What advice would I give my former self?

Background
This is a really interesting question to consider at this point in my teaching career. I actually started teaching for the first time in 1972 when I was at university finishing a Master’s degree in music. We could register as substitute teachers and would be called when needed to cover classes when someone was ill. It was an experience that taught me flexibility and survival techniques in the classroom. At the same time I was finishing up a certification in music education and the combination of reality versus theory was enlightening. I then spent two full years teaching what we now call ‘at-risk’ students in a school in the one of the poorest areas of the city. The lesson I learned then was ‘it was often more important how we taught than what we taught’, something I have kept in mind all these years.

a day out with the school kids at the park

a day out with the school kids at the park

a school performance of 'Rubber Ducky'

a school performance of ‘Rubber Ducky’

Starting off in Austria
When I arrived in Austria in 1981 I began auditioning for opera houses but needed a ‘day job’ and started off with two types of jobs. One was tutoring children which helped me to learn the names used by German speakers for English grammar points (such as tenses) and the other was at an adult education center where I quickly discovered that I enjoyed working with grown-ups to help them learn the language. I think my advice to myself would be that one of the most important things to understand is how German-speakers think and how they make sense of concepts in English. I found that my learners often were able to memorize rules and recite them but as the concepts of tenses are different, I needed to better understand where these problems lay. A few years after beginning to teach, I did a diploma in Adult Education which gave me theoretical background which I was able to implement in my practical sessions.

Moving into teacher training
This started fairly early in my teaching career. I often took the opportunity to to take part in professional development and began discovering new and exciting methods from people such as Jim Wingate, Charles Schmid, Simon Greenall, Sheelagh Dellar, Michael Grinder and Eric Jensen on topics including suggestopedia, NLP in the classroom, communicative activities, cooperative learning and brain-based learning. These courses encouraged me to work as a facilitator and offer to teach other teachers what I had learned. I went to the UK and the US four times in  summer and I think my advice here would be to have continued spending time in the summers taking intensive training courses.

Conferences

My first presentation was in 1994 and I but I think I attended one or two conferences before working up the courage to present myself. Since then I have been at over 70 conferences and spoken on a variety of topics ranging from using texts to activities in the Business English classroom as well as NLP and writing activities for Business English learners. Advice I could have used then would have been to go to as many presentations as possible and keep a journal on what made presentations work and what didn’t. This would have been a fascinating piece of work to refer to today.

giving a plenary at the ELTAF conference in Wiesbaden, Germany in 2014

giving a plenary at the ELTAF conference in Wiesbaden, Germany in 2014

Teaching Associations
When I first heard about TEA (Teachers of English in Austria) in the early 1990s I realized that joining an association would be a great way to start connecting to other English teachers. I slowly became more active and eventually joined the board and was Chair from 2001-2003. After standing down from this position I realized I missed working on a committee and ran for the position of Events Coordinator of IATEFL BESIG in 2008 and for Coordinator in 2009. This has become a major part of my life and after joining the membership committee of IATEFL in 2013 I was encouraged to stand for Vice President which I did and am now the Acting VP of IATEFL. Looking back, it would have been great to start being active in a teaching association even earlier in my career.

Writing
Writing has been a big part of my life since I first published a book in 2001 with photocopiable activities for business English. Since then I have written other books in the business English field as well as course books, workbooks, CD ROM activities and a methodology book. I am just now looking into ePublishing and am still exploring the possibilities of this as well as self-publishing. I suppose I could have tried this earlier and taken the chance to publish without a publisher behind me but that is still an area in which I have much to discover.
photo of books MJR
PLN

It wasn’t until I got my first smart phone that I began to become part of a PLN (or personal learning network). This opened up so many doors to me through the eltchat, eltpics, Facebook groups, Twitter and so on. I can’t imagine today what I did before this and wish I had started doing this much earlier.

compiled by Roseli Serra

compiled by Roseli Serra

Blogging
I also came to blogging rather late, having started  in 2014. It is difficult to find the time and then it takes me awhile to find the appropriate photos to illustrate my points.  But I do wish I had taken the plunge and done it earlier. On the other hand, it is never too late to begin a new phase and I am glad I went ahead and tried out this wonderful way to be reflective.

