I’m learning how to do formal observations!

Look, I’ve done observations before, obviously.

Every time I’m struggling for ideas, I like to pop round a few neighbouring classrooms on the hunt for something new I can shamelessly steal. Sometimes colleagues even come to me first and ask if I wouldn’t mind sitting in for half a lesson, so they can get a second opinion on something that’s been bugging them. And heaven knows that my TP group on the Delta were observation-obsessed, every last one of us only too happy to take a lesson to shreds with pen and paper, and then put it back together again via verbal feedback.

The problem was that I’d never conducted a formal observation before, you see. At least, not one with real paperwork that would be scanned and filed forever, or actual real-life stakes at play ranging from that teacher’s self confidence in the classroom to the size of their end-of-year bonus. Up until a week ago, formally observing my colleagues still seemed like a role I’d somehow never be ready for. The problem with taking promotions at work, however, is that they also come with added responsibilities, and my boss quickly made it clear that this was to become the newest skill in my arsenal without any further ado.

The silliest thing I did was not asking for help straight away. Instead, I notified my “observees” that I’d be sitting in for a full lesson of their choice the following week, and willed everything to go smoothly without asking anyone what that was actually supposed to look like. When it finally occurred to me to ask Twitter for help, I realised I should have sat down with each teacher beforehand: firstly, to ask them what they were most concerned about, and secondly, to tell them what particular areas I wanted to focus on when observing, just the way we do with students before they sit exams.

Oh, well. Too late for that. We’d been through the lesson aims and the plan together, everything looked good, and in we went.

I wrote like a madwoman during those two observations, only realising my naivety afterwards as I combed through six full pages of barely legible scrawl in my notebook. How could I make sense of my notes in a way that would potentially mean something to the observees as well as my future self coming back to the observation documents a few months down the line? Having learned from my earlier mistake, I immediately turned to my DoS for help with the written feedback, and between her category-based method of grouping similar points and my traffic-light system for ranking their importance, we managed to redact those six pages into a pithy A4 page per teacher.

The final hurdle was meeting with my observees and talking them through my feedback, which from my perspective was far and away the most stress-inducing component of the whole rigmarole. What if they hated what I had to say? What if they got defensive and refused to accept it? What if they couldn’t see how my suggestions lined up with what I had observed in the classroom?

Obviously, none of those things happened, because I work with lovely, polite people who are incredibly keen to develop. And I daresay the conversations were actually more informative for me than they were for my observees, given how much I have to learn in my initial period of trialling this newly learned skill. But it all went off without my destroying anybody’s morale in the process! And the paperwork was all done on time too. Wonders never cease.

I know that this is one area at work where I have a very, very steep learning curve ahead of me, but it’s one of those things I’m only too happy to put time into, especially as I can feel it moving me ever-closer to my teaching endgame, i.e. working as a full-time teacher trainer. Having said that, part of me also let out a sigh of relief when I realised I wouldn’t have to do any more formal observations until next term … So, until then, if you need me, you’ll find me buried under a pile of books that are more or less all entitled ‘How to be less terrible the next time you observe someone‘. Thanks again for the help, ELT Blogverse and Twitterverse – I’ll let you know how the next one goes!

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Lesson Plan: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson! (B2 to C1)

When was the last time you taught a song-based lesson in which the ‘listening’ component consisted solely of gap-filling? Let’s be honest with ourselves: gap fills are easy to create, easy to give instructions for and (tellingly) easy for students to do, even if they don’t actually have the strongest listening skills. But if a student only listens for the 10 words that complete the 10 gaps on a worksheet we gave them, did they really listen to the song at all?

For this lesson, I forced myself to come up with a variety of different tasks, gap-fill included, that would require students to put those top-down and bottom-up listening skills to work. The lesson also encourages learners to dig deeper into the song lyrics and imagine how they could appropriate the vocabulary they hear for their own personal use. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers
Time: 60 minutes
Materials: song (YouTube or MP3), 1 class worksheet + 1 homework sheet per student ––– comment for files

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will have practised strategies for upgrading story language to make it more descriptive. They will do this by using synonyms to upgrade standard language and comparing their ideas with descriptive song lyrics.
  • Students will also have practised meaning-building strategies (using contextual and grammatical clues to make sense of audio signals) and decoding strategies (discriminating between similar sounds, transcribing squeeze zones).

