Saturday, 2 August 2014

Developing Skill Sets

This may not surprise you, but I plan to start this article by sharing some experiences of none from China. I want to go back all the way to 2006 when I was working for ClarkMorgan corporate training. The GM of the company was a huge fan of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming). He was desperately keen to ensure it was something that all his trainers were fully-versed in and could use in the classroom. To that end, we did quite a bit of training that was very NLP-centered. If I am honest, it really wasn't my cup of tea. The discipline focuses on using the brain in different was so as to be more effective in life of, as in our case, more effective in the classroom. I liked some of the ideas, but I really didn't think it would have too much practical value for me. However, I certainly did not object to the training because, whether I bought into the material or not, it provided me with some new skills and a slightly different outlook.  

I was no great fan of NLP, but I was and still am a great fan of developing my skill-set. You should be too! In recent years, the development of the CELTA and other TESOL courses means that there is a far greater degree of standardization in teacher qualifications and competencies. I remember when I started out in 2004, that was really not the case. There were far more jobs open to English speakers with no qualifications and the variety in the quality of qualifications on show was far greater. Of the people I knew in my early years of teaching in China and Korea, there weren't many CELTA grads and quite a few got through on charm and being British alone. 

As great as teaching qualifications are - and I am deeply proud of my DipTESOL - I am very much of the opinion that they should really only represent the beginning of a teacher's education and development. A good teacher should always be looking to advance himself or herself. I want to point to important issues here. The first is that it is the height of laziness to rest on our CELTA laurels and think to ourselves that we have all the knowledge that we need to teach students English. Teaching qualifications give us a foundation, but there is always a pressing need to build on that foundation in order to do more. Not doing this leaves us phoning our classes in to a degree. A teacher who does not push on gives a good class, but could certainly do better. Sadly, I have encountered plenty of teachers like this. It is an area I always look at in an interview. A favorite question of mine is, "What types of training would you be hoping for us to deliver to you?". If I had a dollar for every time I heard answer like, "I feel the CELTA has prepared me for the classroom" or "I think I already have the key skills to succeed". I also encountered it when I was running a large school in Istanbul. Each time I tried to instigate knowlesge -sharing or brainstorming sessions for new techniques I had one teacher who would be ready with the phrase "When I did my CELTA ... ". Invariably it was followed by a negative response to a suggestion. 

That first point looks at how not embracing further development limits teachers and has a negative impact on the students. However, it can also have a negative impact in teachers themselves. Teachers who are happy with what they have limit themselves in terms recruitment. Around four.months ago when I was working in France, I advertised a vacancy for a full-time teacher. I received over 50 CVs from across the region and from across the globe. Amongst that was a large degree of chaff. However, I had about 20 with respectable qualifications and varying degrees of experience. Very few of the teachers, though, seemed to have done more in order to develop. There were a couple of candidates, however, who seemed to make the effort to go a bit further. One had done courses in community development and the other had done sports coaching qualifications and both were able to explain how they believed these divergent qualifications helped them to become better teachers. Ultimately, the 'sports coach' received an offer for money than I could offer. The 'community developer' proved to be a fantastic hire and I believe the extra dimension she could offer was truly valuable. 

At this point, I want to make one thing clear. When I talk about extra education, I  am not focusing on a grammar teaching certificate or a young learners course. Rather, I mean adding something a bit different to push skill boundaries in order to be able to teach better classes and to differentiate in the job market. To illustrate my point, I would like to give examples of two courses I have undertaken. The first was a few years ago when I was working in China. As something of a perk/internal development opportunity my employer, Wall Street English, offered me the chance to do an online management qualification. It was not an accredited teaching certificate, but it gave me more knowledge and experience. It certainly helped when I taught Business English and when I taught some of the more technical aspects of General English. The second comes from right now. I recently discovered the website coursera (Google it!) which offers free online courses from some very impressive universities. I have signed up for a few of these. They are not directly related to TEFL, but they are all education themed and I really hope they will help me diversify as a teacher. I am currently really enjoying a course about online learning run by the University of New South Wales. 

The crux of this piece is that it is hugely beneficial for both your students and you as a teacher if you try to diversify and add different knowledge and skills to your talent set.  

Drama in the Classroom

The nucleus of this story comes from my time in Turkey. It actually comes from my very first week in the country when I was working in the rather pleasant confines of the capital Ankara. If I recall correctly it was a rather cold and windy afternoon and, because of the inclement weather, I was eating my lunch in the school. As I munched away on a rather good kebab, one of my students came across to the table at which I was sitting and asked if he could join. He took a seat and we engaged in some rather inoffensive small-talk about the weather and football before he broached a far more interesting subject. He said he had been in a couple of my classes and asked if I had done any theatrical training. 

It seemed a rather unusual question, so I asked him why he had posed it. He explained that he enjoyed the way that I gave real-life examples to explain vocabulary because he thought that I really committed myself to the example as though I were playing a part in a play. I thanked him for the compliment before explaining that I had no theater training at all. He told me that my answer surprised him and that he had recently been involved in a workshop for high-school and university teachers in Ankara that had focused on using theatrical skills to help teachers give extra color to their classes. This had led him to wonder if I had done something similar. 

My student's comments got me thinking about whether I was something of a drama queen in the classroom and if that was actually adding a whole different element to my classes. The idea lingered as I taught more and more classes in Turkey. And, I have to admit, I think he had a point. I noticed myself using accents and differentt voices more and more as I explained certain points and set-up activities. It also got me thinking back to my time in China and to one of the best teachers/trainers I ever worked with. His name was Jeff and whenever he dropped any Chinese language into his classes - he did this quite a bit when doing technical Business English - he took on a whole other persona. It worked fantastically well in pulling in the students. I began to think that the training he attended was a worthwhile idea. The ability to drop a few dramatic moments into a class could really add color to classes. 

Another interesting take on the subject came from my girlfriend, who often used to drop by my school and watch some of my classes. She pointed out that I was like two different people. The real Paul and 'Teacher Paul'. She explained that she felt I was like a chariacature of myself when I was in the classroom. I was louder, more outgoing and tried to tell more jokes. She said it felt like I seemed to have far fewer inhibitions in the classroom. Her comments really got me thinking and pushed me into a more existential line of thinking. Do we all play a role as 'the teacher'? Or, should we play that role? If we look at the classroom like a stage, it gives the teacher the opportunity to hide any shyness or inhibitions and bring great 'personality' to the class - even if it is not their own real-life personality. I was certainly doing that to an extent and I have, in the past, worked with teachers who were extremely different inside the classroom compared to outside. 

I am not 100% sure what my conclusions are on this topic. I know for sure that my student was pretty astute and spotted something that I had missed about myself. I did use a certain dramatic sense in my classes and it seemed to work. For the record, it still does and I would recommend a bit of theater to any teacher. Whether this means a few new voices and body movements or the creation of a teacher persona I am not sure. I would proffer the opinion that for naturally confident teachers a bit of theater is enough. However for those that are not so bursting with self-assurance playing the role of the confident teacher is a great way to approach delivering fun classes.