Learning a new language
Living in Austria meant having to learn German but I don’t remember much about how I went about it. There are some aspects which have stayed with me but I didn’t learn it very systematically. I went to some classes but as we only read from a book and did gap fills it wasn’t really a learning process for me. I always wished that I had written out the three types of nouns in red for feminine, blue for masculine and green for neuter to help me remember. I am now learning Hebrew which has been a fascinating experience. Not only it is challenging to deal with a different script, but it is a language which is very different from English. I am happy to have the chance to both observe myself in learning as well as how my teacher works with me. I wish I had started earlier to learn a new language as I think this type of self-reflection is one of the most valuable things a teacher can do.

Finding the balance

Is teaching a job just like any other? Is it something we do from ‘9 to 5’ and then go on to do something else entirely such as spending time with family and friends, or taking part in different activities and hobbies, etc? Or is it more ‘something we are’.

Observing my friends and colleagues, I tend to think it is the latter. Many of us spend our free time involved in what we do during our ‘work time’. This doesn’t just include the preparation, grading homework and tests, turning in grades, etc. But we also attend online training programs such as courses or webinars, go to conferences to hear about the latest trends and materials in our field and even spend time attending sessions with colleagues online such as the #eltchat http://eltchat.org/wordpress/ or uploading photos we take to #eltpics http://www.eltpics.com/. In fact, I find myself looking around and considering whether or not my surroundings would be interesting for the eltpics collection and have even contacted friends on Facebook to ask if I can upload their photos and credit them when I see outstanding ones. In addition, freelancers in adult education may find themselves spending time with our students outside of work or becoming interested in topics that go beyond the English classroom such as coaching or learning about cross-cultural awareness.

2014 BESIG Bonn banner

IATEFL BESIG Conference in Bonn, Germany

What has this meant for me personally? When I lived in New York City in the late 1970’s, I had an office job buying TV time for advertisers. It was interesting, I met wonderful people and had the chance to do a bit of travel and find out about the world of TV. In my spare time, I studied music and the two worlds occasionally touched each other when friends came to hear me perform. But since moving to Austria and beginning to teach English, my life is more balanced. I teach for a local bank which is also the main sponsor of the opera house in the city I live in. For the last several years I have been attending the opera regularly and often see students there or chat about the productions in my lessons with them. My university students I run into on the bus or the tram or at a local restaurant and we often have the chance to chat outside of class as we live in the same small city.

Sculpture in City Hall Park, NYC

Sculpture in City Hall Park, NYC

Market on the Main Square, Graz, Austria

Market on the Main Square, Graz, Austria

As teaching has led to so many other opportunities, I have also had the chance to do teacher training in other cities, gotten to know colleagues all over the world and share ideas and experiences. As I began to approach the age when many of my friends in ‘9 to 5 jobs’ were retiring or looking forward to it, I realized how lucky I was to be in a profession where I could keep working and making a difference for as long as I wanted. And it is a profession that can be changed and adapted to different times in one’s life as there are so many choices we can make. Some choose to take on translations that they can do at home, others write, some colleagues become language school or department heads, others stay in the classroom, some get more involved in research, and a number of us become volunteers for local or international teaching associations such as IATEFL or TESOL and their associates. In most cases, at least those I know about, colleagues have been lucky enough to make those choices themselves, giving many of us the chance to grow, develop and be productive members of the ELT community for as long as we choose to do it.

Coffee in an IATEFL mug

Coffee in an IATEFL mug

Making lessons personal

Over the years of working with a variety of learners in different settings (in-company, tertiary, private tutoring, teacher training) the aspect I feel appeals to all of them is making lessons personal. I realize that this cannot be done in every case, especially when we follow a course book with defined tasks or need to prepare students for exams in which they are judged on how well they understand reading, listening and writing tasks. But when we have the choice to add in a task or activity which allows them to tap into their inner feelings, opinions, and thoughts, this can be beneficial to both the engagement of the learner as well as helping their recall of the language at a later time.