Continue reading Lesson Plan: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson! (B2 to C1)

I really missed my students over the summer!

I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is for apologising after a six-month absence from your own blog, but here goes: sorry, everyone. A special sorry to those of you who posted asking for materials, since I was away from my computer for May and June (exam season), and then away from work for all of July and August (backpacking in far-flung and much warmer climes).

You see, I take my work-life balance as seriously as I take the separation of church and state, and after an unrelenting and intense year at work, I threw myself into the summer holidays just as I’d promised myself I would. Thoughts of lesson plans and homework and marking and materials were so far from my mind that even as I told new acquaintances that I was a teacher, I almost felt as though I was describing someone else, a third person neither of us in the conversation would ever meet, or a version of myself lost to the past.

And I enjoyed it: the free time, the complete break with the realities of school, day in, day out, where every day was different and yet somehow the same in so many ways. For the first time in four years of teaching, I had a whole summer off, both on paper and in mind, and it was ridiculously fun to rediscover all the aspects of myself that had been slowly but systematically drowned out by that innocuous label ‘teacher’.

But somewhere around mid-August, the matrix started to glitch. I was listening to a song, and before I knew it I’d made a playlist with one of my super-talented FCE classes in mind. It was full of awesome songs just perfect for decoding practice! They’d all been released in the previous twelve months! The lyrics contained exactly the kind of inspiring, upbeat messages that teen students generally seem to appreciate!

It definitely didn’t count as work though. Did it? I mean, technically I wasn’t at work, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to accidentally get a bit of work done … So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if an ELT teacher plans and doesn’t get paid for it, does she need to take her job a little less seriously?

Anyway, I went back to work on September 12th, mainly writing exams and doing other assorted admin in preparation for the new school year. On the weekend of September 15th and 16th, I saw some of my students out at a festival, and I wondered how their summers had gone, and if they’d had fun on their trip to England, and had they passed their FCE exams? And on September 25th I walked back into my classroom, that one with the same kids I’ve been teaching since I first moved to Calabria in 2016, to a round of applause and lots of hellos and general merriment.

What an amazing vocation we have. What amazing people my students have become over the last couple of years. What a surprise that I actually missed school over the summer! But I’m back now, and I’m ready for another year of academic and professional excellence. On your marks …

I learned how to negotiate a job contract!

When I first came to Calabria, I swore to myself that I would only be staying for nine months, tops, and then I’d be off on my merry globe-trotting way to another job in a far more exotic part of the world. Fast forward to April 2018, and I’ve just signed a contract to spend a third year here. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, ELT peeps.

I’ve already written about the benefits that come with staying at a school you know, and I won’t repeat myself here. Instead, I want to use this blog post to talk about something that has often been a question mark for me as a young ELT teacher: namely, job contracts, including salary, benefits and working conditions.

On the last day of my CELTA course, our tutors gave us an input session on job-hunting. It only lasted for an hour, but it contained advice that I’ve never forgotten:

  • Think carefully before signing up for more than 20 contact hours a week.
  • Don’t burn any bridges in the industry, however far-flung your current school seems at the time.
  • Look to improve your working conditions a little bit each year.

Seems like pretty obvious advice, right? Especially if you’ve worked in other industries. Here’s the problem, though: I haven’t. I went straight from university to teaching English as a foreign language. Up until last year, I had absolutely no idea how to negotiate a salary or benefits. I didn’t even know I should have been negotiating those things. I was just happy to be getting paid, and in an industry like ours, can you blame me?

It was only by talking to older colleagues with experience in sectors as diverse as banking, management and tourism that I realised there was something I was missing. Yes, I’d remembered to keep a check on my contact hours and to maintain good professional relationships with most of my colleagues, but I’d never given a second’s thought to my working conditions. What did I want? How could I make life easier for myself? How could I ask for these things with enough confidence to be convincing, but without being so demanding that the school just cut their losses and chose not to offer me a contract for the following year?

