.

 

1. Examining past practice – Busting out of ruts

Part 1

Go through the files on your computer or activities and think/write about…

What activities from five or ten years ago do you still use now?

Are there activities that you’ve always used? Why? What’s useful about them?

Part 2

Choose one of those activities.

What do they do or accomplish that another activity can’t? What if you could never use it again?

Part 3

Make a plan to not use this activity the next time you would have. What can you do instead? How could you accomplish the same results in a different way?

 

2. Examining current practice – Build on what you already know and do

Make a list of…

  • Your top five indispensable items in class.

Or

  • Your top five emergency activities.

Why are they important for you?

How long have you been doing/using them?

What would happen if you didn’t have them?

 

I hope that these ideas struck a balance between contemplative and practical. Examining or looking with fresh eyes on what we are doing in the classroom is a method of recharging our teaching practice that will have long-lasting effects.

*****

Link

I discovered quite an interesting paper by Dick Allwright called “Three Major Processes of Teacher Development and the Appropriate Design Criteria for Developing and Using Them” published in 1999. (It can be downloaded from the Lancaster University website here  ) In the paper Allwright compares Reflective Practice, Action Research, and Exploratory Practice.

Attitude – Wholeheartedness

What’s the only thing in life that we have 100% control over? Our attitude.

We can’t always control what other people do or what happens to us. But we can control our how we react or respond to those things. We can be positive and “look on the bright side” or we can be negative and “see the glass as half empty.” (to mix idioms)

So basically we can choose to be 🙂 or we can choose :-(.

At least, that’s what I used to think. But, even though “putting on a happy face” can take us quite far, can this 🙂 sustain us in the long term through the day-to-day challenges of our lessons?

Over the years I’ve realized that attitude is much more nuanced than a simple 🙂 or 🙁 can show.

This is the first post in a series that will look at the following essential attitudes for reflection:

Wholeheartedness, directness, open-mindedness, responsibility, curiosity, the desire for growth

(The first four were identified by John Dewey. The latter two were added to the list by Carol Rodgers.)

Wholeheartedness

“Whole-heartedness, … indicates a genuine, no holds barred enthusiasm about one’s subject matter.”

Carol Rodgers on John Dewey

On a basic level, students respond to teachers who love their subject, whereas the teacher who isn’t enthusiastic about their subject will find it very hard to motivate students.

But wholeheartedness is not only connected to the subject being taught. She writes that,

A teacher’s subject matter can be seen as threefold: it includes a) the actual content she is teaching — French, for example;    b) the learner’s learning of French; and c) the teacher’s teaching and how it is affecting the student’s learning. This triangle of factors (teacher/teaching; learner/learning; and content—what Hawkins called the “I-Thou-It”) interacts to form a dynamic nexus…

A whole-hearted attitude towards the learner’s learning involves curiosity about any number of topics. What makes the students tick? What are their interests? What is their language level? What can they do in the language and what are they not able to do? Can they do things that you expected they couldn’t? Are there things that they can’t do that you expected they would be able to do? Why is that? What are five reasons that might explain this?

Whole-heartedness involves what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.” Such an attitude can help students see themselves as successful language learners who are able to learn a language. They also see that the teacher enjoys being in the classroom with them. When a teacher is obviously, clearly enjoying their time with the students, the students are that much more likely to relax and learn more effectively.

The students are doing their best. This is an idea that has served my thinking in this area. Without strong evidence to the contrary how can we not give our students the benefit of the doubt?

If our students are underachieving it can be quite useful to start investigating with this question. “If this is their best, why do they think that this is all right? What is it about how I’ve structured this learning situation that leads them to believe that their poor effort is sufficient? Have they picked up ideas somewhere along the line, i.e. in previous classes or from former teachers, telling them that they don’t have to do anything or that they can’t learn?

The attitude of wholeheartedness that we extend to our students should also be extended to ourselves. We are successful teachers who are doing our best and are constantly learning and growing. This can be true no matter how many years of experience we have.

*****

Rodgers, C. (2002) Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking, Teachers College Record. Vol. 4, Number 4, pp. 842-866.

 

 

Awareness

Awareness is a slippery word. Attempts to pin it down and explain it can cause long intervals of staring out the window – as I can attest to.

A basic premise of this book project is that we can make changes only when we see and understand what needs to be changed. And we can thoughtfully decide not to make changes only when we’re aware of the issues involved. True awareness needs to be rooted in experience and in noticing what’s going on in the classroom. True awareness comes out of paying attention to our teaching, our students, and the interactions that happen in the classroom.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the only thing that teachers can do is raise awareness. We can present important and useful vocabulary to students and point out their grammar mistakes and errors, but we can’t make students learn that vocabulary or correct their errors.

Awareness leads to the possibility (first steps!) of change or no change, learning or no learning.

“Only awareness is educable.” Caleb Gattegno

What in the quote speaks to you? What do you see as the essential truth captured in the quote? (present)

As a language teacher and teacher educator I often think about the impact that I will have on my students or on the participants in teacher training courses that I’ve worked on.