In my lessons at the university I have created a number of activities in order to personalize the lessons. We are required to give homework and I use it to help learners practice the grammar points we cover in the course. But the input I give is general enough so that the output can be determined by the learner. In practicing the future I asked them to write out what they know is going to take place as well as what they think will happen in their own countries in the next 30 – 50 years and the texts I received (in a B1 multi-national course) were astounding. My students come mostly from central and southern Europe and their thought-provoking essays were not only fascinating to read but clearly provided them with practice of the target language. The next written task involved them writing about an important first event in their own lives. I got stories about learning to ride a bicycle and the trust they needed to have in the person who taught them, the first time they took a trip by themselves and that feeling of independence, the first time they cooked a meal and how it turned out, etc.

Main building of the University of Graz

Main building of the University of Graz

In class, we also do a number of activities which involve a great deal of student input. Even a simple ‘find someone who…’ activity requires them to talk to each other and get information from others in the class. In a worksheet I created called ‘All about me’ All About Me 1 they had to compare notes with another learner about things in the past such as their favourite colours, food or types of clothing, what they wanted to be when they grew up, what they were good or bad at doing, etc. This pair work got them chatting and exchanging information. They were not only interested in what the other person had to say, but also finding commonalities with others in the class which can help to build a positive atmosphere and make them more comfortable within a learning community.

Students finding someone who …

Other possibilities to make lessons personal can make use of music or art as the impetus. You can give learners a replication of a painting and asking them to describe their feelings when they look at it or a photograph and ask them to imagine they are in the picture and have to describe what they see. A piece of music can be played and learners then asked to choose adjectives to talk about it. In these cases, they may have very different impressions leading to discussions in which they can explain why they feel the way they do, again lending a personal touch to the activity.

Uni students what are you going to do with that

Uni students what are you going to do with that 2 Students finding their own answers to a board game

Of course we cannot only do activities such as these as we often have to follow a syllabus, prepare learners for assessment, train them to write for academic journals, present at conferences or run meetings. But adding such activities to a lesson can be motivating, fun and give them the opportunity to experiment with the language in a meaningful way.

And as a final thought: ‘Is there anything more personal than learning a new language to express yourself in?’

Should lessons be fun?

This question was one of the final topics for the #eltchat at the end of the summer semester of 2014 and has been running through my mind ever since. When I started teaching over thirty years ago, it was all new to me and was certainly more fun than some other jobs I had had. I worked with adults in the evening and discovered that providing entertaining instruction was essential to keep their attention and to encourage them to continue taking classes.

Several years after I started I was trained in the so-called ‘superlearning’ or ‘suggestopedia’ technique and was introduced to the idea of fantasy identities, language games and material appealing to different learner types. This method was the one I used for many years. Coming from a theatrical (opera) background, acting a part was very natural for me. By choosing names that German-speaking students had trouble pronouncing (Yvonne, Beth, David, Nathan, etc.) this gave the learners extra practice. In addition, because they had chosen these names themselves, they were careful in how they said them, an excellent way to make pronunciation personal and important. Taking on the fantasy identities also allowed them to create their own ‘English’ persona. They could leave their daily lives behind and be whoever they wanted once or twice a week. They also set up relationships with others in the group in an egalitarian manner, leaving aside the formal behavior which was often found among adults who were essentially strangers to each other. Many of them told me over the years that this made the lessons fun and also made them less inhibited as when a mistake was made, they did not make it themselves, but it was instead made by their alter ego. And, as we all know, learning a language means taking chances and trying things out.

eltpics masks @Sandymillan

eltpics masks @Sandymillan

 

I also had my own persona in class. My name was Theophilia, I was an actress, was on my third marriage to a rich man named George, lived next door to Tom Selleck, and had a mother-in-law named Thelma who came to visit regularly. In addition, I had a companion called Phil, a stuffed animal which was actually the mascot for a baseball team in the US. Phil played an important part in class; we threw him around in speaking activities, he featured in worksheets I wrote or in stories we told. And to add to the mix, I also had a pet gorilla named Richard who was Phil’s good friend. These two characters were so important to my students that one group sewed a new set of clothes for Phil and another group gave me a ‘Richard’.

