I work 48 hours a week!

I’ve spent the last couple of days feeling like a bit of a prat.

On Friday, I saw a hashtag that piqued my interest.

I blithely tweeted back with my honest answer.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a tweet blow up like that one did.

Look, it’s not that I was previously unaware of how hard I was working. I even wrote about it here. I just didn’t realise that it was unusual to work that kind of schedule in ELT; I honestly, genuinely thought everyone did it.

I quickly found out that wasn’t true when the replies started popping up on my Twitter feed. f you’ve got a couple of hours spare, I do encourage you to check out the original hot mess on Twitter via the link above, but if not, here are some particularly tasty morsels for your viewing pleasure: “Bloody hell, go easy on yourself!” “That’s an insane amount of work.” “It *really* isn’t worth it. Your health and sanity are worth a lot more.” “With hours like that you have to question your quality of teaching.” There was even one guy who just tweeted back at me with the words “Burnout alert!”

… and so on, and so forth, pretty much continuously for the next two days, until my original Tweet had spawned a kind of monster comment thread, riddled with shocked reactions and well-meant suggestions and when-I-was-younger anecdotes from my fellow teachers. I have to tell you, I spent my Sunday afternoon perched at my living room table, with one panicked eye on my Delta Module 3 assignment and the other eye, mildly horrified, on my Twitter notifications.

I felt, and continue to feel, incredibly stupid. And if ‘stupid’ isn’t quite the right word with quite the right nuance, then ‘naive’ certainly is. How could I have thought that this was the done thing for so long? Why did I just blindly accept it all, despite acknowledging to myself on my own blog that work was completely exhausting? How had I managed to get through the madness-inducing workload of Delta Module 2, promising myself that it was only a temporary arrangement, only to let myself promptly drown in a sea of work upon starting back at my regular job? How was I supposed to know?

The scariest thing, I suppose, is the thought that if Marc had never tweeted the original hashtag, I might never have realised there was anything wrong with my status quo. It really does make me wonder how many other young ELT teachers are out there dealing with the same sort of demands and expectations at work, without the support of more seasoned teachers – or even colleagues with experience in other industries – to support them. I certainly would never have got to this point without the help and advice of all the lovely Twitterfolk who took a moment to stop and leave me their words of wisdom and support. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is an issue worth adding to initial teacher training courses.

As it stands, I went straight to my DoS on Monday afternoon to hash things out. Despite being utterly convinced that I was doing the right thing, and with all the validation of written comments from several other ELT professionals, I was still absolutely terrified going in to that meeting. It’s made me realise that I have yet to fully confront my (unfounded) feelings of doubt and low self-worth at work.

We discussed the problems as I saw them, as well as a couple of solutions to help make things more manageable for me, and while I have no guarantee that any of those ideas are going to be taken on board, I do feel much better for having faced things head on. As one of my colleagues reminded me, you can only change the things that are directly under your control. Whatever happens now, at least I can say I tried.

Lesson Plan: Banksy Part One! (B2 to C1)

This is easily one of the most engaging lessons I’ve ever taught. So far, I’ve used it with over 100 different students across a range of ages and classes, and it just works. As if that wasn’t enough, it also leads quite naturally into FCE and CAE writing projects (lesson plans coming soon). All in all, it’s a great way to get your students into modern British art, while also encouraging deeper reflection and critical thinking.

NOTE: Originally, this lesson was just a riff on a double-page spread from the Speak Out Upper Intermediate course. Eventually, I developed it to the point that I was no longer using the materials from the coursebook. However, I’m still very grateful to both Frances Eales and Steven Oakes for the fantastic idea!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers or adults
Time: 60 minutes
Materials: vocabulary cards, slideshow of artwork by Banksy (comment for files)

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will be better able to use the following lexis to praise/criticise Banksy’s art: irresponsible, satirical; vandalism, a valid art form; controversial; provocative; anarchy-lite; defaces buildings; derivative; hideous; pioneering; iconic; subversive, distinctive.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Banksy Part One! (B2 to C1)

I gave my managers some feedback!

Our school has problems.

No surprises there; all schools have them. But our school also has an all-too-rare culture of regular developmental feedback, and that makes all the difference.

Today I chaired an open meeting for teaching staff only. Management was away at the AMT conference in Greenwich, and we all know how the old adage goes: while the cats are away, the mice will get together at a mutually convenient time and identify what they feel are the school’s critical weaknesses, before compiling a document of constructive suggestions in order to effectively address the situation.

