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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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.

I’m no longer scared of being observed!

So, I’m walking out the door of the staffroom. It’s 6:05pm. (Last class of the day – almost done!) I’ve got one foot in, one foot out, when my DoS walks up to me and asks if the new teacher who joined us earlier this week could possibly come observe my class. (The one that starts five minutes from now, that is.) For a good few seconds, I stand there slack-jawed, waiting for that old familiar observation panic to kick in … but it never comes. And then I hear a calm voice (my voice?) coolly say, “Yeah, of course. That’s absolutely fine.”

How did we get here, ladies and gentlemen? Was it really that long ago when the mere idea of another teacher being in my classroom was enough to make me break into a sweat, mess up my staging and forget half my lesson plan? How many hours would I spend slogging over lesson plans and language analysis sheets that my line managers would inevitably spend a maximum of ten minutes glancing over during a quick pre-obs meeting? How many nights would I spend obsessively going over an observed lesson, making a mental note of all the things I could have done differently?

Hard though it is to pinpoint exactly when and how my observation-related fears suddenly vanished, I think it mainly comes down to the following factors:

Saturation. I was observed so often during Delta Module 2 and the IH CYLT that it almost started to seem weird not to have someone sitting in my classroom at all times, making notes on every single thing I thought, said and did, and then reporting those notes back to me afterwards in minute and at times frankly unnecessary detail!

Awareness. Again, thanks to Delta Module 2, I’m much more aware of my own beliefs and assumptions as a teacher, and I can use them to fully justify every one of those instinctive decisions we constantly have to make during a lesson. This also means I’m comfortable identifying, analysing and criticising my own decisions post-obs, all the while avoiding that rookie CELTA mistake of, “Oh god, it was terrible!”

Interest. As a lover of teaching and learning, and an ambitious young professional, I am chomping at the bit to learn everything I possibly can about what I do. Observations are, hands down, one of the best ways to do that. There’s nothing like personalised, constructive, forward-looking feedback to boost your standards!

Confidence. Having received, on balance, more positive observation feedback than negative in my teaching career so far, I can now tell myself I’m statistically unlikely to make any life-altering mistakes that will have me berating myself for hours afterwards. (Not that this doesn’t still happen from time to time, of course!) TLDR; I can say with some certainty that I don’t completely suck at my job.

Prudence. Now that I’ve been teaching for almost four years, I know that observations are not the time to try new, complicated activities you’ve never done before, unless that’s the specific aim of the observation as pre-arranged with your observer. I know not to try to fit two hours of teaching into 80 minutes. I also know when to throw the lesson plan and the rules out of the window and just go with it.

As for my observation today, it went very well, thank you very much for asking! My students were absolutely stellar, as they always are, and gave me a lot of food for thought via a discussion about fake news and the modern role of social media as a primary news source for the public. Here’s the #ELTwhiteboard from the lesson for your viewing pleasure:

Observations - #ELTwhiteboard

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.

 

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.