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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Declaration

A low tech version of a manifesto poster. Maybe someday I’ll get some design software, but this was fun to make with graph paper, pencil, pen, and actual cutting and pasting.

 

A low tech declaration of my teaching inspiration, questions, and beliefs.
A low tech declaration of my teaching inspiration, questions, and beliefs.

Unexamined teaching…

“Unexamined teaching is drudgery.”  

John Fanselow

I wonder if the same holds true for unexamined quotes?

If I were to use this quote as a starting point to think about my own teaching I might use some of the following questions.

  • What in the quote speaks to you?
  • What do you see as the essential truth captured in the quote?
  • 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 / shed light on?
  • How can this quote inform your future teaching experiences / plans?

If I decided that this quote captured something undeniably true and important, I’d probably start reflecting on my lessons. Pretty simple really.

 

Why this blog?

Because not all teachers are looking for another activity for Monday morning.

Because reflecting on our teaching practice can have an impact far beyond our expectations.

Because sometimes teachers need help to look at the problems, puzzles and challenges in their classrooms with courage and curiosity.

Because “why” is sometimes more important than “how.”

Because many teachers do not really follow one particular teaching method but rather combine techniques, ideas and beliefs from different methods. Reflection is a valuable way to figure out whether a technique is useful or a particular belief is serving you well.

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