A full ninety minutes had been set aside, but it wasn’t enough time. I’m proud to say that despite only managing to cover six of the nine points on the agenda, my colleagues and I managed to fill every one of those ninety minutes, as well as six whole A4 pages of 10-point Calibri. I’m proud to say I work at a place where teachers are invested enough in the school’s heart and soul to actually want to make long-term changes, despite the inherent hard work and uncertainty involved. I’m proud to say that not one of my colleagues seemed uncomfortable voicing their (at times, unpopular) opinions for fear of repercussions down the line, despite the fact that everything we said was written down for posterity.

And as if that wasn’t already enough catharsis for one day, our school director came into the staffroom straight after the meeting and asked if we could sit down together at the end of the very same school day, so that she could personally read and try to understand each of the suggestions we’d included in the document.

What more could you ask for?

I learned a lot in 2017!

Are you even a blogger if you don’t publish some sort of year-in-review post? In any case, the holidays are a time for following traditions, not rocking the boat, so here’s the closest thing to a listicle I hope I’ll ever write:

A few things that I’ve learned this year at work …

  • A school is only as happy as its staff room.
  • I work in one of the precious few industries where strong female role models abound.
  • One of the most effective ways of empathising with my students is to keep putting myself in that uncomfortable position of being a language learner myself.
  • ELT is mostly about who you know, and not necessarily what you know.
  • Outstanding schools are the ones where teachers go above and beyond for their students, and are recognised and rewarded for it.
  • It’s better to be well-rested, healthy and a little under-prepared for class than sleep-deprived, ill and over-prepared.
  • One of the best things a teacher can do for their students is to keep a low profile in the classroom.
  • Every single piece of new language must go on the whiteboard, however unimportant it may seem to you at the time.
  • I am much more resilient than I think.
  • There is no amount of money I can earn that is worth more than my free time in my twenties.

… and a few things that I have yet to learn.

  • It’s really hard to be what you can’t see.
  • Spending 50 hours a week at school and only getting paid for 35 of those does not constitute a healthy work-life balance.
  • People will rarely think you’re worth more than you think you are.
  • Sometimes it’s OK to say no.
  • Professional things should not be taken personally.

I hope 2017 has been similarly enlightening for you too, wherever in the world you are. I’ll see you all in 2018!

I am very, very tired!

Picture the scene: a chilly December afternoon in southern Italy. The sun is beginning its slow descent over the snow-capped peak of Mount Etna. The school is a mere five hours from closing for the Christmas holidays. I am writing this blog post while sitting on the floor of our school computer room, invigilating as a final handful of students finish off their mid-course exams.

Today is the first day in a very, very long time that I am not going to go home to my boyfriend and start deconstructing, in unnecessarily minute detail, every little thing that happened in my classroom. I’m not going to tell him about the funny things my students said, or the annoying changes to school policy that have been implemented, or the stupid mistakes I made and how I should have known better. I do not have the mental or emotional capacity left to do any of these things.

I am very, very tired.

My boyfriend tells me that I work too much. He says I need to learn how to switch off when I come home from school. He says that in a way, I’m always working, and there are very few moments in a day, term or year when I am not thinking about school.

These things are all true. Here’s the problem: I don’t care.

I love my job. My students are everything to me. When I’m in a classroom, and I can see learning happening around me, I know that there’s nothing else I’d rather spend my life doing. I work double the time I get paid for under the conviction that the impact we have as teachers, however slow or small, is significant for our students. And then I go home and obsess about it, because that is how I show that I care.

Don’t get me wrong; my deconstruction of the day’s events is never empty criticism. It is true that I didn’t focus enough on writing micro-skills with my advanced students this year, it is true that our teacher development programme doesn’t cater for the needs of all of our teachers, and it is true that we should be paid proportionally for the extra time we spend marking exams and writing reports. However, I am not capable of pretending that I am OK with the current state of all of these things. I want to be better. I want my school to be better. One day, I want to look back on the work I have done here, and the changes I have made here, and the overall impact of my being here, and say, “Yes, this was all worth it.”

So, I am very, very tired, but that’s OK. Here’s to the relaxing, rejuvenating Christmas we’ve all been working so hard for since September.

