I wrote a syllabus!

This morning I put the finishing touches to a three-year syllabus aimed at preparing Italian teenagers to sit for the Cambridge IGCSE in Extended Mathematics.

Even writing it down feels strange, but I’m slowly coming to terms with it. I did this. I designed a full teaching programme for CLIL students at a local state school, and heaven knows I did it with very little help.

I’m not particularly proud of the latter part, especially since my school were kind enough to send me to the official Cambridge training session in Rome last year. Unfortunately, when I got there, the workshop leader decided that addressing the topic of syllabus design wasn’t the best way of “catering to the needs of the teachers in the room”, leaving me feeling somewhat short-changed but nevertheless challenged to see what I could do about it.

Luckily, having spent most of my teaching career working in the EFL industry, I am no stranger to being asked to do something in which you have received minimal training and will be expected to learn about on the job. We can discuss the merits of that in a later post, but the fact remains: I would never have known I was capable of doing this if I hadn’t been asked to do it. Besides, I already knew the school, the course and the students inside out. If there was ever a perfect syllabus-writing situation, this was it.

The actual nitty-gritty of it wasn’t anywhere near as glamorous as I’d imagined, and mostly consisted of me spending long weekends and weekday mornings poring over the IGCSE exam syllabus from the Cambridge website, various English-language GCSE textbooks, a couple of Italian-language textbooks for the first three years of liceo, and the Italian-language maths curriculum that the students would be following simultaneously.

I started off by using a three-year wall planner to subdivide the IGCSE syllabus into ‘layers’ that could more or less be mapped onto each of the three years available for teaching. These layers were then broken down into study units using a huge academic diary. I blocked these off month-by-month, including several review opportunities and significant assessment time as advised by the exam syllabus. Then each unit had to be further subdivided into individual lessons, using the textbooks for guidance, all the while trying to mirror the meander of the Italian curriculum as closely as possible.

And now that it’s complete, two weeks later, the only thing left to do is see how it works in practice. From now until May, I get to teach the first two years of my own syllabus, which means any changes can easily be made as and when the need arises. By the end of the year I hope to have a tried-and-tested syllabus document on file, complete with lesson plans and homework tasks, and hopefully some student feedback to help me adjust and refine it for the next academic session.

Wish me luck!

I wildly underestimated the maturity of 12-year-olds!

I’ve never taught a class like this before. Seven students, fresh from passing the PET exam, aiming to achieve the full B2 level within the next two years. They always arrive on time for class, are incredibly polite, work impressively well with each other, and have fantastic memories to boot. On paper, it’s my dream class. There’s just one small detail to reckon with: they’re 12 years old.

I knew, going in, that it wasn’t going to be easy. Their teacher from the 2016/2017 academic year had briefed me on the challenges of preparing such a young class for such a high-level goal. Even one of the students’ mothers had warned me about the potential pitfalls: how the students weren’t used to explicit language focus, struggled to focus on the same task for a long period of time, and didn’t know how to take the initiative in their own learning. I knew all this going in. Well, I should have known all this going in. 

My first lesson with them was, by my own standards, mildly disastrous. Relying on an old faithful ‘first lesson’ I’ve used countless times with teenage students at the B1 level, I strode confidently into the classroom on the first day, ready to build some quality rapport and generally teach the hell out of that class. There are lots of reasons why that didn’t really happen in the end, including but not limited to the fact that the air conditioning and computer both decided to break not two minutes before class began. As I frantically tried to remember what exactly was on that PowerPoint slide – WHY hadn’t I prepared something that morning instead of using old materials from the year before?! – we all started to gently bake to death inside the 30°C classroom. 

I did eventually remember what I’d planned to do, not that it was much help at all in the end. You see, it turns out that there is a whole world of difference between the ages of 12 and 14; a vast chasm of maturity and self-awareness and even minimal levels of global consciousness that those 12-year-old students just didn’t have. One of my questions (“What’s your favourite thing about this city?”) had half the class in peals of laughter for a full seven minutes. I know it was seven minutes, because I timed it. “How can we possibly answer that question?” they screamed, hysterical tears in their eyes. “We live here! Hahaha! HAHAHAHA!”

A younger, less experienced version of myself would have balked at that, but I didn’t drag myself through hell and back (read: Delta M2) this summer just so a bunch of 12-year-olds could laugh me out of the classroom. I rallied. One or two classroom management strategies later and I’d more or less got the group back on track; they left the lesson with a good amount of speaking practice, some discourse-based sandwich correction to look over, and lots of new vocabulary to learn. (Their personal favourite: the word ‘highlight’.) Not the life-affirming, heart-warming bonding session I was expecting it to be, but not a train wreck either. Which is a sad standard to be holding myself to, if I’m honest.