Phil and Richard

Phil and Richard

Over time, this method began to be difficult to implement for a number of reasons. As we also used the relaxation techniques and the reading of vocabulary to special music at the end of the course, we needed a place to do this which became increasingly difficult. My students also changed over the years and using first names became more common so that the fantasy names were less necessary. But the ideas of making lessons fun has always remained.

eltpics dice and cup @aClilToClimb

eltpics dice and cup @aClilToClimb

Today I teach corporate clients in their workplace and some of them comment that the lessons can’t be considered ‘work’ because they are ‘fun’. I feel personally that this comes from having rapport with the learners, showing that I like them as people, and making them comfortable in the classroom. We all feel that we can tell each other jokes and, although the topics we deal with are serious, we can find the ‘fun’ element in them. When I come across interesting or funny videos related to business English I send them the link and they often comment on how they enjoyed them.  At the university, where I work mostly with undergraduate students, the atmosphere is also ‘fun’. One of the first things I praise them for is understanding my jokes which encourages them as well to send me video clips they find in the internet or to make jokes themselves. I try to find activities in class which are fun – the drills for grammar and the learning of vocabulary is done at home.

eltpics playtime @senicko

eltpics playtime @senicko

In thinking about this for the last few months, I would also like to add that just because something is ‘fun’ it does not mean that it impedes learning. But in addition to being ‘fun’ I also try to make entertaining, relevant, lively, intriguing, fascinating as well as provide enough food for thought for learners to keep coming back for more.

 

Motivating the teacher

Motivating ourselves

After writing about our role in motivating our learners, I have been reflecting on what motivates me as a teacher. The end of the semester provided much food for thought and going through evaluations written by learners is always an enlightening process for me. The contrasting comments are to be expected – some love group work, others would prefer more individual tasks, more writing or giving presentations to the class – but the positive comments outweighed the negative ones, a source of extrinsic motivation for me. It is good to hear that learners find the instruction to be varied and fun as well as providing them with a safe and supportive learning atmosphere. Many also commented on how much language they acquired and felt that questions and preparation on my part were handled professionally. Helpful comments on the topics we did or suggestions for information to put on Moodle indicate involvement on the part of the learners and give me tips for the future. All of this helps at the end of a long university year to make me look forward to beginning work again in the fall.

A pleasant sight.

Summer Semester 2014 evaluations from university students: interesting reading and a pleasant sight.

It is interesting to note how this extrinsic motivation for me begins to move into the area of intrinsic motivation. Knowing that the large majority of my students were happy and that learning took place makes me determined to find new ideas to bring into the classroom.

What is it about teaching that makes it different?

In working on a plenary titled ‘Getting unstuck’ I began to think about our job and what makes it special. There are several professions I think in which people ‘are’ their jobs and for me being a teacher is one of them. When I hear a new word in English, I think about how to use it in class or teach it to my students, if I read an article I consider ways to present the ideas in it in class. Even on holiday, when I see something interesting, I take a picture of it or take a brochure and then often try to find a way to incorporate into a lesson if possible. In this way, my life inside and outside the classroom lend together creating a whole persona as ‘teacher’. For me this is also motivating – teaching becomes more than just a job I do – it becomes a way of life. It provides a sense of balance that I did not have in other jobs I have had. And when learners show appreciation for this, especially in such a creative way, it is icing on the cake.

A thank you from a group of corporate clients.

A thank you from a group of corporate clients.