Lesson Plan: All I Want For Christmas! (B2 to C1)

If your teenage students are anything like mine, then they’re absolutely exhausted and in desperate need of a fun, festive lesson around this time of year! This low-prep lesson outline uses a task-based learning format to help students tackle a Cambridge FCE/CAE-style speaking task in the context of Christmas presents.

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers (preferably working towards FCE or CAE)
Time: 80 minutes
Materials: 1 question sheet per student (comment for files)

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will have practised FCE/CAE Speaking Part 3 in the context of Christmas presents.
  • Students will also be better able to use phrases for … [e.g. turn-taking, negotiating, etc.  – depending on what your students need to focus on]

Continue reading Lesson Plan: All I Want For Christmas! (B2 to C1)

Lesson Plan: Courtroom Drama! (B2)

This is a really memorable, creative lesson I designed for my FCE teen class as a fun way of reworking the classic B2 tense review. They loved the context and the creativity, as well as the explicit grammar and pronunciation focus through the lens of TV drama.

Level: B2 (Upper-Intermediate)
Age: 15+
Time: 90-120 minutes, depending on the size of your class
Materials: 1 worksheet per student (comment for files)

Aims:

By the end of the lesson, students will have written and performed a short dialogue in the style of TV courtroom dramas.

Students will also have reviewed the meaning, form and pronunciation of past and present tenses in the context of eyewitness testimony.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Courtroom Drama! (B2)

I’m still waiting for my Delta results!

I have a theory that someone, somewhere currently knows whether or not I’ve passed Delta Module 2. Sadly, I am not that person, although I know for a fact that the results must have been released because everyone I know a friend of a friend says she’s already got hers and it’s a pass with merit, and isn’t that just kick-you-in-the-crotch laugh-out-loud amazing.

Obviously, there’s a reason why the wait for these exam results has been particularly hard. Part of it is that I blew almost three thousand euros on the course alone, and a heck of a lot more if you count the cost of flying to a foreign country, paying extortionate summer rent rates, and generally trying to stay alive and sane for two months. Y’know, if you count that sort of thing.

Part of it is that I’m currently studying for the Delta Module 1 exam, which I have to take in December, and – I won’t lie to you – morale is low. I could really do with the boost of knowing I’d already passed a very similar test set by the very same exam board.

But of course, the biggest issue is related to a post I wrote a little while ago: “I’ve forgotten how to do my job!” In it, I talk about the imposter syndrome that seems to dog so many young professionals in the world of ELT, and I daresay in the working world in general.

So, I’ll admit it again, in a different form: the main reason I’ve been so anxious to get my Delta results is that I’m genuinely worried I’ve failed. This is objectively ridiculous, because my first three assignments were graded as far away as you could reasonably get from a fail. But then again, I had to teach LSA 4 in a feverish, flu-induced haze, and maybe all my prowess as a teacher really could be undone by something as simple as a high fever.

Maybe.

So, come on, Cambridge. Do your worst …

 

I led a teacher training session!

Things seem to be happening very quickly at the moment. It honestly doesn’t seem like a huge amount of time has passed since I was finishing my CELTA, and then over summer I stumbled through Delta Module 2, and now I’m delivering teacher training sessions to my colleagues like that’s not an absolutely terrifying thing to be doing with only three years’ teaching experience.

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

I gave my first ever teacher training session last year, to a small room of colleagues who had all opted to be there, on a topic that nobody was really talking about at my school (integrating pronunciation teaching into YL and teen classes, if you’re wondering). I really could not have set my expectations any lower, but my former Director of Studies and Senior Teacher gently coached me along and made me believe I had a valuable perspective to offer. In the end, I was really proud of the session I managed to write and deliver. I could see people engaging and responding to what I was saying. The response from my colleagues afterwards was surprisingly positive, and to tell the truth, it made me feel really empowered as a developing teacher.

About a week after that, I had the privilege of presenting the same session to the wonderful teachers of the IH Palermo Language Centre, while being gently cheered on by their lovely Director of Studies, which also did wonders for my confidence. I started to think that perhaps I was capable of presenting on more than one topic, and asked my DoS for ideas for future teacher training sessions – to which he (very wisely) replied that I should wait until I’d finished my Delta Module 2 and then see what took my fancy.