I slumped back into the staff room and wallowed in self-pity for as long as I could professionally manage, before a colleague reminded me of one of my favourite things about teaching YLs: they have ridiculously short memories, especially for classroom experiences that didn’t go as intended. I plunged myself into preparing lesson two. There was nothing I could do about the lesson just gone, but that didn’t stop me whining about it to my boyfriend, flatmates, colleagues, and that nice old lady who lives downstairs. Deep down, I knew it didn’t matter; I was fully aware of the score now, and the second round was going to swing in our favour.

And I’m happy to say, it did. In fact, lesson 2 went bloody fabulously, and by the end I really felt we’d crossed a bridge in terms of group rapport as well as classroom expectations. We listened to each others’ opinions. We had a real, meaningful debate on a topic we could all contribute to. We told some absolutely cracking ghost stories that I’m sure will have parents calling me up in a few days’ time, wondering why their kids refuse to go to sleep. And most importantly, I actually started to understand who I was teaching. A very young class aiming for a very high-level goal, yes, but also a group of expert language learners with seven years’ experience at the school, coming out of the cocoon of childhood and reevaluating the world that was once so simple and familiar.

Of course that first lesson seemed so strange and unpredictable. How could I, so unwilling to see things through the eyes of a 12-year-old, possibly have understood what was going on from their point of view? How could I have prepared a perfect first lesson for a group unlike any other I’d taught before? How could I have planned for students who are rewriting the very definitions of who they are? Being 12 is certainly a wild ride, and one that I’ll have the privilege to bear witness to twice a week for the next academic year. 

But it’s not all smiles and kum-ba-yahs; at the end of the day, I’m still a teacher grappling with an adult textbook (shove off with your extreme interview questions and your signature psychoanalysis, New English File) and one of the youngest B2 classes the school has ever seen.

I’m not going to pretend I have some kind of master plan; at the moment, my strategy is getting to know them a little better every week and constructing a piecemeal syllabus for the next few lessons. Just maintaining that is going to take a huge amount of personal commitment and professional bravery, especially if every high and low ends up documented on this blog for the world to read. However, at some point I do hope to have a more cohesive, long-term plan that will allow me to really move forward with these students, as opposed to drowning in a tide of inappropriate resources and extremely high expectations. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation or you’ve got any tips, leave me a comment below. I need all the help I can get!

I’ve forgotten how to do my job!

The first lesson back after the summer break is generally a peculiar beast. Despite teaching several adult classes over the summer, I still came back to school last week feeling like I’d forgotten how to do my job. Apparently I’m not alone, because I walked into the staffroom a full three hours before my first lesson to find that all the other teachers had gotten there before me, to “get stuff sorted”. Even colleagues with several years’ teaching experience reported the same phenomenon: sitting down to plan the first lesson and experiencing that mild panic when ideas don’t seem to come quite as easily as you’d remembered.

Maybe it’s a practical thing. Things just take longer after the summer break. You’ve forgotten the photocopier code, the young learner coursebooks have been moved upstairs, and the speakers in your classroom just refuse to work so you have to get someone up to fix them, or else rewrite that bottom-up listening lesson you were planning to do. Your three-hour jumpstart on that first lesson has somehow dwindled into thirty minutes, and now you’ve finally remembered your photocopier code but where did you leave your pencil case? Has anyone seen it? Guys?

It’s easy to blame those first-day-back nerves on logistical hiccups, but I suspect that at least part of it is emotional. We’ve had a long summer break, with far too much time to analyse and, more often than not, deconstruct our teaching from the previous year. How did my PET classes get on in their June exam session? Should I be doing more bottom-up listening practice with my teens? How can I move towards using more student-generated materials this year? Underlying all those questions is a genuine desire to develop, combined with the insidious whisperings of Imposter Syndrome. You don’t know how to do your job. Last year was a fluke, and in fact, so was all of your prior teaching experience – look, it’s taken you forty minutes just to plan this first lesson …

It’s funny that even after doing Delta M2 and receiving extensive feedback stating quite the opposite, I still feel like a fraud in teacher’s clothing to a certain extent. Does Imposter Syndrome ever go away? Or does it just mean I still care (too much) about my job? Answers on the back of postcard, please, especially if you’re an experienced teacher reading this blog post!