These are the things that nobody ever tells you in ELT, perhaps because they know the advice won’t always work, or maybe because they’re still figuring it out for themselves. But in the spirit of self-reflection, here is what I’ve learned so far about negotiating job contracts in our industry:

  • Make yourself invaluable. Find your unique selling point. At my current school, I write and teach the CLIL maths syllabus; I’m also highly aware that ELT teachers who can pull that off are not exactly two a penny. Contractually speaking, I have definitely benefited from that. As another example, some of my current colleagues specialise in student event organisation, as well as graphic design and marketing. What can you do that will put you one step ahead in the eyes of your school?
  • Pursue professional development. There are many reasons to keep up with your professional development as an ELT teacher, although negotiating a pay rise is not the primary reason I do mine.  However, there is nothing like cold, hard evidence when contract negotiation season comes around, and every single one of the PD certificates I’ve done over the last four years (including all three Delta modules and the IH YL and VYL certificates) have immediately led to pay rises and/or promotions. Result.
  • Know your worth. Which of your colleagues are you closest to, both in terms of friendships and where you are in the school’s hierarchy? Now ask them how much they earn. It’ll only hurt for a second, I promise. Even better, ask to see the school’s salary structure, i.e. how they set salaries based on certain qualifications or experience. I did this in a previous job, and my pay increased by €140 per month from one week to another. I almost couldn’t believe how easy it was.
  • Smart small. Working at a big school means that competition for promotions is fierce. Yes, there might be more training or management roles available, but it’s also much harder to get yourself noticed. Do yourself a favour and work your way up in a small school, where you’re also more likely to get personalised support as you go. There is absolutely no comparison in terms of opportunities for mentoring from your peers and managers, and how much responsibility you could be offered even early on in your career.
  • Rely on reputation. Some schools will never compensate you fairly, regardless of the quality of your work. Occasionally it’s because they can’t, but more often than not it’s because they don’t feel the need to. Don’t waste time on these schools; stick to more accountable ones. One way to identify these is by good ol’ word of mouth; ask your ELT contacts to ask their ELT contacts what they can find out about the school in question, and listen carefully to contract negotiation experiences of former employees.

The advice above is not a panacea for the generally awful working conditions that have slowly become the norm in ELT. These are just some conclusions I have come to after having worked at different schools in different countries, and finally arriving at a point where I can say I’m truly happy with the salary, benefits and treatment I’m enjoying at work.

It’s also the advice I wish I’d been given when I was 22, fresh off CELTA, and absolutely oblivious to the workings of long-term careers in ELT or any other industry, for that matter. Use it as you will.

I helped organise an international conference!

In all fairness, the title of this post should really be something like “I did a couple of odd jobs here and there to help out with the absolute ocean of work involved in organising and successfully running an international conference”. In any case, for the purposes of this blog post, I hope you can find it in your heart to allow me this little bit of click-bait.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, down to business. By now you may have heard that my school hosted the IH Young Learners conference last week, which I co-wrote the application for and then eventually got the chance to speak at; all in all, a developing teacher’s dream come true, prosecco all round, clink, blah blah blah …

However, amid all the networking and sharing and developing, there was one particularly special moment during that long conference weekend, a moment that I know I will never, ever forget as long as I work in ELT: on arrival at the conference, every single visiting delegate received a handwritten welcome letter from one of our young learner students.

The idea was deceptively simple, and utterly perfect in terms of the message we wanted to send to our international visitors. Our original conference application stressed the strong ties our school has with the local community, especially the state schools where we run outreach programs. Our directors were adamant that if we were to host a conference for YL teachers, then our YL students should be involved somehow, and they were absolutely right.

Once I had come up with the idea, we just needed to give our students a little nudge in the right direction. To help them get their ideas out onto the page, I designed a couple of easy-to-adapt lesson plans for letter-writing as well as the teaching materials to go with them, including three model welcome letters at the A2, B1 and B2 levels. Our fantastic team of YL teachers then took those plans and materials into their regular English classes and ran with them, and our ridiculously talented YL students did the rest!