What will they take from it? What kind of impact can I have on them? What impact do I want to have on them? I’ve often felt that there’s something quite ephemeral about language teaching. The moments when we’re working in the classroom are real and concrete, but once the door opens and everyone leaves what are we left with? Maybe a word or phrase that the students understand more clearly – and probably not all the students. That everyone is working on something different is one of my teaching beliefs.

As language teachers, we can only make our students aware of something (a grammar point, pronunciation tips, vocabulary meanings) but we cannot make them use the grammar correctly, speak with proper pronunciation, or remember the meaning of the vocabulary they encountered. That is their responsibility.

How does it confirm what you know to be true about teaching and learning? What is one experience you can point to in your teaching that this quote helps to explain or shed light on? (past)

One thing I know to be true is that I can’t change anyone except for myself (and it’s often quite difficult to change myself!)

I certainly could see that in the private group lessons that I taught for over a decade. Although I regularly explained vocabulary usage and grammar points and wrote sentences on the board correcting errors, those errors were repeated. The students enjoyed the lessons and thought that what we were doing was valuable. They took copious notes. And they repeated the same errors again and again.

So in one sense this idea takes pressure off of me – yes, as the teacher I’m responsible to plan lessons that serve the needs of the students and help them gain the fluency and accuracy that they need to achieve their language learning goals. But, I’m not the only one who has a responsibility in the classroom. The students are responsible to take what we’ve studied in the lesson and make it their own.

How can this quote inform your future teaching experiences? (future)

I will continue to use it as a guiding principle for planning learning experiences both in regular language classrooms and in teacher training courses.

I will do my best to plan interesting and useful lessons and workshops. When I give lessons I will work to make it clear to the students or participants why what we’re focusing on is important and useful. I will help them make connections between what they already know and what we’re studying. And I will keep in mind that the students and participants have the responsibility to internalize what we’ve studied if it’s something that they want to remember.

 

What’s in a name?

Troubles, problems, puzzles, difficulties, predicaments, headaches, nightmares…

What’s in a name?

 How do you describe those moments when your lessons don’t go according to plan? Are they challenges or headaches? Difficulties or predicaments? Problems or puzzles?

Perhaps it seems like just a question of semantics. All of the words above are given as synonyms for “problem” in my computer’s thesaurus. So maybe it doesn’t make that much difference what we call these situations – a situation is a situation, right?

Except that the words that we use reveal our attitude. And our attitude can do one of two things. It can be the first barrier to solving a problem. Or it can be the first step in the solution to understanding a puzzle. (See what I did there?)

A teacher who complains every time something goes wrong brings herself further and further away from making any positive changes in the classroom. All she sees are the problems and difficulties. A teacher whose curiosity is piqued by something that doesn’t go as planned is that much closer to finding a solution. I know – I’ve been on both sides of that story.

My first job in Japan was teaching company classes for a large multinational Japanese company. In the first year I had a class of overseas trainees who were infamous for not being very interested in English. Despite being trained to work at their company’s overseas factories, they had very little desire to actually go overseas. It hadn’t been their idea to join the program. They were not at all interested in participating (in English). They were very interested in socializing (in Japanese) with their friends in class. I begged and cajoled them to cooperate, but nothing seemed to work. I complained to my colleagues. Nothing changed.

One day a trainer from the head office in Tokyo came for a visit. He suggested a new tactic – to engage the trainees in activities which were interesting and which could only be completed by using English. He also suggested “micro-planning” lessons and changing the activities often to keep the students engaged. I decided to try out his suggestions. What did I have to lose?

It was my first experience of methodically reflecting on my classroom practice to see how I could improve my lessons. It ended up being a lot of work but the time and effort paid off. The classes went a lot better and the overseas trainees became more engaged. It was my first teaching success story. And it happened because of a change in attitude. I started to think of what was happening as a “puzzle” rather than a “problem.” And I took the opportunity to make a change.

 

So what do you do when you face a….

…whatever it is you choose to call those times when things aren’t working out as planned in the classroom?

 

 

 

 

 

Unexamined teaching, part 2

Unexamined teaching is a drudgery. John Fanselow

A few days ago I wrote the following questions as suggestions for using a quote as a starting point to think about your teaching. Here are my answers to the quote I used in that post.

  • What in the quote speaks to you?

“Unexamined teaching is a drudgery,”  reminds me of Socrates’ famous line, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”

It’s important, crucial even, to consciously think about our life and decide what changes we should make and what things we should keep. Change doesn’t happen without the effort to make it happen.

  • What do you see as the essential truth captured in the quote?

The truth is that we need to reflect on our teaching practice. To me drudgery is doing things the same way in every lesson and not trying anything new, simply because it’s easier that way. Drudgery can also mean always doing new things and never re-using activities, maybe because it’s more interesting for the teacher?

The necessary starting point is “why”? Why do I want to try something new? Why do I want to use an activity I’ve used many times before? How will it benefit my students? How will it help their learning?

  • How does it confirm what you know to be true about teaching and learning?

Teaching doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We can’t simply repeat lessons and activities. Each student and each class has different needs and if we don’t take those needs into account we aren’t serving our students very well.