Luckily for me, past-Sanchia had anticipated future-Sanchia having teacher’s block in September, and had left future-Sanchia all seven of past-Sanchia’s lesson-planning books from the year before, safe in her locker, ready to copy from should future-Sanchia need them. Future-Sanchia did, of course, need them, and found herself repeating quite a few of last year’s tried-and-tested first lesson ideas, which present-Sanchia is currently writing up for a future blog post.

And if you’ve made it this far, leave me a comment and let me know how your first lessons are going!

I got a new Twitter account!

Obviously, being a millennial, I’m not Twilliterate*. I’ve had Twitter accounts before, including a handle for immature yet mildly funny observations about life in London. Highlights on request, if you’re interested.

But despite having managed more than one successful “brand” account, for a long time I still hadn’t figured out how to really leverage Twitter as a tool for professional development. During my very, very short stint as an accounting intern, I tried miserably to join the hoardes of eager graduate students online, live-tweeting company conferences and hashtagging pre-approved slogans. But I never really made it past sycophantic retweets of my bosses’ posts and awkwardly forced “networking” with other interns. I deleted that account a few months later.

So why, this time around, have things suddenly changed? Since optimistically creating yet another Twitter account on the last day of my Delta course, I’ve met loads of incredible teachers, got hold of some brilliant resources, and have found a million ways to channel the experiences, advice and opinions of others into my own professional development. The secret ingredient can only be one thing: love for the job.

Twitter couldn’t make me like accountancy, nor could it make me better at it. But teaching is my pride and passion, and I’m hungry to learn as much as I can about it. Obviously some of that learning is going to come from self-study and working with the small team of dedicated teachers at my current school, but – you guys – there’s a whole world out there! Twitter drags me out of the echo chamber of my own thoughts and my familiar school setting, and makes me wildly question every belief I’ve ever held and every assumption I’ve ever made about teaching. In a great way.

Last week, for example, I participated in my first ever #ELTchat. It was just a pre-sessional event, mostly to drum up a few ideas to make up the schedule for the rest of the year, but I met so many people! They listened to me! I listened to them! I talked to teachers on the other side of the world who I’ve never met and may never meet and we had things in common and we also had nothing in common and all this was communicated in 140 characters or less!

Twitter is beautiful. Even just the support from my followers after starting this blog has been incredible. Thanks for the retweets, likes and advice on what and how to write!

Of course, I’ve also seen some fairly horrible things on Twitter. I’ve seen highly qualified teachers in positions of academic authority write scathing, personal critiques of their peers’ work. I also recently saw that my mum literally has 1,400 more followers than I do. I’m not sure which event I found more scarring, if I’m honest.

So Twitter isn’t a panacea for my developmental ills, but it could very well be the tool I need to spur me on in my endless quest for self-improvement. After all, there are worse things to have at your back than hundreds of supportive colleagues with thousands of years of experience between them. So I’ll see you at 8pm Italian time for the #ELTchat! A dopo …

* That’s millennial-speak for ‘Twitter illiterate’, in case you were wondering.

I started a(nother) blog!

After two reasonably successful yet ultimately short-lived attempts at this, I have decided that now is the time to buckle down and become a Serious Blogger. It turns out that ELT is a much more Serious Business than previously thought, and – in all seriousness – it turns out I know very little about it.

So, in the spirit of professional development, I’m starting an ELT blog! Some very wise people (that is, my former DOS and fellow Delta trainees) told me to do it, so therefore it must be the best (and indeed, only) solution to all my developmental needs as an English teacher. Or that’s what I’ve been led to believe by my English-teaching peers, which I feel entirely absolves me of any responsibility should this all go disastrously wrong.

Anyway, I thought I’d kick off by compiling and publishing my Blog Manifesto, which is apparently a thing that Serious Bloggers do! After all, the best kind of fun is rule-governed fun:

That ELT Blog Manifesto

  1. Write about teaching. If it’s not directly related to teaching, don’t write about it.
  2. Write what you think, not what you think other people want to hear. If your opinions eventually change, be honest about it.
  3. Listen to other people. Stop listening when it gets personal. (You can blame Twitter for that one.)
  4. Write at least once a week. (This particular pledge is definitely not going to stand the test of time, but I’m putting it down so at least I can be publicly shamed when I fail miserably at it.)
  5. All the other goals have already been taken.

That wasn’t so hard! How difficult can it be to maintain a professional blog alongside a full-time teaching schedule, anyway? ELT world, watch this space.