Some of them wrote about their favourite restaurants and dishes to try, some of them explained local traditions and cultural references that they thought might interest international visitors, and some chose to give a more warts-and-all description of the reality of living in one of Italy’s forgotten southern regions. Different though they were, however, all the letters were nonetheless spectacular reads.

A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.

To encourage participation, the letter-writing task was pitched as a city-wide competition, open to our internal YL students as well as all of our external teen students at local state schools. All in all, just over 120 young learners aged 11-18 wrote welcome letters for our incoming delegates. My colleague @lennyberlenny and I then had the unenviable task of sorting through them all to choose 54 winners, one for each of the delegates coming to visit us for the conference.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Sara C, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.

A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.

The reactions as the letters were discovered and read were absolutely priceless. We had gasps of delight and surprise, and even a couple of tears! As a foreigner who has had the privilege of getting to know this sleepy little part of Italy over the last 18 months, I was so incredibly proud and moved to watch others be offered the same insight into the local culture, especially in a place that has had a historically difficult relationship with outsiders.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Alessandro F, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Alessandro F, a B2 student at the local high school.

The cherry on top was unexpected even for me: our delegates were so impressed by the gesture that they have started writing back to our students. The international community has helped our YL students use real English to speak to real people for real reasons. As an ELT teacher, what more could I possibly wish for?

I spoke at four conferences in four months!

In April last year, I led my first-ever teacher training session. It was a quiet in-house affair for fellow staff at my school, in which I focused on one of my favourite areas of ELT: pronunciation. About ten teachers came, and several of them gave positive, encouraging feedback to me afterwards. Some time later, I realised that a few of those teachers were actually starting to use my ideas in their own classroom teaching, and I felt like I had taken the first step on a very long journey.

In December, I was asked to speak at a one-day conference for English-language teachers working at local state schools. My audience had grown from 10 to 40, and suddenly there were no more familiar faces in the crowd. I adapted an in-house training session that had bombed amongst my colleagues earlier in the year, on ideas for activities that require students to prepare their own materials. I had over-prepared, and raced through miles of slides in 45 minutes, barely leaving the delegates time to think … but even so, the attendees asked me enthusiastic questions and even hinted at requests for future training sessions.

In January, my whole school caught the train to Palermo to attend a two-day conference for private language schools in the region. I delivered yet another training session, this time about helping students to prepare for spoken and written fluency tasks. The 30-strong audience was made up of people who I worked with and for, people who worked at rival schools, people who I respected and who I wanted to impress – but I had been practising for two solid days, and I was ready. My timing was razor-sharp. As we worked through my slides and tasks, I realised I was slowly developing my very own presentational style: pithy and practical, with a peppering of research here and some self-reflection there.

In February, I went to a three-day national conference held in Rome, accompanied by my DOS, ADOS and a senior teacher. I spent the first two days delightedly scribbling away during talks by some of my ELT favourites, trying my hardest to network with other like-minded teachers, doing my best to make the most of the opportunity. On the third day, I gave my third training session of the academic year, to a dauntingly packed room of 60 trainers, directors and teachers with far more experience than me. As I finished my talk and made my way to the other room for the next workshop, I caught a teacher I didn’t know acting out one of my activities for a colleague who hadn’t been able to attend my talk. My heart sang.

Earlier this month, my school hosted a three-day international conference and we had teachers fly in from all over the world, from Ecuador, Poland, Ukraine, Portugal, Germany, the UK, and the list goes on. I walked around school trying to find casual ways to bump into some of my ELT idols, women whose careers have been inspiring me for years and continue to inspire me today. I gave a talk, a re-jigged version of the one I’d done at the regional conference two months earlier. Five minutes in, one of the aforementioned women walked in and sat down, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach. When someone asked her at dinner later that night what she had thought of my talk, she apparently paused for a few seconds and then said the word “excellent” and nothing else. I was somewhere over the rainbow, let alone the moon.