Summing up

To finish up with this post, I think that motivation for teachers is very connected with how we view our jobs. When we get a sense of personal satisfaction by opening someone’s mind, having them view things in new and different ways, finding ways to establish rapport in the classroom, creating an atmosphere that both learners and teachers want to be in and knowing that we have given them something which can be used in the future, motivation just becomes part of what we do. After 30+ years in the classroom, I feel it is still exciting, fun, and provides a place for a group of people (the teacher included) to broaden their horizons and gain new knowledge. Can any job provide more than that?

The tricky question of motivation

What exactly is motivation? This is a question most of us face at various points in our careers. We know that motivating learners is part of our job, but how do we do this? There is no question that motivation plays an important role when taking on the commitment to learn a second language, but how does it work? After attending the ‘Matters of the Mind’ conference on psychology and language learning in Graz, Austria in May 2014, this question has emerged as something I feel I need to give more time to examining.

 

For this blog post my questions are: ‘Can we truly motivate our students? Is this a factor in the learning process that we actually have control over? And if the answer to that is yes, what exactly can we do to motivate them?’

 

I would dare say that most of us feel that providing fun, engaging, informative, useful and challenging lessons are major factors when looking for ways to motivate students. But are all students motivated by the same thing? We also need to look why they are actually in our classrooms.

 

I would suggest that their reason for being there is the logical place to start. Some have decided to take up a second (or third or fourth) language because they now live in or are planning to move to a place where that language is spoken by the majority of the population. This would mean that unless they manage to learn to communicate in the target language, they may encounter both social and professional difficulties. This is generally classified as extrinsic motivation as the need for learning the language comes from outside the person themselves. The same type of extrinsic motivation can be attributed for those learners who perceive themselves as just learning for a test. This situation often crops up in schools where languages are compulsory subjects, just like any other subject, and are tested throughout the year by having students take exams which should demonstrate the level the person has reached.

 

When we look at intrinsic motivation we will most likely find very different types of reasons for being in a language class. Here learners may want to understand films or songs or read literature or other types of printed material. They may simply like the idea of being able to speak another language or they may just feel an affinity to the language. In one of the presentations at the ‘Matters of the Mind’ conference, Miriam Tashma-Baum related how her teacher trainees feel that they take on a new (and in some cases ‘cooler’) identity when they speak English and found the learning of the language actually led lead to self-enrichment. Other learners might have had childhood memories of speaking or hearing another language and decided later in life to pursue it. And some may just be interested in general in how languages work and take on the study of a language as a scientific exploration.

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Where is all this leading? I am beginning to question for myself how much influence we as teachers can actually have in the raising of motivational levels in learners. I do think we can inspire and support learners and act as role models that they can identify with. I would like to begin to explore for myself and my learners the various ideas of motivation in the classroom as well as the factors that motivate learners to learn. Until this is clear for us, I am not sure how much we can do to encourage our learners in a systematic and fruitful manner. Asking learners is beginning to give me some insight into this question. A group of university students have said that they need English for their studies, future careers and job opportunities abroad. They indicated that they are mostly self-motivated but said that teachers can have an influence as well as to whether or not they are motivated in a particular class. They felt the split was about 40% (the teacher) and 60% (themselves). With this group I try to be encouraging, find topics of interest, give them space to express their own ideas, answer their questions as fully as possible and create a fun and engaging atmosphere. With a group of adult learners in an in-company course, they have said that their motivation comes from the feeling that they are really learning something useful for their jobs. We are using a course book which deals specifically with their field and they are constantly encouraged to discuss their own experiences. Their comments were that the course has three elements which are important to them: they are learning better English, they have the opportunity to improve skills they need in their jobs and, they have formed a cohesive group which has taken on a life of its own within the framework of an English course which takes place on a regular basis.

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I hope to continue looking at this from different aspects in order to find ways to relate it to my next question: how do we motivate ourselves?

 

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Teacher reward stickers – loved by university students and corporate clients alike.