So I came back to school this September, my views on ELT forever changed, and I decided to write a session on getting students to do your prep, inspired by Ken Lackman’s work on the same subject. The ideas were already sketched out in my Delta notes, the slides seemed to magically come together over a weekend, and I talked it through briefly with a colleague. Things seemed to flow. But my former Director of Studies and Senior Teacher weren’t there anymore to coach me forward, and their replacements were busy enough getting to grips with their new jobs without me making extra demands on their time.

When I turned up on the day, ready to deliver my session, I ended up running back from two hours of external classes at the local high school, zig-zagging up and down staircases looking for the room that had been incorrectly entered on my timetable, clutching a pile of coloured paper in one hand and my handwritten notes in the other. Everyone was already inside, waiting, another meeting (that I was unaware of) having ended five minutes before. Scanning the faces in the room, I quickly realised the session had not been advertised as optional, and I’d be presenting to my peers as well as senior teachers and heads of department.

It didn’t feel great, guys. I really wasn’t proud of the way I delivered that session, even though I still feel that the core ideas and materials were solid. I was out of breath, conscious of the clock ticking away as I scrambled to get slides, web pages and paper materials set up. In an English-teaching classroom, it wouldn’t have phased me, but as a fledgling teacher trainer I just didn’t have the experience and self-confidence to pull it off. I spent the rest of the day alone at my desk, deconstructing the mess I had made.

OK, OK, it wasn’t half as bad as I’m making it sound. But it really felt like a huge dip in progress after the comparable success of the first session, and there doesn’t seem to be much I can do about it. Teacher training sessions are always going to be at the same time every week, so I’ll always be rushing back from external lessons without any time to turn things around. People will always have meetings that I don’t know about, and it seems like sessions will always be compulsory for my colleagues. I’m always going to be insecure about my teacher training skills, and I’ll always have to present to people with far more experience than me. So how are things ever going to change?

I don’t have an answer yet, but asking the question is the first step. Watch this space!

I wrote a successful conference application!

The craziest thing happened this week.

During a weekly staff meeting in September, our DOS told us about this thing called the IH Young Learners Conference, and how this great opportunity for professional development was hosted at a different IH school every year, and would we like to write an application to host it at our school, even though the deadline was in less than a week?

So I looked at my new timetable, rapidly filling up with high-stakes Cambridge exam classes, and my brand-spanking-new CLIL maths syllabus that seemed to require some kind of debugging every single damn day, and my non-existent social life, constantly shrinking to accommodate all the things on my work wishlist, and I thought, “Let’s write us a conference application!”

So I did. I trawled Skyscanner to find every single direct flight from our nearest three airports, I brainstormed a never-ending list of potential corporate sponsors for the event, and I slaved over four paragraphs outlining in concise yet vivid detail all the reasons I love this school and this city. Every single person who I reached out to for help was only too happy to pitch in with everything from hotel rates to ideas for creative, unique social events. And even though I knew, in my heart of hearts, that IH were never going to choose our tiny school to host an annual international event, I really believed in what we were doing even just for the sake of acknowledging amongst ourselves how great our school really is.

I mean, everybody knew we weren’t going to get it. Our DOS reminded us not to get our hopes up, and a colleague told me she’d heard a rumour that a very, very big rival school in a very, very big city was also in the running, and a certain ELT pronunciation guru, who had popped down to our neck of the woods to lead a teacher training session, reassured me that the work we had done was valid and that we might even be in with a chance … the following year.

And then earlier this week my DOS and Director ushered us all into the staffroom in hushed tones at 4.30pm on an otherwise normal weekday afternoon and held up a wrinkled piece of A4 paper with a hastily-scrawled message that said IH YL CONFERENCE MARCH 2018 OUR SCHOOL, and, well, I lost my freaking mind, everyone.

I’m still not sure I’ve quite managed to get it back. It’s one thing to believe that you and your organisation are powerful, but it’s quite another to have that belief validated by your multinational parent organisation and school directors around the world who chose the proposal that you wrote.

That heart-pounding exploding-glitter shock was closely followed by the cold realisation of just how much work lies in store for us between now and March, should everything go to plan. For days, I was too scared to even write this blog post, terrified that my director would pop into the staffroom again only to say that it had, in the end, all been a big joke. But she hasn’t done, because it isn’t, and now it’s up to the whole team to prove that we are up to the task.

I have faith, just as I had faith that writing a ten-page application wasn’t a complete waste of time in the first place. But while we’ve got a little breathing room, I’m going to keep celebrating these small victories that remind us of the potential that we teachers have to change our little ELT worlds, one conference at a time.