Earlier this week I sat down and thought what a lot of difference one year can make. I also thought about how lucky I am to work at a school that not only offers me so many opportunities, but gives me the funding I need to take full advantage of them. Finally, I thought about what a privilege it is to have great role models in my life, both professionally and personally: my mother, who makes international conference-hopping seem as everyday as going down the local for a quick half, and my former DOS who was the first and only person in a position of authority at work to tell me he believed in me. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.

I’ll end this post with a few of my #sketchnotes from the three conferences I mentioned above. Enjoy!

I‘m enjoying my second year at the same school!

I’ve never had a second year at the same school before. I used to think that moving on to new pastures as soon as possible was the best way to develop, both culturally and professionally, and in almost four years’ of teaching I’ve somehow managed to work at five different schools. But now, for the first time, I’m experiencing all the rewards that come with staying, rather than running away.

1. You know what you’re doing

The single biggest cause of work-related stress for me last year was the constant feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know if my teaching was up to the expected standard, which resulted in constant over-planning and over-preparation. I didn’t know how the endlessly confusing IT system worked, which meant I wasn’t letting myself access useful student data. I also didn’t know how much freedom I was allowed in terms of syllabus and content, which led to me completely abandoning the textbook in my more daring moments and then suddenly scurrying back to it two lessons later, panic-stricken.

This year, after 12 months of experimentation and failure and success, I finally know what I’m doing. I know exactly which boundaries to push, and which ones to leave alone. I know where to invest my time so that my students get the greatest benefit and I’m not up all night worrying about the next day’s lessons.

2. You can make improvements

I’m not talking about making complaints or suggestions. Anyone can do that, any time, anywhere. I’m talking about something more powerful – the kind of targeted, meaningful, effective improvement that can only happen as a result of long-term observation and experience. In other words, you have to learn the rules before you break them.

I’ll give you an example: when I first got to the school, I was horrified by how much importance was placed on formal assessment of our young learners. Every course seemed to be geared towards Cambridge exams; the ability of every learner was described in terms of main suite can-do statements. It flew directly in the face of my fundamental beliefs about what teaching and learning should look like, and I found it incredibly hard to deal with initially.

Now, I understand that it’s a direct response to the overarching educational culture of Italy. It helps stakeholders to measure progress and understand exactly what they’re paying for. It’s the reason students keep coming back for more and ultimately, that’s what maintains motivation and progression. As much as I yearn for a world where exams are not both the question and the answer, I have come to accept that my school is designed to cater to a very different reality.

This long-term understanding has led me to realise that getting rid of exams is not the way to move the school forward; the answer is in training teachers to understand the local exam culture as soon as they arrive, so they can hit the ground running. This means giving training in the different types of exams offered, as well as help in how to design and teach balanced, multi-faceted courses that serve the students both for their exams and their long-term holistic learning.

3. You get to see your students grow

This is the single best thing about staying in your post long-term, and it’s also one of the reasons I love teaching teenagers so much.

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to stay with several of the classes I worked with last year, meaning I’ve had the privilege of watching those students grow both in their learning, and as people. Our teacher-student relationships are also richer for having endured and understood each other’s idiosyncrasies, mistakes and moments of weakness. I see these teenagers learning more about who they are, and it helps me understand myself better too.

4. You get to see yourself grow

Think of it as a professional experiment: all other things being equal, what kind of teacher do you want to be? I’m not saying you can’t develop when your circumstances and surroundings are new to you; I’m just saying it’s much harder, because so much of your time is spent just surviving. Learning a new language or even adjusting to a new work culture are things that EFL teachers start to take for granted after a while, and in turn we start to forget what a toll that takes. Sometimes you need stability around you, so you can start to change the things you actually want to change.

I’ve spent the last eight months working through the Cambridge Delta, and in three months’ time, I’ll be finished! The only reason I’m actually pulling this off while also holding down a full-time teaching job is because of the security gained from returning to a familiar post in a familiar context. But even on days when I’m not working on a formal qualification, the value of returning to a post is that you start to question yourself: How have I improved since I taught this exact course last year? How am I going to improve so that it’s even better next year? That’s the drive that pushes us to stay sharp and keep on learning. It’s the starkest, bleakest measure of professional development, and there’s no shying away from it.