What makes a good lesson?

This seems like a very easy question to answer, but in giving it some thought over the last few weeks I only began to uncover some of its complexities.

For me I would say that in a good lesson:

  • students learn something new
  • students are able to use something they have learned
  • students’ self-confidence is supported, maintained, or raised
  • both students and the teacher have fun
  • the time flies
  • the teacher feels good about the way the class went
  • we try out something new and it works
  • the feedback from the students is positive
  • students make connections between what they are learning and their ‘real’ lives
  • the students ask interested, intelligent, or engaged questions
  • students begin to use critical thinking skills
  • students contribute their own ideas and opinions
  • students support each other and work collaboratively
  • we get through most of the material that I had planned to cover
  • there is enough time to answer questions and discuss topics which come up

It seems to me that these may be only some of the aspects that could define a successful lesson and some may be more important to some of us than others. What I find intriguing, however, is how to ensure that this happens on a regular basis. What do we need to do to in order to make this part of our everyday teaching experience?

My two main areas of teaching at the moment are classes at the university in which I have a variety of students from different fields of study and at different levels. Three of my classes are on general English and consist of both Austrian and foreign students at B1 level. I have a great deal of freedom in what I cover and how I do it as long as the agreed basics for B1 are present. We had a lot of fun a week ago working on mini-presentations, a sometimes difficult topic in intermediate classes as students may be nervous and read from notes in order to avoid mistakes. In preparation the week before, students were given a worksheet with some ideas about creating their ideal home and were told to bring some photos or pictures to class the following week. They were then given scissors, glue, pens and flipchart paper and asked to create a visual aid for their presentation. The only rule was that this ‘ideal’ home had to be a place where they could all live together. The groups worked with enthusiasm and created wonderful posters which they then presented to the others. It was fascinating to see them stand up and explain their ideas to the rest of the class, speaking freely and enthusiastically about their creations. It seems that some of the reasons this went well was that they had had enough time to work on the posters and what they wanted to say and, in addition, had the support of the others so that they felt confident. It was also completely their own work making it much easier to put into their own words. We all left the classroom feeling that this was a successful lesson and the majority of the points listed above were covered.

Students showing off their work.

classroom photo with home sweet home

My other class at the moment consists of a group of project managers. Here we use a book which is very helpful for me and gives the students the vocabulary they feel they need. One comment that often comes up is that they have the impression that they are not only learning English vocabulary but also learning more about project management, although some of them have been doing it for years. This class is also easy for me to relate to. Although I have never worked specifically as a project manager, having been involved in organizing conferences for teaching associations gives me a great deal of background in getting projects done within a certain period of time. The students also welcome this sort of input as they feel that I truly understand their jobs and what they have to do providing a feeling of rapport in the class. This ease in speaking with each other then leads to lively discussions and the points above are present in these lessons as well.

One thing I have noticed in my reflections is how I feel when I arrive. Those classes I generally look forward to usually go better, whatever the reason may be. It could be that I simply enjoy the company of the students and look forward to spending time with them. I may have prepared a new game or activity I am eager to try out or have one with me that I have used countless times successfully. Or it could be a group in which I feel comfortable enough to simply try out something new on the spot and am confident that it will be a success. Or maybe just noticing the beauty of my surroundings on my way to work. Finding the time to reflect on this while in the midst of the semester of putting exams together, setting homework tasks, grading papers and so on is not always something at the top of our lists. But as teaching is a job that we do not leave behind when we walk out of the classroom, this type of reflection could be exactly what we need to do in order to maintain and enhance the enthusiasm which can help make our jobs a delight to do.

On the way to work

2012-07-04 19.37.48

 

Getting started

My blogging debut has been something I have been ruminating on for several months. The main idea of setting up the blog was to have a place to reflect on what I learn through teaching and from my students as well as to consider how all the aspects of my ELT world come together to create a whole.

 

Firstly, I feel I need to introduce myself as an ELT professional. I never expected to end up in teaching at all. I studied music at university and, after teaching music for two years in Buffalo, New York public schools, I moved to New York City to study voice. After running a small opera company with a friend along with working a ‘day job’ at an advertising agency, I came to Europe in 1981 with the aim of landing a contract in an opera house and making my ‘non-day’ job into my full-time vocation. At first, everything went according to plan; I found a voice teacher, set up auditions, even found other budding singers to perform with on main squares of European cities to earn some money. But the chance to snare the golden ring just didn’t happen. Although I gave lots of concerts and had the opportunity to perform on a fairly regular basis, I never secured a position in an opera house. So in order to continue living in Europe it was necessary to find another way to make a living. An opportunity expressed itself in the form of a part-time job teaching English an adult-education institution in Graz, Austria, where I was living at the time. To my surprise I quickly realized that this new direction was one which I found myself increasingly drawn into. I enjoyed imparting knowledge, having a so-called ‘captive’ audience and feeling like a professional doing a job which was respected and valued. Bit by bit this expanded into a career rather than just something to keep my head above water.

 

I actually stayed at the centre I began at for about twenty years teaching a variety of courses, writing materials and developing curriculum. A colleague involved me fairly early on in teacher training seminars and workshops set up by the Ministry of Education and over the last thirty years I have designed and run over 400 of these. One course I taught on for some fifteen years was for vocational school teachers who needed to have an additional qualification in English, German or sports in order to keep their jobs in the vocational schools. Working with painters, hairdressers, ICT technicians, car mechanics, and other qualified professionals was very different for me and a real eye-opener as many of the techniques I had been using needed to be adapted or dropped completely. These learners were much more hands-on than others I had worked with leading me to discover new concepts and ideas to help them improve in a second (or in some cases) a third language.

 

After working with in-service teachers, the chance came for a part-time job at a college for pre-service teachers so I jumped at it. Some of the students were majoring in English but there were also those training to teach in primary schools or specalising in fields such as nutrition and ICT. This again broadened my horizons about what learners needed and what we can expect from them. It also let me reach back to my past and rediscover the songs I had taught my elementary school learners years ago as well as all the finger games we played as children and the nursery rhymes we learned growing up in an English-speaking environment.

 

Over the years some things have stayed the same and others have radically changed. I am still working with students, this time at the language centre of the University of Graz where we have students from all fields of study. I run workshops and seminars both for the Ministry of Education as well as for teaching associations around Europe, travel to as many conferences as possible and have continued working with adult learners in in-company courses. I also joined the local teaching association, Teachers of English in Austria, when it was first founded some twenty years ago and served as Chair from 2003 to 2005. This led to my interest in working with teaching associations and I joined the committee of IATEFL BESIG in 2008 as an events coordinator eventually taking over as coordinator of the SIG. My connection to IATEFL as an organization has also grown stronger and in 2013 joined the Membership Committee. Many of us talk about having the best job at IATEFL but I am convinced mine is, I get to set up and moderate webinars with ELT people who have long served as my inspiration in the field. In addition, I have moved into the field of writing and brought out my first business English photocopiable book in 2001. Since that time there have been three series of course books for the Austrian schools as well as books in the business English field and one recently on methodology.

 

As all of this indicates, time is the one thing that I have the least of at the moment and I don’t see it changing radically anytime soon. One reason for starting this blog was to make me take the time to sit down and do some reflecting. Watch this space for those reflections.