  • What is one experience you can point to in your teaching that this quote helps to explain / shed light on?

Quite often an activity worked best in the class that it was originally planned for. When I used that same activity in another lesson without modifications it didn’t always go as smoothly or well.

  • How can this quote inform your future teaching experiences / plans?

When I plan lessons in the future I’m going to ask “why” about the ideas and activities that I want to include in the lesson.

About this blog

Welcome to Teach and Reflect!                                                                                             2nd avatar pic

Hello, my name is Wilma Luth. I’m an English language teacher and teacher-trainer who lived and taught in Japan for 21 years. Most of those years were spent in the beautiful city of Sapporo (the snowiest large city in the world!) where I worked at several universities. Although I love teaching English and miss it quite a lot, currently I’m taking a break from the classroom as I settle into life in small-town Ontario, Canada. I still vicariously experience the language classroom through my work as a freelance teacher trainer.

I’ve been thinking about writing a book on reflective practice for a number of years now. This blog is my attempt to share my ideas and thinking with other teachers and also to learn more about reflective practice. And I’m taking the “blog a book in a month” challenge to get the first draft done! (see the link in the sidebar).

Teachandreflect.com is based on several principles. Two of them are:

Sometimes the bravest thing a teacher can do is admit to herself that she doesn’t know everything.

I am not presenting myself as the expert in reflective practice. Reflectively thinking about my classes has benefited me a lot during my career and in this blog I’d like to share what I’ve discovered along the way as well as explore the questions and issues that arise. Maybe, eventually, I’ll become an expert in reflective practice. That’s one of my goals.

When there is a puzzle, problem, or challenge / mystery in the classroom, the answer to it is very often found in the classroom as well.

There is a tendency among teachers to try to solve difficult situations (aka problems or challenges) by bringing in new resources or activities.

Students aren’t motivated? Find a fun game to play!

Poor test scores? Make the curriculum easier!

(I know this because I’ve done this myself many times. And I’m not saying that it’s wrong to do this, I’m just not sure that it leads to lasting change.)

Very often the key to discovering why students aren’t motivated or why their test scores are low is to look at the classroom and see what’s actually happening there. It can be daunting and scary. But it’s the best way to deal with reality.

I am an Imposter (How about you?)

It took seven years before I felt like an actual REAL teacher. Seven years of planning lessons, meeting students, reading about teaching, making activities… basically seven years of teaching. During that time I taught in many different contexts – in company classes, private lessons, as a junior high school AET (assistant English teacher), in more private lessons (both one-on-one and small groups), in conversation school classes of various ages, as a high school English teacher, and as a junior college and university lecturer of English.

After seven years of teaching English in Japan I was teaching in the context (although not the same school) where I would stay until I left Japan 14 years later – the junior college and university classes.

But for much of that time I didn’t feel like a “real teacher.” Why not?

At the beginning of my career, a big part of it was because I didn’t have any formal training as an English language teacher. That’s right, I started teaching English without taking a single TESL training course or workshop. Not something that I would recommend doing, but the facts are the facts. The “on-the-job” training provided by my first job consisted of observing several classes before being thrown in front of my own class. And I struggled and taught and slowly figured things out.

When I applied for the MA-TESOL program at SIT, (now “SIT Graduate Institute”) I thought that getting my master’s degree in TESOL would help me feel like a real teacher. But it actually happened before I finished my thesis and was awarded my degree. And it happened in a way I didn’t expect.

Simply put, my professors treated everyone in the program as real teachers. They didn’t say things like, “once you’re finished the program and get that IPP (SIT-speak for “thesis”) written, then you’ll be a real teacher. Nothing like that. As participants in the program we were respected as real teachers from the very beginning. No matter what our experience or previous qualifications, everyone in the program was treated with respect. And I started to feel like a real teacher.

And then one day I didn’t again. I’m not even sure what happened – a hastily-written lesson plan that didn’t really work, an activity that flopped, or students who didn’t respond to the material. Whatever the trigger was, those familiar feelings of “I’m not a real teacher” came back. But it didn’t last for seven years this time. I had a tool to deal with those problems and challenges that threatened my confidence and identity. Reflective practice.

Using the reflective practice skills that I was developing helped me to examine the problem in the classroom as a puzzle or challenge and not as a threat to my very identity. It helped me to see my teaching in a different light. I believe it was the act of reflecting on my teaching and looking at the students and their learning that actually made me a real teacher. Or maybe it was simply that seeing my teaching in that reflective light made me see that I actually had been teaching all along. What I was doing was what real teachers do and that’s what makes teachers “real”. Not the degree or the training or the certificate, but the planning and the teaching and the focus on the learning.

I do still get that feeling from time to time. Especially when I take on a new challenge. But that’s a post for another day.

Do you ever feel like you’re not a “real teacher”? Are you an imposter like me?

****

Brookfield, S.D. 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

The section on “The Imposter Syndrome” (pages 229-235) has helped me think through my own feelings and experiences in this area. He calls this feeling “the Imposter Syndrome” and writes: “teachers often feel like imposters.” And that the key to keep the feeling of impostership under control is “…to make the phenomenon public.”